Refugee children handed anti-‘illegal migration’ playing cards, Australian charity says

Playing cards adorned with the Australian government’s Zero Chance campaign against “illegal migration” were distributed to refugee children in Indonesia by people trespassing on school grounds, the charity running the school alleges.

The playing cards were allegedly given to children during break time at the Cisarua refugee learning centre in West Java.

The town of Cisarua has hosted several thousand refugees for years, most of whom are Afghan Hazaras who fled the Taliban and have been stranded in Indonesia since Australia implemented Operation Sovereign Borders and stopped accepting refugees resettled by the UN from Indonesia.

Muzafar Ali, an Afghan refugee and co-founder of Cisarua Learning, said a group of people – who appeared to be local Indonesians – had arrived in a car and handed the cards to children through the door at the front entrance of the school.

“They asked children to open the door and when they opened [it] they were taking pictures of our students and trying to encourage them to take more cards,” he said.

“One of the managers went to stop them, so they backed off and they left the scene.”

On the back of the playing cards was an illustration of a boat at sea, along with the Zero Chance logo and a QR code linked to the associated Australian government website. The site said “Australia’s borders are closed to illegal migration” and that the government is committed to “protecting Australia’s borders, combating people smuggling in our region, and preventing people from risking their lives at sea”.

A manager at the learning centre said staff there were “shocked” and “disappointed” by what they described as a “low” act targeting refugee children. Cisarua Learning, an Australian registered charity that operates six separate refugee-led learning centres in the town, said the cards had also been distributed to refugee children at football grounds and in surrounding streets, and that other children had been photographed.

Australian Border Force said “offshore deterrence messaging” was a “critical component” in its efforts to stop illegal migration.

“This type of engagement helps ensure people smugglers who manipulate vulnerable men, women and children are defeated, and importantly, prevents loss of life at sea,” an ABF spokesperson said.

“The continued delivery of information on bipartisan policies during caretaker period is accepted under caretaker conventions.”

As part of the campaign, service providers conduct the engagement activities and require approvals from local authorities to hand out any material.

The playing cards were distributed a week before the Liberal party sent out text messages en masse on election day saying that the ABF had intercepted “an illegal boat” trying to reach Australia.

The controversial text message, which will be investigated by the new Labor government, told voters to “keep our borders secure by voting Liberal today”.

Ali said the centre did not want to publicise the distribution of the playing cards before the election for fears it would spark a media circus.

“We just didn’t want this to become a political issue or debate because we just want refugees away from any political issue,” they said.

Cisarua Learning is now urging Australian authorities to investigate. “This act is a clear violation of the rights of children, particularly vulnerable refugee children, with limited legal and education access rights,” it said.

“Refugee children are living in a protracted limbo, many for a decade now. Many of the targeted refugee children were born in Indonesia.”

The Zero Chance campaign previously included an annual anti-illegal migration film competition targeted at Sri Lankan film-makers and online games dissuading refugees from travelling to Australia by boat.

When asked how much money the government has spent on the campaign, a border force spokesperson told SBS News this year that “specific costings or details about the campaign are commercial in confidence”.

A contract on AusTender shows the government has spent more than $4.1m on “Illegal Maritime Arrival Education Services” between 2011 and June 2021.

The principal solicitor at the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, Sarah Dale, said the Zero Chance campaign was not only “disheartening” but ineffective.

“There is well-documented evidence demonstrating that … people do not make decisions to come to Australia by boat lightly and only when there is really no other alternative,” Dale said.

“The only way to stop people making these dangerous journeys is by ensuring there are safe and legal pathways for them to access.”

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