Australia’s new instrument of deterrence

By Sayomi Ariyawansa | 04 Apr 16
Screenshot from Journey trailer/YouTube

On 25 March 2016, the Australian taxpayer-funded telemovie Journey first aired in Afghanistan. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Department of Immigration and Border Protection spent $6 million for the telemovie to be produced and promoted – adjusted for inflation, this amount exceeds the combined budgets for Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Castle and Wolf Creek.

But we’re actually talking about a lot more money: $39.9 million has been allocated for “anti-people smuggling strategic communications” from July 2015 until June 2019. The stated aim is to “deter people smuggling by alerting potential illegal immigrants to the dangers of people smuggling ventures and educating them about Australia’s immigration policy.” This is a significant increase from the projected spending commitment for such communications campaigns after the 2013-2014 financial year – for example, at that time, the Government intended to spend only $2.5 million in 2015-2016, whereas it now intends to spend $11.5 million.

Journey represents not only $6 million from the coffers, but also one small part of a large-scale communications plan – growing in cost and apparent sophistication from the “No Way You Will Not Make Australia Home” advertisement campaigns of 2014. Unlike the 2014 campaign, for example, it is unclear whether Journey will be attributed to the Australian Government or whether its source will be disguised so it appears to be local.

Trudi-Ann Tierney, Company Director and Writer/Executive Producer for Put It Out There Pictures (who made Journey) has said “the impact this film will have on a person’s decision to attempt a journey by boat to Australia cannot be underestimated” and that it could “save people from detention, disappointment and even death.” Yet Journey presents quite a shift in subject matter for the production company, and for Ms Tierney herself.

Previously, Ms Tierney produced telemovies and dramas in Afghanistan (she has described herself as a “propaganda merchant” in her memoir Making Soapies in Kabul) promoting gender equality, anti-extremist behaviour and anti-drug related crimes. Put It Out There Pictures has produced a radio drama series about maternal health in Myanmar, and about domestic violence in Papua New Guinea – again, with expressly educative purposes.

Yet the subject matter of Journey and its apparent purpose (“alerting potential illegal immigrants to the dangers of people smuggling”) is, frankly, fraught with false assumptions about asylum seekers and the nature of forced migration.

People seeking asylum are hamstrung by meagre choices or no real choices at all.

The planned broadcast territory of Journey is Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. It is a story about a group of Afghan asylum seekers who travel to Australia by boat via Malaysia and Indonesia. One thing the trailer makes clear is the abject desperation of this group of people – poignantly, it depicts one young man sitting on the roof of the boat comforting another, with what can only be described as steadfast, unshaken hope in his eyes.

Journey film

Screenshot from Journey trailer

This feels like a comment that has been made ad nauseam but it obviously (and aggravatingly) needs to be said yet another time: the people represented by the protagonists of Journey and who are the targets of the campaign – asylum seekers – are not illegal immigrants. It is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia. Article 31(1) of Refugees Convention, of which Australia is a signatory, does not allow Australia to impose penalties on asylum seekers “on account of their illegal entry or presence”, even if they come to Australia via Malaysia and/or Indonesia.

And, critically, forced migration is not something that can be the subject of a simple parable or educative tale. This type of information is only helpful if conditions exist where an individual is able to make the choice they are advised to take – for example, there’s no use telling someone to use a contraception if it is impossible to purchase or prohibitively expensive. People seeking asylum are similarly hamstrung by meagre choices or no real choices at all. Forced migration is a phenomenon driven by factors outside the control of the individuals who ultimately, knowingly, put their lives at risk for a better one.

Once upon a time, I would have left it there. But now I add this: deterrence techniques (such as this communications strategy) only work if asylum seekers fear their potential fate in Australia more than they fear the persecution they have faced, or may face, at home. With more and more information coming out about the horrors of Australia’s offshore processing regime, we may be coming closer to this shameful tipping point.