Post 8: the rhetoric of people smuggling

by Erland Howden

This week we worked as a group to brainstorm possible design responses and further define the problem space of the issue we are focusing on, asylum seekers and refugees. Collectively, we came up with a variety of ideas and it was interesting to see how the research process had informed the direction of our concepts and proposals. Throughout the discussion, each idea continually came back to something we had read or seen in the course of exploring the issue through our design research over the preceding weeks.

Problem space definition for asylum seekers and refugeesTo define the problem space, we talked through the focus areas of our research, covering attitudes to asylum seekers, perception of attitudes to asylum seekers by decision makers, mental health of detainees in Australian immigration detention, the legal framework for asylum seekers in Australia and the international sharing of responsibility for addressing the issue of displaced peoples.

From there, we looked at service design, brainstorming ideas around twitter bots to address racist attitudes to asylum seekers, designing guidelines for medical staff working with detainees, digital service design for finding places to live for resettling asylum seekers and digital service design around the idea of safe passage for asylum seekers to Australia by boat, free from exploitation by people smugglers.

We also discussed design responses in the area of data visualisation, including colour mapping emotions from asylum seekers first-hand accounts and the idea of quantitative comparisons of hosting and resettlement between different countries in the world and international responsibility-sharing.

Finally, we looked at a couple of ideas in the field of generative design, including building a framework for a photo petition of people wanting to host asylum seekers in their homes (rather than in immigration detention) and another concept that would pull or project live immigration data into a digital presentation that compares the number of asylum seekers and refugees coming to Australia with tourists and non-refugee migrants.

The idea I am thinking through following the brainstorm, and seeking to interrogate as a possible design response proposal, is the concept of a digital match-making service inspired by Uber or Airtasker. So-called people smugglers are a key part of the asylum seeker debate and the central rhetorical plank of the reasoning for Australia’s two main parties’ policies of offshore detention for “irregular maritime arrivals” of asylum seekers. So, what if, instead of criminals known to extort money and exploit vulnerable people fleeing persecution, one could demonstrate positive attitudes to asylum seekers by showing that there are ordinary law-abiding Australians who would volunteer to ferry asylum seekers to Australia instead. The actual product would match Australian seafaring boat owners with asylum seekers attempting to come to Australia, with the purpose not of creating an actual ferrying route, but of demonstrating the depth of support there is for people seeking asylum in Australia.

There’s a range of challenges and sensitivities to a proposal like this, so the concept requires significant interrogation before it would warrant progressing. For example, one would need to design the product with extreme care not to exploit asylum seekers who could mistake the service for a realistic means of reaching Australia, when in reality it is likely that even if the scheme progressed to a practical demonstration, it would be symbolic and almost certainly disrupted by Australia’s Border Force or naval vessels.


Author: Erland Howden

Graphic designer, photographer & facilitator. 💚 enviro justice, community organising, travel, vego food & wildlife.

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