In December 2014 the Australian Government pledged $19.9 million towards discouraging potential asylum seekers from traveling to Australia. Dubbed by commentators as the "Don't Call Australia Home" campaign, it's led to a spate of grim-looking billboards throughout some of the world's poorest nations, including Burma, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Iraq, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan, and Sri Lanka.
After arriving in the southern part of Sri Lanka, I was surprised by the number of these billboards. In a three-hour drive along the coast I found four identical advertisements showing a small boat in heavy seas. Sri Lanka is a country that saw around a million people displaced after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami; it has also endured a bloody civil war that displaced a further 300,000 until it ended in 2009. In this context the billboards seem a little callous, and particularly when I got a local to translate:
Never come to Australia without a visa! Never put your feet in Australia without a visa. In Australia there is a military that enforces this. People who come by boat without a visa will never be allowed to enter and boats that go to Australia without permission are returned to the deep sea.
It doesn't matter where you come from or who you are, without a visa, you cannot enter Australia. Don't spend your money, you must think about it. There are a lot of illegal people smugglers. For more information (see website).
I was curious to know how the locals felt about the billboards, so I asked some people standing nearby.
VICE: Hey Parerra, What do you think of these billboards?
Parerra Chathurangani: I think these billboards are good because they stop people from trying to go Australia. It is good to be from Australia if you are born there, better than Sri Lanka, but for us it is not good to go there. Many people have lost all their money trying to get to Australia, or have got to Australia and not been allowed to enter. And it is also very expensive and very dangerous to go there.
Would you like to live in Australia?
I would not like to live there because they make life very hard if you're not Australian. I would rather stay here in Sri Lanka or go somewhere else. I think life is harder in Australia because they do not want us to go there. Here I have a job and can support my family, but people who go to Australia often have a hard time getting this or might find a job that's worse.
Hey Dilan, what do you think about these billboards?
Dilan Chanaka: I think the billboards are bad. I don't know why, I just think they are. We all want to visit and live in Australia but we can't because we can't get a visa. If I could go anywhere it would be Europe or Australia—it's our dream. I work in tourism and there we can make good money, meet girls, and good people. I love Sri Lanka and it is my home but if I lived in Europe or Australia I could make money and come home two or three times a year.
Do you think Australians welcome Sri Lankans?
No, it's not good. You go to jail. A lot of poor people get captured by the navy for not going the right way. Now, even the Sri Lankan Government has a TV ad saying that if you try to go on a boat you will be taken to Papua New Guinea.
What do you know about Australia?
I know Australia has kangaroos, cricket, and the MCG. I saw it once on the TV and there were lots of Sri Lankans and no Australians so I think that would be good.
What do they eat?
I have no idea. I think they like all foods like rice and curry but no ones knows how to prepare them properly. Maybe barbeque.
Hey Thila, you've seen these billboards. What do you think about moving to Australia by boat?
Thila Champika: Australia is a good place and it would be a good place to move to, but it is not good by boat. It's dangerous and it's not good. I think the billboards are good because we can learn from this. Some people don't have this knowledge, and now we know it's dangerous.
What do you know about Australia?
I don't know much about Australia. It's better money. I don't know what they eat but I think they enjoy parties like the other tourists. If I could move somewhere else it would be India. It is nearer to Sri Lanka and has a similar culture.
Would you feel welcome in Australia?
No. They always say don't come and they punish people who do come. I know they have some island where they punish us so it's not good for our future.
What do you think about moving to Australia?
Sanjeewa Geeganagae: I have tried to move to Australia but now it is too expensive. My friend went some years ago and it was $5,000 dollars. But now they say it is $10,000 and I cannot afford that. That's why it is very hard to get a visa for Australia.
Why do you want to go there?
In Australia there are a lot of opportunities. I can work in hospitality and make enough money for all of my family and have a good life. Here life is hard. In Australia they have the nice beaches, and big parties all the time.
Do you think the billboards are good for warning people of the dangers?
I don't know if the billboards are good. I think it is hard for people at the start and some have had trouble, but there are also many people who have studied, created businesses, and had a good life. For me it is worth it to take that chance.
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