Australian Government has reduced Sri Lankan Civil War refugees to knock-off gimmicks – Reflections on the Zero Chance Campaign

Diminishing the lives of refugees to a Pac-Man game, The ‘Zero Chance’ Campaign is the latest in a long line of initiatives that the Australian Government has spent billions of dollars on to prevent maritime arrivals. But what is the campaign and why is it problematic? And why should you care?

 

The ‘Zero Chance’ Campaign has existed for over two years now and consists of the Australian and Sri Lankan Government working hand-in-hand to deter Sri Lankans from ‘illegally’ travelling to Australia by boat, in an attempt to stop them from “willingly destroying their lives”. The campaign uses games, interviews and a film competition to entice Sri Lankan Australians to produce materials that dissuade other Sri Lankans from coming to Australia by sea, by means of manipulation, fearmongering and false information. 

Additionally, the campaign at the beginning of 2022 released a short film competition which invited  “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”. The winners of this competition receive lucrative prizes including a DSLR camera, GoPro and cash money. 

This has left the community feeling that the government’s approach of tempting Sri Lankan filmmakers with flashy toys not only invalidates the experience of those who have previously fled persecution and harm but also spreads a harmful and dangerously misinformed narrative surrounding those seeking asylum. Sarah Dale, centre director and principal solicitor at the Refugee Advice and Casework Service in Sydney told ABC News she’s “shocked and disgusted that we would convert a person’s journey seeking safety into something as nonsense as the Pac-Man game.”

To convey their messaging, the Australian and Sri Lankan Governments have collaborated hand in hand to create gimmicky games to engage their audience. These come in the form of mazes, ‘pick which boat will get you to Australia’, ‘spin the wheel’, and a Pacman style game where regardless of what actions they take, the player will never successfully make it to Australia. To reduce a person’s fear of harm and persecution and their desire for a safer life to a game that can be played on any basic device is not only childish, but condescending and ignorant.

 

 Why is the Australian Government working with the Sri Lankan Government to try and prevent people from leaving an unsafe environment? 

The civil conflict in Sri Lanka was rife between the Sinhalese dominated Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group that hoped to establish a separate state for the minority, for over 30 years..  

To date, Sri Lanka has one of the highest numbers of missing people in the world, with up to 100,000 people vanishing since the 1980s, including a mass number of people after the civil war ended in 2009. Many of the Tamil population also remain displaced, while instances of enforced disappearance and torture persist today. The Sri Lankan government often surveils and tracks people linked to LTTE, the military occupy predominantly Tamil areas, and Sinhalese culture is slowly replacing that of the Tamil population in the form of monuments, street and village names, and even places of worship.

Yet Australia still believes that it is safe for Tamils in Sri Lanka, justifying the rejection of asylum seeker applications and sending many people back to the places they have fled. The political relationship between the two governments has played a big role in the discourse and treatment of those seeking asylum in Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Australia had formed a ''dangerously close'' relationship with Sri Lanka's military to gain its cooperation in implementing asylum seeker policies. That is, preventing them from leaving Sri Lanka or sending them back and ensuring they were not settled in Australia. The Australian Government also rejected the UN resolution into war crimes by the Sri Lankan Government and LTTE, despite international recognition for it. This only supported the Sri Lankan Government’s resistance to taking meaningful steps, where ‘the government continued its longtime practice of refusing to investigate or prosecute credible allegations of torture, including sexual violence, against suspected LTTE members or supporters in custody.’

 

So once again, how is it that the Australian Government has deemed Sri Lanka safe, and then decided that working closely with such a government was morally and ethically right? 

What is the impact of this campaign on how those seeking asylum are perceived? 

The ‘Zero Chance’ Campaign, along with certain media corporations and politicians, plays a big role in the demonisation and spread of misinformation of those seeking asylum in Australia regardless of whether they are from Sri Lanka or not. It focuses on stories of failure and loss, and disregards those who have been able to make a better life for themselves by finding safety and freedom from conflict or persecution.  

So how do we change the narrative that predominantly frames those seeking asylum as ‘economic migrants’, ‘queue jumpers’, ‘boat people’ and more? It is by knowing the facts and using our voices to ensure the rights and dignity of those seeking asylum are being heard.

 

Arriving by boat is NOT illegal. 

It is not against the law for someone to seek asylum via boat and as signatories to the United Nations Refugee Convention, Australia cannot penalise refugees who do not have valid travel documents. Despite this, since 2013, the Australian Government has made it clear that anyone who arrives by boat will not be settled in Australia regardless of whether their claims for protection are found to be true. This is why so many people have been sent to offshore processing facilities, where they are subject to inhumane conditions and human rights abuses

 

Those seeking asylum are not ‘queue jumping’, ‘economic migrants’ or ‘unlawful’.

An asylum seeker is someone who is fleeing persecution but has not yet had their refugee claim processed. Their experience may have been almost identical to that of someone who has been granted refugee status however, due to variables such as accessibility and support, may not have had the means necessary to obtain a ‘valid’ visa beforehand. 

For many, arriving in Australia ‘legally’ (with a valid visa) is accessible. But it is ignorant to think that everyone has equal access to the most appropriate services and the necessary resources and support to navigate the heavily bureaucratic application process. A process which is costly and can take years to be processed. For those fleeing persecution or oppression, for those who have lost everything, this is neither accessible, safe or practical. 

 
 

There will always be the battle between ‘human rights’ and ‘State rights’. 

Despite Australia being signatories to various UN conventions, there will always be the battle between ‘human rights’ and ‘State rights’. Australia is a sovereign state and is able to do what it needs in order to protect the sovereignty of its borders. The government decides who gets to come to Australia and how they make that journey.  It is this same ‘right’ to protect its borders that has allowed the Government to resort to offshore processing, turning the boats back and the denial of visas for those seeking asylum. Regardless of whether this goes against Australia’s obligations at an international level, the country and its government is entitled to make these decisions and implement it within the domestic legal framework. 

If Australia is hellbent on preventing boat arrivals that is their prerogative, but in doing so they should make alternate and fairer pathways available for those who require more accessible options when seeking protection. 

 

What can we do? 

It is important for us as a community to use our voices and stand together to advocate on behalf of those who are not given the opportunity to do so on their own. If you are passionate about this issue, speak up for those who can’t speak up for themselves. Listen to the cry of these people as they seek justice, humanity, and safety. Your voice and your actions have an impact and this is what leads to change. 

Whether you are Sri Lankan, Syrian, Rohingya or even Australian, seeking the protection of your life and your lineage using the only means available to you is not illegal - it is your human right. It is the role of the Australian Government to protect this group of individuals and ensure they are provided the most fair and humane treatment. The ‘Zero Chance’ Campaign is the Australian Government’s way of avoiding their responsibility to individuals in the international community by using biassed, inaccurate, unethical, and cheap tactics to convey its messaging. 

I challenge you today to use your voice and speak up on behalf of those who are in search of a safer life. Whether you speak to one person or many, you are a part of the conversation that is leading to positive change.


Rhianne is an international development professional with a keen interest in child protection and forced migration. Focusing on capacity building and empowerment, Rhianne has worked with various communities both in Australia and abroad. You can connect with Rhianne via LinkedIn.