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Communicating the Malaysia deal

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COMMENTS

4 August 2011 13:46

Dr Khalid Koser is a Lowy Institute Non-Resident Fellow and Academic Dean at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

In his post for The Interpreter last week, Andrew Carr identified as a principal assumption behind the Malaysia deal that asylum seekers will learn about the new policy and decide it isn't worth risking their lives heading to Australia if they will automatically be sent to Malaysia.

The Australian Government is clearly aware of the importance of communicating its message to would-be asylum seekers, and its decision to post YouTube clips of unauthorized boat arrivals being turned away and sent to Malaysia (available here) has even made headlines in the UK.

My initial reaction was that this was a gimmick with no hope of actually reaching its intended audience. After all, according to World Bank World Development Indicators on Afghanistan, one of the main source countries for unauthorized boat arrivals in Australia over the last year, internet users as a proportion of the total population comprised 3.4% in 2009; while AusAID estimates that the literacy rate in Afghanistan is 43% for men and 12.6% for women.

But looking back at a report I prepared with colleagues a few years ago for the UK Home Office that made six principal recommendations on how to disseminate information to potential asylum seekers, I realize that the YouTube campaign in fact ticks most of the boxes.

The first recommendation was to publish information in multiple local languages — the YouTube footage is in eight languages commonly spoken in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Sri Lanka. The second was to make the message clear — images of asylum seekers departing Christmas Island for Kuala Lumpur are pretty unambiguous, and the use of images also overcomes the problem of illiteracy.

A third recommendation was to communicate changes to policy quickly — clearly one of the advantages of using the internet. A fourth was to target information campaigns on diaspora communities in the destination country, who can spread the message through word of mouth and are much more likely to be trusted by potential asylum seekers than governments or international organisations. Internet access may be limited in Afghanistan, but it isn't among Afghans in Australia.

The YouTube campaign falls down on two of our recommendations. One was the importance of communicating positive as well as negative messages. Our research found that potential asylum seekers are far more likely to trust a balanced message, for example that warns of the dangers of irregular migration, while also providing information about how to apply for asylum and eligibility rules.

The other was the importance of evaluating the effectiveness of information campaigns. It will clearly be impossible directly to gauge the effectiveness of the YouTube campaign, though at least it is a relatively low-cost initiative.

The overwhelming conclusion of our research was that most potential asylum seekers rely on smugglers for information about policies in their intended destinations. In which case, a more pertinent question than whether an information campaign about the Malaysia deal will deter asylum seekers is whether it will deter smugglers from delivering them to Australia.

Sometimes smugglers are only paid once their clients have arrived in countries where they can gain physical access to the territory, enter the asylum system, stand a good chance of being able to remain (legally or illegally) in the country, and find opportunities to work. In that case, the Malaysia deal may well make smugglers rethink targeting Australia.

But in other situations, where for example smugglers are paid in full before departure, they have little incentive (other perhaps than pride, honour, or establishing a business reputation) for selecting between destinations. Information about the Malaysia deal will be an irrelevance for smugglers who have already been paid and can avoid personally being caught or penalised.

In a BBC article on the YouTube campaign, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen is cited as saying 'I do think that many people will have access to that sort of social media, and word of mouth will spread quickly'. He is probably right. Prime Minister Julia Gillard is also cited saying that the Malaysia deal will '...smash the business model of people-smugglers'. She is probably wrong.

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