How does a government dissuade someone half a world away from making a life threatening decision? Australia’s federal government has commissioned a $4.1m telemovie for release this year, designed to dissuade asylum seekers from coming to Australia by boat. Set to be broadcast in Syria, Afghanistan and Iran, it will include storylines about asylum seekers drowning at sea.
It’s a good idea that we’re trying to discourage asylum seekers from travelling to Australia by boat. Boats carrying asylum seekers regularly sink, almost always leaving little trace of those who have died. These victims are more often than not simply seeking safety and security.
Accepting asylum seekers is an international legal and moral obligation. But this obligation must be discharged carefully. There’s no silver bullet in managing the challenge of irregular maritime migration: each policy option involves complex and unintended consequences.
Strong border security could result in the world’s most vulnerable people remaining in dangerous situations. But weak border control policies may encourage risk taking amongst people smugglers and asylum seekers, and increase the number of lives at risk.
Strategies involving Australian naval vessels undertaking proactive maritime rescues saves lives but may encourage risk taking amongst people smugglers and asylum seekers; and again increase the number of lives at risk.
Complex border controls create high-profit opportunities for organised crime groups. These border controls force asylum seekers to secure the assistance of costly people smugglers to exploit policy or legal loopholes.
It’s because of the ‘wicked’ nature of the problem that public information campaigns that discourage maritime arrivals and prevent people smugglers from profiting from the desperation of asylum seekers are so important. People smugglers sell a narrative to their desperate clients that focuses on a positive vision of the future. And in doing so underplay the risks involved in travelling to Australia by boat.
The Australian government must create a counter narrative to try to prevent people from endangering their lives through participation in dangerous boat travel. This counter narrative needs to be focused on delivering an unbiased message to those at risk: that travelling to Australia by boat is dangerous. But it’s unclear at the moment whether audiences of the telemovie would know it’s an Australian government-funded film.
In light of the increasing conflict in Iraq and Syria, the federal government’s ‘stop the boats’ telemovie is timely. The Refugee Council of Australia’s President, Phil Glendenning, however, told ABC’s Lateline that the telemovie is unlikely to deter desperate people.
For the moment the boats have stopped. This outcome appears to be linked to the Abbott government’s message that, even if they arrive in Australia by boat, asylum seekers won’t get to live here permanently. The messages do appear to have a deterrent effect. And it is currently strong enough to counter people smugglers’ narratives.
What about arguments that $4.1 million is a lot of money? How much is a life worth? If the telemovie prevents even one family from risking their lives by engaging the services of a people smuggler that’s money well spent.
But the Refugee Council’s Glendenning is right: a telemovie on its own won’t result in a widespread change in asylum seekers perspectives on the risks of travelling by boat to Australia; or any other destination. But a consistent counter narrative will most certainly disrupt the current messages being sent by those who profit from irregular maritime ventures.
The producers of this telemovie will need more than an Oscar-worthy script and slick production to ensure they achieve the Australian government’s aim. They’ll need to really understand asylum seekers, including their attitudes and motivations to travel to Australia.
Changing the attitudes of a distant, geographically and culturally diverse audience is no easy task. And it’s unlikely to be achieved through a single measure. The telemovie needs to be part of a comprehensive, well-researched communications strategy. The government needs to communicate its messages to asylum seeker communities using a range of appropriate communication channels.
Without such a broader information campaign the telemovie risks being viewed as a political stunt. Meanwhile, like Senator Nick Xenophon, we’ll wait to see who the stars are