Critics Slam Australia’s ‘Appalling’ Campaign to Deter Asylum Seekers

The campaign involves Pac Man–style games and a callout for films that show "zero chance of successfully travelling by boat to Australia."
Gavin Butler
Melbourne, AU
asylum seekers
The Australian government has launched an online scare campaign warning people against "illegal migration" – despite the fact that seeking asylum is a human right. Photo by STR / Stringer, via Getty Images (L) and htzerochance.lk (R)

“Want to go to Australia by boat?” asks the online browser game. “Spin to see what your chances are!”

An animated “wheel of fortune” in the middle of the screen is divided into 16 wedges, one of which is “Australia” – but clicking “SPIN” never gets you there. Instead, the colourful wheel inevitably lands on one of the 15 other outcomes. The player ends up getting tricked by people smugglers, caught by border patrol or barred from Australia for life. 

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Every time, the same slogan appears: “Don’t willingly destroy your life” – alongside an option to try again.

This is just one of several browser games that can be found on the website for the Australian government’s “Zero Chance” campaign, which aims to deter asylum seekers in Asia from attempting to come to Australia. That initiative is itself an offshoot of Operation Sovereign Borders – the Australian government’s military-led border security operation that launched in 2013 – and the website, a relatively new development, appears to have been produced in partnership with the Sri Lankan government.

Another game invites players to shuffle three animated boats and pick which one they think will get them to Australia, while a third – a clunky Pac Man ripoff – challenges players to steer their way past insurmountable thunderstorms and patrol boats in order to reach their destination. All of the games are impossible to win, and all of them hammer home the same hard-fisted warning: “No one who travels illegally to Australia by boat will be allowed to remain in Australia.”

Sarah Dale, centre director and principal solicitor for the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS), described the campaign as “appalling.”

“I find a website like this completely deplorable. To make light of the situation of people seeking asylum by creating games and video content does not go to the gravity of the situation, of people that are forced to flee their home countries, and nor does it take into account the seriousness of people needing to flee and the mode in which they can flee,” she told VICE World News. “In my nearly 10 years of doing this work, I have never spoken to a person that has sought asylum in Australia that would be deterred by a game on a website.”

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Dale pointed out that the campaign’s messaging and approach – which suggests that the act of fleeing persecution and coming to Australia is unlawful – is factually and fundamentally flawed. It is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia, she noted; individuals from anywhere in the world who fear persecution in their home country have a legal right to journey there in whatever way they can. As the Australian Human Rights Commission points out, ​​all people are entitled to protection of their human rights, including the right to seek asylum, regardless of how or where they arrive in Australia. This makes the use of the word “illegal”, which appears 11 times on the Zero Chance website’s homepage, questionable.

People on social media similarly slammed the campaign, with Twitter users variably describing it as “disgusting,” “ghoulish” and “so fucked up.” Particularly alarming for Dale, though, is the fact that the campaign appears to be a partnership between the Australian government and the government of Sri Lanka – the latter of which has one of the worst records of state-perpetrated violence against civilians in the early 21st century. 

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Earlier this year, the United Nations Human Rights Office (OHCHR) published a damning report on the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka, highlighting deepening impunity, ethno-nationalist rhetoric and intimidation of civil society as major concerns. It further noted that Tamil and Muslim minorities were being increasingly marginalised, excluded and scapegoated in the country.

“Grave human rights violations and abuses committed by all parties have been documented in successive UN reports,” the OHCHR report stated, “including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture and sexual violence affecting Sri Lankans from all communities.”

According to Dale, there are thousands of people from Sri Lanka who seek asylum in Australia, and thousands who are afforded protection on legitimate grounds.

Many others are turned away. The federal government’s policy of turning back people-smuggling vessels was first introduced in 2001, then reintroduced in earnest with the the launch of Operation Sovereign Borders in late 2013. From then until January 2020, at least 855 people – including children and excluding crew members – were turned or taken away from Australian shores. 

