Is ‘Safe Harbour’ Based On A True Story? Australia’s Real Refugee Crisis Inspired This Miniseries
The Australian miniseries Safe Harbour aired Down Under earlier this year and is now coming to Hulu on Friday, Aug. 24. The Safe Harbour plot follows Ismail Al-Bayati (Hazem Shammas) — an immigrant who arrives in Brisbane, Australia by boat. However, audiences learn that he and the other refugees had come in contact with five white Australians, who were on holiday in a yacht. While the Aussies initially tried to tow the refugees back to shore, someone cut the rope in the middle of the night. So although Safe Harbour isn't a true story, Australia's refugee crisis plays an important role in the plot.
A 2017 New York Times opinion piece by Lisa Pryor details some of the controversial policies the plot seems to reference. Australia is known for turning away refugees arriving by boat and sending them elsewhere. One such dumping ground is Manus Island — a province in its neighboring country, Papua New Guinea. This detention center is technically called a "regional processing center," and, at the time of the op-ed publication, housed about 400 individuals who tried unsuccessfully to emigrate to Australia.
Back in April 2016, the Papua New Guinean Supreme Court deemed the Manus detention center illegal, per the New York Times; however, that didn't mean anything on Australia's end. "It does not alter Australia’s border protection policies — they remain unchanged," Peter Dutton, Australia’s immigration minister, said at the time, per the same NYT piece. "No one who attempts to travel to Australia illegally by boat will settle in Australia." As of November 2017, the detainees were being transferred to another facility, per CNN.
What's more, according to The Nation, while Australia typically accepts immigrants by plane, they often turn away refugees trying to seek asylum by boat. Many of these immigrants are from places like Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, per The Nation. Even more alarming, Essential Report conducted a poll back in 2015 asking whether Australians thought that immigrants arriving by boat were genuine refugees. 43 percent of participating Australians didn't believe they were.
All of this is clearly reflected in Safe Harbour. Not only are Ismail and his family arriving to Australia in a boat, but they're from Iraq. Not to mention the fact that their would-be saviors are white. So while the plot itself is fictional, the circumstances surrounding it are all too real.
The four-part miniseries originally aired on the Australian network SBS, where it received positive reviews. "When I first became involved, I was adamant Safe Harbour shouldn’t become an exercise in advocacy but something that explored a very complex topic in a more human way, warts and all," director Glendyn Ivin told The Australian back in March. "I doubt it will change anyone’s opinions on the politics of the topic, but it will hopefully invite them to consider the consequences of decisions on individuals made by both sides of the dilemma."
Ivin continued, saying, "If we think of the Aussies’ yacht as Australia, they have food, water and space in abundance, surrounded by water, in contrast to the asylum-seekers’ boat." It's true that the cushy yacht is spacious, clean, and functioning, as opposed to the refugees' fishing boat, which is broken, dirty, and overcrowded. And when the Australians first spotted the boat, they decided to take an anonymous poll on what they should do. While four people voted to tow them, one voted against it.
The plot of Safe Harbour follows both parties as they grapple with the ramifications of what happened on their respective boats. Whatever happened out on the water, it caused several refugees to lose their lives. And when both Ismail and the Australians were questioned by the police, they each believed that the other boat cut the rope. So who's not telling the truth, and who didn't want the refugees to make it Australian soil?
"There is a saying in Iraq, you know," Ismail says in the trailer. "A man who is drowning would even grab onto a snake." It's pretty clear who he's referring to.