A $4.6-million film warning would-be asylum seekers about the risks of going to Australia has hit TV screens in Afghanistan, part of a multi-year campaign to convince potential migrants they're better off at home.
"The Journey," a government-sponsored movie produced by Put It Out There Pictures, depicts the dangers migrants face as they attempt to cross the Indian Ocean, including drowning at sea, physical violence, imprisonment, and smugglers' extortion.
"It was hard to watch. It made me very upset," an 18-year-old Afghan tailor told the Guardian after the movie's debut. "I know they were actors, but these things really happen to Afghans."
That's exactly the message Australian politicians are hoping to send. While the country has faced strong criticism for its turn-away migrant policies, which all but guarantee that no one arriving by unauthorized boat will be allowed to live in Australia, leaders have emphasized that strict laws will help reduce human smuggling.
"If you do stop the people-smuggling trade ... obviously you end the deaths at sea," then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in September, after pictures of a drowned Syrian toddler riveted international attention on the global refugee crisis. "The most compassionate thing you can do in the medium and long-term is to close down this evil trade."
At least 1,200 people died trying to reach Australia by boat between 2008 and 2013, according to the government. Under Operation Sovereign Borders, enacted in 2013, all unauthorized asylum-seekers who arrive by boat are taken to offshore processing centers. Those whose asylum claims are rejected are deported home or taken to a third country, frequently Indonesia. If their claims are upheld, however, they are resettled in Papua New Guinea – not Australia.
Afghans were once the largest group attempting a boat journey to Australia, but many more now aim for Europe. Of those who have arrived since 2009, more than 95 percent have been granted asylum.
"The Journey" has also been broadcast in Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan, and will be available on YouTube. No English-language versions are available.
"Independent research in these countries has revealed misunderstandings and false rumors about Australia’s policy, and a perception that Australia remains a preferred destination country for those seeking to travel illegally by boat," an immigration spokesperson told Mashable Australia.
Previous campaigns to deter migrants have involved cartoon strips and posters, one of which reads "NO WAY. You will not make Australia home."
But even unambiguous warnings may not further stem the flow of migrants, according to some analysts and human rights workers.
"A TV show isn't going to stop people who are running from the Taliban," Refugee Council of Australia president Phil Glendenning told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "I don't think the Government understands why people are on the move if they think a TV drama will be a deterrent."
Critics have said that the money could have been better spent fixing the root causes of migration, or improving conditions for those who do reach Australia.
Conditions in Australia's offshore detention centers, particularly for children, have been condemned by human rights groups, including the United Nations. Under Operation Sovereign Borders, center workers may not publicly speak about conditions without authorization, although 40 spoke out about "sub-standard and harmful care, child abuse and gross violations of human rights" in an open letter to then-PM Abbott. Doctors have debated the ethics of boycotting the centers in protest.