Despite Tamil asylum seekers reportedly facing some of the lowest acceptance rates into Australia, however, there were more than 27,000 Sri Lankan-born Tamil people living there at the time of the 2016 census.

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“Why then Australia would do a campaign with a country that is found to persecute people, and prevent people from leaving that country where they fear that persecution, is just mind-blowing,” she said. “There are many different reasons why a person might be found to be owed protection from Sri Lanka, one ground being that you are part of an ethnic minority group [like] the Tamil diaspora. There has been documented persecution of people in that community… and it is usually the government or the government operatives in Sri Lanka that are the persecutors in these scenarios.”

Within that context, a website like that of the Zero Chance campaign – which sees the Australian government working alongside the Sri Lankan government and making light of the need to flee – is “completely bewildering,” in Dale’s view.

“What I find the most disturbing in this is the removal of dignity of people who have sought asylum,” she added. “[The] perception … that a game of Pac Man would prevent them from coming to Australia is just appalling. It is completely disrespectful and completely denies the dignity of people that seek asylum and the very genuine reason as to why they do that.”

The Australian Border Force (ABF) did not respond to questions about the criticism levelled against the Zero Chance campaign, nor clarify who it was that came up with the idea for the online games. In an emailed response to VICE World News, a spokesperson confirmed that the campaign was an Australian Government initiative, and said “the website is designed to inform and educate potential illegal immigrants about the Australian Government’s border protection policies, deter them from making the illegal migration journey, and provide information about safe and legal pathways.”

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“Interactive games educate participants about the very real dangers of people smuggling and emphasise the ‘Zero Chance’ deterrent message,” the spokesperson claimed. “The Zero Chance campaign is targeted at people who might consider a dangerous and illegal maritime journey to Australia.”

The website also features multiple videos of “true stories” from people who have tried and failed to reach Australian shores, as well as an advertisement for the “Zero Chance Stories 2022” short film competition. The competition’s entry form invites “budding filmmakers from around Sri Lanka to creatively express ‘Illegal Migration to Australia’, showcasing that there is zero chance of successfully travelling by boat to Australia.” 

Entries must touch upon such themes as “getting caught by people smugglers,” risking one’s life in rough seas or the effects that the migration journey has on families and loved ones. The top three winners will be awarded a DSLR camera, a drone and a GoPro.

The ABF also declined to answer questions about who was funding the film competition and its prizes, as well as the campaign overall.

Australia has rolled out this kind of targeted public fear campaign before. In 2010, the federal government paid to have large billboards erected in the Pakistan city of Quetta, emblazoned with an image of a distressed Indonesian fishing boat carrying asylum seekers and the words: “All illegal routes to Australia are closed to Afghans.” In 2014, the Department of Immigration and Border Security published to its website an 18-page graphic novel – since removed – that depicted the journey of an asylum seeker from Afghanistan who tries and fails to get to Australia by boat, eventually languishing in an offshore detention camp. 

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In 2015, the Australian government commissioned a $4 million AUD telemovie aiming to deter asylum seekers from coming to Australia by boat, intended for audiences in conflict zones around Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. And at some point between 2013 and 2019, the home affairs department created a series of mock horoscopes as part of its advertising campaign discouraging Sri Lankans from seeking asylum in Australia by boat – warning Geminis that they would lose their wives’ jewellery and Taurians that they should “expect to be returned home where you will face the humiliation of failure in your community.”

While all of these media initiatives were met with backlash and condemnation, Dale claimed that “I’ve never in my time seen the [asylum seeker] situation trivialised in the way that it has been on this website, with games and video entries.”

It is also, she suggested, naive to think that such trivial strategies will have any effect in deterring people fleeing persecution from seeking asylum in Australia.

“People flee because they fear for their lives; they flee because the chances and the risks of coming to Australia and finding that safety far outweigh the fears that they hold where they currently are,” she said. “It’s never been my experience that someone has seen a website or seen a game or watched an amateur video that has led to them thinking: ‘No, I won’t find safety for my family. I will continue to live in fear.’”

Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.