Australian mini-series brings migration debate back to the fore

The narrative of “Safe Harbour” provides new insight into an issue that has long been at the centre of public debate.
Sunday 15/04/2018
New insight. A scene from SBS’s psychological thriller “Safe Harbour.” (SBS)
New insight. A scene from SBS’s psychological thriller “Safe Harbour.” (SBS)

TUNIS - The plight of asylum seekers and their precarious sea crossings frequently make headlines after tragedy unfolds. Reaction to the news is invariably mixed, with some advocating on behalf of the migrants and others arguing for improved border security and controls.

While most migration coverage is centred on Europe, many asylum seekers attempt to make their way to Australia, which has a strict policy of turning away unauthorised boats regardless of where they come from. Authorities insist this approach is necessary to deter dangerous sea crossings and save lives but the policy has been harshly criticised by rights campaigners.

The politically charged issue will attract more controversy with the release of “Safe Harbour,” a fictional TV series about Australian holidaymakers on a cruise who encounter a broken-down boat carrying desperate asylum seekers.

The four-part psychological thriller, directed by Australian Glendyn Ivin, is engaging and well-made and has attracted considerable controversy since its release on Australian public television network SBS in March. Some viewers hailed it as a “gripping” narrative and others dismissed it as “propaganda.”

Aside from moving the migration debate front and centre, the series provides a unique perspective to a growing global phenomenon: asylum seekers looking for a second chance on the opposite side of the globe.

In the first episode, Australians on a sailing holiday face an unexpected predicament when they come across asylum seekers in distress. They decide to tow the troubled vessel to shore but overnight the rope is cut and by morning it is gone. (Actors Phoebe Tonkin, Leeanna Walsman, Joel Jackson, Nicole Chamoun and Hazem Shammas co-star in the series.)

The opening sequence poses provocative questions about human behaviour: Would you, with a small group of friends, step in to help dozens of strangers in distress? Would you fear the potential danger of being overpowered by the desperate men and women who are fighting to survive? What are the risks of ignoring their calls? Will they die if you fail to act?

However, do not be fooled; the series is not a form of political advocacy. It aims to tell a complex story from a multicultural perspective, pushing viewers to think deeply and critically about the issue.

The drama includes metaphors about the stark social divide driving the migration crisis. The spacious yacht inhabited by five well-off friends symbolises life in Australia; the cramped boat carrying cold, hungry, endangered migrants symbolises the ravages of conflict and poverty throughout the world.

The series sheds light on the betrayal felt by many asylum seekers, who find it difficult to sever ties with their painful past and move forward. This sense of betrayal is conveyed through the cutting of the rope, which results in the loss of seven lives.

This is built on later in the series when Bilal (Robert Rabiah), an Iraqi asylum seeker, begins telling his story. Surprisingly, the listener is an Australian woman but Bilal relays the facts in Arabic:

“Back in Iraq, I trained with your country’s army,” Bilal bitterly recalls.

Smiling without understanding what Bilal is saying, the Australian woman says: “Arabic always sounds kind of harsh when I hear it on TV but not when you speak it.” She invites Bilal to go on telling the story.

“When your soldiers left, the Islamic State militants came. They were looking for me but they couldn’t find me,” he says. “They found my wife instead. They took her and they raped her and tortured her. Then they hanged her so that everyone could see. Her body was hanging there for four days. Four days.”

The scene both expresses Bilal’s feeling of betrayal and illustrates the language divide that separates two distinct cultures. Language serves as a refuge for the asylum seeker, a hideout where he can conceal his shame and vulnerability.

The narrative of “Safe Harbour” navigates a tangled web of characters, motivations and relationships, merging the political with the personal. This provides new insight into an issue that has long been at the centre of public debate, especially in Australia.

In 2016-17, Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Programme approved visas for 21,968 people, including 8,209 from the Syria and Iraq, a 20.4% increase from 2014-15, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said.

Many prospective migrants are turned away, however. Most of their boats are intercepted by Australia’s military before being sent back to their country of departure, usually Indonesia.

Migrants who do reach Australia by sea are barred from settling in the country; instead they are sent to Australian-run detention centres on the Pacific island of Nauru or the Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. There, their asylum claims are reviewed, a process that can take up to one year.

If their refugee status is approved, they are resettled on the islands or, in some cases, Cambodia.