How refugees view Australia's immigration message

1 JANUARY 2003

The first study to examine how refugees interpret Australia's immigration policy deterrence messages shows that they are open to interpretation in a variety of ways.

The first study to examine how refugees interpret Australia’s immigration policy deterrence messages shows that, because the Australian Government cannot control how its policies and messages are understood and interpreted, they are open to interpretation in a variety of ways, and the use of measures which have been shown to harm refugees are not guaranteed deterrents.
The study by Dr Roslyn Richardson, undertaken when she was a PhD student at the Charles Sturt University (CSU) School of Social Sciences and Liberal Studies at Bathurst, found that far from sending a ‘strong message’ to refugees, policies such as the Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) and immigration detention are interpreted in ways unexpected by policy makers.
“Many refugees do not receive Australia’s deterrence message or any information about Australia’s immigration policy. When they do, refugees, like any other audience, are discerning, critical and capable of interpreting Australia’s deterrence message in a variety of ways, and may reject it for unexpected reasons,” Dr Richardson said.
“Refugees don’t have a singular reaction to the information that they receive about Australia’s policies and when they interpret deterrence policy information they are influenced by factors such as nationality, education, gender, ethnicity, religion and where refugees have lived in their home countries (that is, in a rural or urban setting).
“It is perhaps unsurprising that many refugees do not receive Australia’s deterrence message or any information about Australia’s immigration policy because they often come from isolated regions in the world and are often part of a transient population.
“I found that refugees are to some extent uniquely disadvantaged when it comes to receiving information about western countries because of reasons directly related to their status as persecuted people. For example, the respondents suggested that their pre-arrival understanding of Australia, its immigration policy or the international refugee protection system was minimal. At least two of the Afghani respondents who had very little education because the Taliban had prevented them from attending school had not heard of ‘Australia’ before they landed. One respondent said that he had only known about the existence of two countries other than Afghanistan - two of its neighbours, Pakistan and Iran.
“Importantly, I also found that even when refugees have been traumatised as a result of their experiences of the TPV and immigration detention, they do not necessarily pass on a deterrence message. On the contrary, for a variety of reasons, many of my respondents downplayed the difficulties that they had faced in Australia when they talked to friends and relatives who may also be considering coming to Australia via smuggling routes,” Dr Richardson said.
While the respondents knew little about Australia before they arrived, some were aware that Australia detains people who arrive by smuggling boat, and some were undeterred by the idea that they might be detained in a western country because it was preferable to staying in their home countries where they had been subjected to persecution.
Some respondents felt that detention was unavoidable as they understood that all Western countries detain refugees, and some had an inherent faith that Australia would deal with them humanely and were undeterred when they learned about Australia’s detention system. Some of the respondents also stated they felt that detention had a legitimate purpose as it allowed the Australian Government to conduct health and identity checks, so these refugees felt that the idea of being detained in Australia was acceptable even if ultimately the violence they experienced in detention centres was not.
Dr Richardson’s study also found some evidence that Australia’s interdiction policy may have merit as a deterrent because some respondents had told their relatives that the route to Australia was not ‘open’ since the interdiction policy had been implemented. However, the study demonstrates that the transmission of deterrence information is not straightforward, and the recent increase in smuggling boats may represent another example where the ‘message’ is being interpreted in ways unanticipated by its creators.

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