The opposition continues to link the Rudd government’s “softening” of Australia’s border protection system to the arrival of more than 1000 asylum seekers in Australian waters since August last year. It’s a line that’s set to be repeated as the government anticipates more boat arrivals.

But the first study to examine how refugees interpret Australia’s immigration policy deterrence messages shows that measures such as Temporary Protections Visas (now abolished) and detention debt are not “guaranteed deterrents.”

The study by Charles Sturt University’s Dr Roslyn Richardson, consisted of interviews with 27 refugees in 2005 who had come by boat and air as undocumented arrivals. The vast majority had come by boat during the late 1990s and early 2000s — the peak of the asylum seeker influx.

“Only two of the 27 had chosen to come to Australia. Some of them wanted to go to other countries. Some had family in Europe but they were effectively channeled to Australia because that’s what they could afford. They were channeled by the people smugglers because Australia was cheaper,” Richardson told Crikey.

In some cases Australia was chosen “because it was seen as easier to get to than the UK. There was also a perception amongst the refugees that Malaysia turned a blind eye to forged documents.”

As for the argument that people smugglers and refugees kept a close eye on Australia’s detention policies and that the subsequent “softening” of some detention laws had led to an influx of asylum seekers, Richardson told Crikey that as a whole, “refugees possessed very little information about Australia and Australian policy.” 

“They don’t have a chance to sit down and study up,” says Richardson. Many of the respondents also lacked the capacity to act independently once they had engaged the services of people smugglers. In the study, Richardson asked the respondents whether they’d heard the term ‘queue jumper’:

R: I just wanted to ask you whether you’d heard of the term ‘queue jumper’? Have you heard of that?” [No response from the interviewees]. “All right, I’ll explain it to you … what the government says is that what you guys should have done was to go to the UN and wait in a line, that’s what a queue is, it’s a line, to come to Australia. So you should have gone to the UN and waited there for your turn to be sent to Australia.

I: Where?

R: At the UN in Pakistan for example.

I: No, if you paid smuggler, you can’t go outside, you can’t go outside and walk in the street, how can you go to UN? You’re not allowed to go in Pakistan anywhere.

R: You paid your smuggler from Afghanistan?

I: Yeah. Otherwise we wasn’t able to come to Pakistan and Pakistan we as Hazara peoples have a difficulty in Pakistan too… we wasn’t safe to stay in Pakistan. And if you have no passport, where you can queue? If you have no passport, you have no identity, you have nothing, how can you go and wait to get in Australia? (Afghan respondent, interviewed 04/12/05)

R: So when you were in Indonesia did you feel that you could have approached UNHCR for example?

I: Like even in Indonesia we were not legal, the smuggler use to hide us and he use to smuggler them one after the other. Each one on motor cycle, separately, so we didn’t know what was happening. So even if we wanted to apply to there he would have said to us “you can’t, you stay where I tell you to stay and even if you are captured by anyone here, there is a treaty that they will send you back to Iraq. (Iraqi respondent, interviewed 13/07/05)

A number of the respondents believed that they would only be detained for a short period of time, others assumed that the detention system in Australia would operate like the immigration detention arrangements in other Western countries. Said one respondent:

All that they said was just when we came from Indonesia on the boat, they said ‘as soon as you get to Australia they will put you in detention for some time and then you will be released’. (Iraqi respondent, interviewed 15/07/05)

R: and did he tell you anything about detention?

I: ‘You know you can eat and drink and after that you can go for a walk and return back to sleep’. In Europe like that.

R: Like the detention centres in Europe?

I: Yes. (Iraqi respondent, interviewed 12/07/05)

“Two refugees hadn’t even heard of Australia. Most people had done high school geography, so they knew of it, and one man said he’d seen the television show Skippy,” said Richardson.

“But the two who’d never heard of it had only ever gone to religious schools. Refugees are often persecuted people so they are less likely than other sections of other population to have access to information about other countries. One Afghan man was hazara and so he was forbidden by the Taliban to go to school.”

Dr Richardson’s study concluded that “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.”

To some respondents, getting on a boat seemed to be the better option:

In Indonesia I went to UNHCR for one day. Like one day I went over there but I saw the people who applied for UNHCR, they’ve been waiting for years and the security situation and the economic situation, they were living in a terrible situation. I would see myself like that and then the smuggler was telling me that the wait for UNHCR was years and years with no guarantee and the boat was moving and going to Australia and it was ready for me to embark on the boat… so of course I would choose the second one [the boat journey]. (Iraqi respondent, interviewed 02/08/05)

One of the Afghan respondents, a member of the persecuted Hazara minority, said that the refugee camps were inherently dangerous for them: 

I: …Hazara people could never, never go to UNHCR to be registered with UNHCR to be sent to a refugee country. Because the refugee camp comprised of all the Mullahs, you know the Mullahs?

R: So all the Pashtuns ?

I: Yeah the Pashtuns who trained the Islamic militants, who trained the people how to kill, who empoisoned the mind of the youngsters … Even kill whoever doesn’t follow the way of how the Sunnis are following Islam.

R: So you couldn’t even find safety in a UN camp anyway?

I: No this is very dangerous to go in the refugee camps in Pakistan. (Afghan respondent, interviewed 17/10/05)

Some of the respondents also said that UNHCR could not have given them protection while their asylum cases were being processed.

R: … Did you approach UNHCR to be resettled to Australia?…

I: I mean there was an experience where people went and applied and they got killed in the middle of the country for that (Iraqi respondent, interviewed 13/07/05)

As for refugees who’ve been subjected to Australia’s detention system and life under a Temporary Protection Visa, they don’t necessarily pass on a deterrence message to their family and friends back home.

“My study suggests that it doesn’t matter how bad or nasty a policy is, refugees won’t necessarily see this as a reason not to come here,” Richardson told Crikey.

“There are things that are driving people that are stronger than an unpleasant life under a TPV. For example, one woman told me, ‘My son can play outside at night and I don’t have to worry that he’s going to be executed.”