Get the message? Why communicating Australian policy changes to asylum seekers is no easy task
17 Aug 2012|

Yesterday it was revealed that a film crew will accompany Australian police, military and government officials as they head to Nauru and Manus Island to prepare for the arrival of an expected influx of asylum seekers. They’ll create a video series designed to dissuade further potential ‘irregular maritime arrivals’ from attempting to come to Australia. The title of the series—‘Australia by boat, no advantage’—is derived from one of the key messages arising from the report compiled by Angus Houston and his fellow panellists.

Communicating with asylum seekers is important to Australia’s deterrence regime. A key reason why policies fail to deter is because, as international and Australian studies show, most asylum seekers know very little about Western countries or their asylum policies. For example, research conducted in Afghanistan in 2010 (PDF) on behalf of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) found that few Afghan Hazaras know about Australia’s deterrence mechanisms, including the mandatory detention policy. That’s consistent with another study which found that some Afghan refugees didn’t know of the existence of a country called ‘Australia’ before arriving on its shores via smuggling boat.

Afghan asylum seekers in particular, who have made up the bulk of Australia’s boat arrivals for the past decade, have poor access to mass media; only around 30% of Afghan households have access to electricity. Those who live along the Afghan border in Pakistan also tend to have limited access to mass media other than radio. It remains incredibly difficult for the Australian Government to reach such audiences and convey complex policy information to them. So it’s unlikely that the latest information campaign, which will be delivered through new media channels, will reach a large segment of the Afghan target audience.

Actually reaching potential irregular maritime arrivals with a messaging campaign is only the first hurdle; the next step is getting them to accept the message. This isn’t an easy task. Partly because of their experiences of living in repressive regimes, some asylum seekers are highly suspicious of the messages they receive from governments (PDF). Instead, to learn about asylum destination countries, they often rely upon and trust information they receive from other asylum seekers, people smugglers and most importantly, the firsthand accounts of people who return to source and transit countries.

In recent years ACBPS has tried to tap into these informal communication conduits, recognising that face to face communication is likely to be much more influential than large scale mass media campaigns. ACBPS has used radio, imams and local leaders in Afghanistan to transmit information about Australia. This move appears to reflect a more realistic understanding of target audiences and the communication channels they use and trust. But the use of more targeted information campaigns alone won’t necessarily increase the effectiveness of Australia’s deterrence message.

The other key reason why policies fail as deterrents is because the Australian Government can’t control how messages about deterrence measures are interpreted. For example, prior to their arrival in Australia some asylum seekers dismiss negative information that they receive about the detention experience in this country because they have exaggerated expectations about how Australia will treat them. For others, the desire to be reunited with family in Australia is simply much more powerful than Australia’s deterrence message.

All of these factors don’t make communicating with asylum seekers impossible but we shouldn’t take it for granted that policy changes or communication campaigns simply ‘send a message’ that will be heard and accepted.

Roslyn Richardson is an analyst at ASPI. For her doctoral study, Roslyn conducted the first study examining refugees’ interpretations of Australia’s border protection policies and deterrence information campaigns