It’s not just grim horoscopes: the Australian government has developed an arsenal of creative advertising to discourage people from seeking asylum in Australia by boat.
There’s even a comic strip depicting a Sri Lankan man who pays a people smuggler for boat passage to Australia.
In one panel, his wife warns: “Even the schoolmaster said Australia won’t let anyone in now… regardless of race!” He replies: “Nonsense! I’m sure there’s a way. Just serve me some curry.”
Later, the man finds himself clinging to a cage “at a regional processing centre on a small country in the Pacific”. His children see his humiliating return to Sri Lanka on the news, and his wife complains that “all our hard-earned money” has ended up “in the water”, as the man regrets his actions.
The comic strip, posters and other pieces of advertising material — among them a bleak horoscope chart forecasting terrible futures for any asylum seekers who attempted to travel to Australia by boat — were revealed in a trove of documents released by the Department of Home Affairs under freedom of information law.
Australia has a strict border protection regime and a zero-tolerance approach to seeking asylum by boat.
In recent years, the country has spent millions of dollars on advertising campaigns in countries from which people regularly attempt to flee to Australia, creating stern videos, graphic novels and social media posts.
The FOI covered printed advertising material created to dissuade people smugglers and asylum seekers offshore between 2013 and 2019.
It is unclear from the release when each document was created or where it was circulated, but the 90 documents themselves offer some clues.
The messages the government wants to convey are clear: nobody who arrives by boat will be settled in Australia, people smugglers are lying to you, the boat journey is dangerous, and you will lose all your money. Two slogans appears frequently: “ZERO CHANCE” and “NO WAY”.
The advertising frequently warns potential asylum seekers against “throwing their money in the water” by paying people smugglers for a failed journey to Australia — and literally depicts the action.
Much of the advertising is targeted specifically at Sri Lanka, which has been the source of many asylum seekers who have tried to reach Australia recently. Others are directed towards Vietnamese and Malaysian people.
The documents also show the government adapting its message in light of current affairs. Posters cite specific instances of Sri Lankans being turned back in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2019, as well as a 2016 High Court decision that rejected an argument that offshore detention was unconstitutional, and thwarted people smuggling plans in Malaysia in 2019.
One brochure spells out that Australia’s change in prime minister does not change Australia’s policy of boat turnbacks. It is not clear whether it is from the 2015 ascension of Malcolm Turnbull, or from 2018, when it was Scott Morrison’s turn.
“These messaging campaigns completely miss the point of why people seek asylum in the first place,” Asher Hirsch, a senior policy officer at the Refugee Council of Australia, told BuzzFeed News. “No amount of propaganda or films or graphic novels is going to stop people from fleeing for their lives.
“instead of spending millions of dollars on these films and campaigns it would be much better if Australia worked to improve the lives of refugees in the region so that they don’t need to get on a boat in the first place.”
Some of the advertising not only warns potential asylum seekers off Australia, but also its smaller neighbour New Zealand.
“Any people smuggling boat attempting to enter Australian waters, or travel to New Zealand through Australian waters, will be detected, intercepted and safely removed,” reads one poster targeted at Sri Lankans.
Hirsch said the messaging suggests the Australian government does not want New Zealand’s longstanding offer to resettle some of the refugees Australia holds offshore to act as an incentive to get on a boat. However, that offer would only apply to people who have already made the journey.
One document explicitly warns: “No people smuggling boat has ever made it to New Zealand”, suggesting concerns about people making the longer journey to New Zealand to seek asylum, skipping Australia.
Although it is unusual for boats to try to reach New Zealand, funding to prevent people smuggling to the island nation recently received a boost.
The Australian documents also include the forbidding posters that attracted Donald Trump’s admiration in June.
One flyer, which appears to have been created soon after then prime minister Kevin Rudd announced that no maritime asylum seeker would ever be settled in Australia, states that children and pregnant women would be detained in Papua New Guinea.
A website promoted in the advertising material features high-production videos featuring senior bureaucrats, military leaders and politicians warning people off seeking asylum in Australia.
One video appears to anticipate piqued interest in people smuggling ventures ahead of the federal election in May, which Labor was widely expected to win. It signals that Australia’s border protection policies will not change.
Take a look at some of the material:
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