Australia: Deterrence propaganda?

Australia’s campaign of migration deterrence is not an effective method of addressing human trafficking.

The Australian govt's advertorial campaigns are justified by the broader philosophy of deterrence [AFP/Getty Images]

Prior to his career as Australia’s Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison was chief executive of Tourism Australia, the government-funded body in charge of making Australia look like an appealing place for a holiday. In this role, he spearheaded the notorious “Where the bloody hell are you?” campaign. In its attempt for laidback jocularity, it offended many. It was temporarily banned in the UK, and proved impossible to translate into Japanese. 

We should all be celebrating then that Scott Morrison has now taken up the prestigious position of persuading people not to come to Australia in his capacity as minister for immigration. The Australian Department for Immigration and Border Protection has released a graphic novel aimed at people from Afghanistan convincing them not to travel to Australia by boat to seek asylum.

This piece of “deterrence propaganda” depicts a young man in Afghanistan becoming fed up with his gruelling  – but essentially –  safe life as a car mechanic. With thoughts of greener pastures, he decides to make the dangerous journey towards Australia, overland and over sea, only to be intercepted by the intimidating Australian navy and herded to a camp on the small island nation of Nauru. It ends with images of the weeping man thinking wistfully of home. The moral of the story is, don’t come to Australia, especially by boat.

Or to quote the slogan that accompanies Australia’s wider deterrence campaign: “No way: They will not make Australia home”. This add features a crossed out picture of Australia and an image of a boat on a rough sea. Australia’s previous Labor government ran similar adds with the slogan “Australia by boat? No advantage”.

Deterrence campaigns

These advertorial campaigns are justified by the broader philosophy of deterrence that currently dominates thinking on managing the movement of asylum seekers towards Australia. Deterrence is the idea that “pull factors” can be diminished by making destination states look extremely uninviting, through a combination of marketing, or “deterrence propaganda” and policies such as indefinite detention and offshore processing. This deterrence philosophy is becoming an integral part of global migration management, and Australia is leading the way.

101 East – Asylum

However, the deterrence approach is deeply problematic. Just as the graphic novel conveniently ignores potential persecution and violence in Afghanistan, the very logic of deterrence fails to acknowledge that many people attempting to reach Australia by boat are refugees fleeing real and serious human rights violations and endemic insecurity.     

If we accept this, then the prospect of managing “pull factors” becomes ethically and practically untenable. As noted by Australian human rights lawyer Julian Burnside:

“The problem with a deterrent theory is that a deterrent only works if we make ourselves look nastier than the Taliban or the Rajapaksa government, and I’m not sure that that’s something that most Australians want. […] The major deterrent for people seeking asylum here by boat is that it’s very dangerous. The fact that people can and do die on their way here is one of the reasons that most of the people that get here by boat turn out to be, on assessment, actual refugees.” 

Irrespective of whether deterrence is effective, the constraints from an ethical and human rights stance are insurmountable. Therefore the question that arises is: Even if deterrence did work, would we want it to? 

In circumstances where people are fleeing the threat of torture or death, deterrence is a policy of coaxing people to stay put and face these risks.

Dubious justifications

The need to deter people from travelling to Australia by boat is publicly justified on four key grounds. Firstly, to protect national security: Here, so-called “illegal boats” and the people on them are breaching Australia’s borders. The various activities implemented to prevent asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat are combined under the official name Operation Sovereign Borders for example, and are led by the navy.

Secondly, as a matter of fairness: The rationale being that people coming by boat may take the place of someone waiting patiently in a refugee camp, thus qualifying their characterisation as “queue jumpers”. This perception has receded from official discourse in recent years, but still plays a role in shaping popular sentiment.

Thirdly, deterrence is presented as a necessary means to undermine the criminal network of people smugglers working in Indonesia and Malaysia who capitalise off desperation by organising unsafe passage to Australia by boat. 

And finally, it is justified on humanitarian grounds, whereby the very real tragedy of people dying at sea is invoked to justify any policy that might prevent this from happening. 

Counting the Cost – Dark days down under?

The first two grounds are clearly dubious. The Australian government merged its onshore and offshore protection visa quotas in 1996, meaning that every onshore protection visa does take the spot of one offshore protection visa: If there is a queue, it has been constructed on a technicality.

Even so, the resettlement of refugees from camps overseas is not based on how long an individual has been waiting, but rather an array of factors such as vulnerability and suitability. As for national security, asylum seekers are subjected to rigorous security checks, and the boats themselves are fairly harmless.

The issue of people smugglers and people dying at sea are real however, and linked. People smugglers do capitalise off desperation and organise dangerous passage to Australia, in a journey where many lives are put at risk. The issue of people smuggling is far more diverse and complex than the Australian government characterises it to be, but it is real.

However, policies that include towing people in life boats to Indonesia, processing and resettling people in Papua New Guinea, and indefinite detention in conditions criticised by Amnesty International as amounting to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and the UNHCR as arbitrary under international law, are at odds with the publicly stated goal of saving lives and fighting crime.

Australia’s brash and deterrence-based response to deaths at sea is not unique. After the Lampedusa boat sinking, the EU rapidly responded with deterrence and prevention strategies, leading Human Rights Watch to lament “the overall focus is on preventing people from reaching Europe, rather than on saving lives”.

As countless experts have pointed out, the best way to prevent people taking dangerous journeys by sea is to provide viable alternative options for people to seek asylum. The illustrated novel released by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, with its images of a young man depressed and trapped in detention, is a cruel and pointless deterrent. It is however a useful fable for why Australia needs to change its policy.

After all, what would the moral of the story be if the protagonist was not a slightly overworked mechanic, but a person fleeing torture or death? 

Angelica Neville is an independent writer from Australia currently undertaking her postgraduate studies at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford.