Recently, I have been writing a fair bit about the problems with Australia’s policy of attempting to deter Asylum Seekers arriving by boat. I have pointed out that there are no historical examples of deterrence being overwhelmingly successful, especially when the act was unlawful to begin with. I have pointed out that Politicians and interest groups that have not condemned the process of mandatory detention and TPV’s, have no right to go out and play the “Christian Card” during the upcoming Parliamentary debate over recognising Same-sex Marriage. And I have expounded on the moral bankruptcy of expending government resources and time on turning Australia into a less attractive option for Asylum Seekers than the one they are attempting to escape. The moral bankruptcy of following a policy that purposefully causes pain and hardship, rather than one that attempts to alleviate suffering or address the underlying problems that cause people to flee their homes. Today, I would like to continue this discussion by outlining another problem: deterrence can only work when the subject is aware of the punitive measures put in place, and is therefore liable to be ineffective in a situation in which the subject has only limited access to information, or access only to suspect information.

Let’s take Sri Lanka as a case in point. The Sri Lankan government absolutely dominates the media landscape in Sri Lanka. The Government directly controls many of the leading newspapers and TV stations in Sri Lanka, through regulation it has great sway over much of the remaining media establishment, some news outlets just naturally lean towards the Government’s side of politics, and, most importantly, many of the other media establishments are just plain scared of the government. As a result, many Sri Lankans are distrustful of their media. This is especially true of Sri Lankan Tamils, who are largely held responsible for Sri Lanka’s Civil War (both by the Government and the Sinhalese majority), often feel the punitive effects of this responsibility, and who comprise a significant proportion of the people fleeing the country. Add to this that many Sri Lankans are ill educated, ill-equipped or otherwise do not have access to media, and a dismal picture is painted. All in all, unlike Australia and other flourishing democracies, the fourth estate is not as powerful, not as trusted, not as wide reaching, and not as informative in Sri Lanka. It cannot be counted on to inform the people of the punitive measures Australia is putting in place. It cannot be counted on to do its job in Australia’s policy of deterrence.

Once the media is removed, what other channels are available for Sri Lankans to learn of the dismal conditions that await them at the end of the boat ride? What other channels are available for the bleak picture to be disseminated? Well, we have news and messages sent back from Sri Lankans who have already tried the voyage, and we have the people smugglers themselves. But without an effective media to transmit information, the messages of despair coming from those who have already tried the voyage and come up against Australia’s punitive policies are unlikely to be disseminated very far. In reality, the potential Asylum Seeker would have to know or have some sort of connection to the previously failed Asylum Seeker and this is obviously not the case in every situation. So, what’s left is the most prominent source of information for potential Asylum Seekers: the people smugglers. I posted a blog post the other day that linked to coverage of the Asylum Seeker issue in some credible Sri Lankan newspapers. A common thread running through the pieces was that the Asylum Seekers were largely of the opinion that there would be jobs, economic opportunities and prosperity waiting for them at the end of their arduous sea voyage. They had been tricked by the people smugglers into believing the Australians would welcome them with open arms. To them Christmas Island was still synonymous with the idea of Christmas.  They were misled. Their only source of information was through unscrupulous individuals who have a financial interest in spreading misinformation. This is yet another source that cannot be counted on to do its job in Australia’s policy of deterrence. What is left?

If Australia wants to pursue the policy of deterrence once more, it must address the fact that many of the people they are attempting to deter will continue to be blissfully unaware of the trauma that awaits them. Insofar as information is concerned, they are completely at the mercy of those with a financial interest to mislead. Deterrence cannot work under such conditions. Only once potential Asylum Seekers are aware of the hellhole that awaits them, can they take the rational choice of staying in their current hellhole. And even then it might not stop them.

Originally posted @ Sakalabujan Magazine