While Australia's immigration deterrence policies, such as the temporary protection visa (TPV), mandatory detention system and 'Pacific Solution' have been criticised on ethical and legal grounds, the core justification for these policies has remained largely untouched. This article challenges the key justification behind many of Australia's immigration policies that they 'send a strong message' to potential irregular migrants and people smugglers. Drawing on a communication studies perspective and cultural studies audience research, the study outlined in this article demonstrates that these policies are based on a flawed and outdated view of the communication process and a simplistic understanding of refugee audiences. The article reveals that, like all audiences, refugee audiences are diverse, unpredictable and capable of producing a variety of interpretations of the messages they receive. This article calls for a recognition that the transmission and reception of Australia's deterrence 'messages' are far from straightforward.