Theatrical mockery of refugees

Saturday, October 10, 2009 - 11:00

In a sick mockery of the rising boatloads of refugees coming to Australia, the federal government will pay one of the world's biggest advertising agencies to spread fear and propaganda among Tamils escaping genocide in Sri Lanka.

The October 6 Daily Telegraph said advertising company Saatchi & Saatchi was commissioned in May to create an anti-refugee advertising campaign.

Supposedly designed to "warn people" about so-called people smugglers, it will take "street theatre", posters, leaflets and banners onto the streets of Sri Lanka to deter people from seeking passage to Australia.

"A lot of rumours are being spread that people can make it", the company representative Ronald Peiris told the Telegraph. He said the aim is tell people they will be "disappointed" if they try to get to Australia. The media cynically dubbed it the "Stay the hell away" campaign.

Home affairs minister Brendan O'Connor told ABC Online the campaign was justified because those who want to seek refuge on Australian shores need to "understand the laws of Australia and make ensure they don't breach them". The so-called street theatre includes actors portraying people smugglers "tricking" their victims.

The navy has picked up thirty boats carrying about 1600 refugees this year. A third of all refugees now arriving in Australia by boat are Tamils.

On September 23, a boat carrying 98 refugees was intercepted in the Indian Ocean. Three more boats were intercepted later that week. Another 67 asylum seekers were picked up off Australia's northwest coast on October 1.

September recorded the highest number of boats arriving in a month since 2001 — 10. It caused the media and government to panic about a "surge" that would exceed the 1200-bed capacity of the Christmas Island detention centre.

The trip to Australia in small and non-seaworthy boats is dangerous and an absolute last resort for anyone that tries it. Boats have sunk or disappeared.

The SIEV 36, which exploded off Ashmore Reef in April and killed five people, underscores the dangers.

Since the explosion, the media and government have made repeated attempts to blame the Afghan asylum seekers for the tragic accident. However, recent video footage exposed navy officers kicking injured and drowning refugees back into the water. Surviving refugees have said a lit cigarette caused the explosion.

Despite this, on October 1 Northern Territory police said that an asylum seeker was responsible for the explosion, which was "caused by arson", AFP said.

Lies and distortions about refugees help to justify their cruel and inhumane treatment. The Rudd government has maintained former PM John Howard's strategy of locking up refugees in offshore detention centres.

Yet the government's main tactic has been to pressure regional neighbours, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, to crackdown on "people smugglers" and arrest and deport asylum seekers.

Australian Federal Police now patrol the ports of Java and the Australian funded special strike teams in the Indonesian police pursue and arrest asylum seekers before they board boats.

More recently, Rudd and foreign affairs minister Stephen Smith travelled to Malaysia to push for stronger border control and tougher laws to curb passage of asylum seekers through the so-called transit country.

Now the Rudd government's anti-refugee focus has widened to a country where people from an ethnic-minority are fleeing from state-sponsored genocide. Between January and May, up to 30,000 Tamils were massacred by the Sri Lankan government to crush the independence struggle for a Tamil homeland.

An estimated 300,000 Tamils languish in government-run concentration camps. They suffer extreme human rights abuses and horrific conditions.

The Australian government has refused to condemn the Sri Lankan government for its human rights violations and has maintained economic, military and diplomatic ties. Now, the two governments are cooperating to stop desperate Tamil asylum seekers fleeing to safety. Immigration minister Chris Evans travelled to Sri Lanka in July to discuss "people smuggling issues".

Despite federal opposition claims the Labor government has "relaxed" border protection and "invited" refugees here, Australia remains a hostile fortress.

The effort to deter asylum seekers has escalated. The May federal budget allocated $1.4 billion to "tackle people smuggling" and "secure Australia's borders", which included "information campaigns" worth $4 million.

It is now clear this included paying Saatchi & Saatchi to devise an anti-refugee message in war-ravaged Sri Lanka — the third highest country of origin for refugees after Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps instead of dramatising so-called people smugglers and demonising persecuted Tamils, a more realistic "street drama" could hit Australian cities.

Actors could portray cruel mandatory detention; act out the horror's of the Sri Lankan Army's treatment of Tamil civilians; or pretend to be navy officers forcing injured refugees off lifeboats.

It would be difficult to represent the horrific conditions of poverty, war or state-sanctioned genocide people. But compassion and acceptance, rather than hopelessness, lies and hostility, would be a far more humane marketing pitch.

From GLW issue 813