The Australian government has embarked on a novel campaign to combat a growing wave of illegal immigrants by hiring an international advertising agency to mount street theatre in Sri Lanka.

The agency Saatchi and Saatchi will take Canberra’s blunt warning against trying to smuggle themselves into Australia from the villages of Sri Lanka.

Local actors will use “street drama” to warn people of the dangers of trying to sail to Australia on leaky boats. Actors will play people smugglers exploiting and tricking their victims, and will warn that Australian authorities will probably return them to Sri Lanka.

The new campaign comes after a surge in asylum-seekers trying to reach Australia by boat. More than 1,600 have been plucked this year from the sea and remote coral reefs, and Australian detention facilities are close to overflowing.

Many asylum-seekers have drowned, and many more have been exploited and abandoned by people smugglers.

Posters, leaflets, banners and seminars will be used to get the Australian government’s message to the huge numbers of desperate Sri Lankans not to try to make the perilous voyage to Australia.

There are 250,000 displaced people in northern Sri Lanka alone following the deadly civil war between separatist Tamil Tigers rebels and the government.

Speaking from Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, Saatchi and Saatchi’s Ronald Peiris said the campaign will tell the truth about people smuggling.

“A lot of rumours are being spread by the (people) traffickers or the networks, saying that people can make it,” Mr Peiris told Brisbane’s Courier-Mail newspaper.

“What we want to tell the people is that, what you hear is not what really happens.” On Friday, Australian authorities deported 60 Indonesian asylum-seekers after they were not accepted as refugees. Nine Sri Lankans are about to be flown back to their country as the Australian government cracks down on illegal immigrants.

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