Rednecks, bogans and bad boat people


SBS's three-part series Go Back to Where You Came From is mostly reality TV, but also part documentary. The concept is to take six Australians on a journey through a refugee experience, in reverse.

The six volunteers are mostly opposed to 'boat people', and one openly admits that she is racist, especially against Africans. The volunteers' views are mostly stereotypical. 

While on the surface they appear to be six characters in search of a reality TV show, it's possible that they represent the 'average person' by whom we, the viewer, can become engaged. The viewer experiences an edited version of what the volunteers go through, without the yucky bits.

The show raises numerous interesting issues, which makes it worth viewing. It's not perfect: maybe the producers thought some more action was needed to complement the stories shared by the refugees, but the sinking boat stunt in the first episode simply feels like cheap TV. The Malaysian immigration raid captured on camera in the second episode fits into the stories better, as the volunteers, like us, are spectators.

The highlight for me is to hear the stories of the refugees themselves, and see how these stories impact the volunteers. Meeting the people you do not like or whom you fear makes it harder to maintain strongly negative views against them. One of the volunteers says he has to 'think about' what he has seen and heard after visiting Villawood Detention Centre before commenting on camera. Reflecting upon an experience and discerning a response is a good method for developing wisdom and tolerance.

There is a certain contrived nature to series, and although the volunteers are on a 'mystery tour', veteran Australian actor Colin Friels provides voiceover commentary, while the series' host, Dr David Corlett, a researcher and writer, escorts them through each stage, like Virgil with Dante, as they glimpse the Purgatorio and Inferno that is the experience of refugees.

In this sense, it is not truly free range 'reality TV', because we know that although their experiences will be confronting, and maybe life-changing, they are going through a planned voyage.

As the series is restricted to three one-hour episodes, time permits limited exposure to the complexities of the plight of refugees. It presents only two 'types' of refugees: resettled Africans, and 'boat people' from Iraq.

Reality is more complex, but these two groups are commonly presented as the main categories of refugees in Australia. The Africans are seen as 'good refugees' because they waited in camps in the mythical queue, whereas the Iraqis are 'bad refugees', because they took to a boat and 'jumped' the same mythical queue.

In the first episode we hear some of the volunteers reflecting on this distinction. Although they understand why the Iraqis fled, they see the Africans as more deserving of resettlement. This dichotomy is, in fact, also a divisive issue among some refugee advocates and supporters. It is explored more deeply in subsequent episodes as the volunteers visit Jordan and Africa and meet the families of the refugees they met in Australia.

Overall the series is very watchable, and SBS ought to be commended for presenting the refugee experience in such an innovative and engaging way. The show's prescience is proven further by the fact that the participants were taken to Malaysia before the 'Malaysian option' was ever posited by the Gillard Government.

Episode three screens tonight at 8.30pm.

Further reading: Back to basics on asylum seeker policy: The Rudd Government promised positive reforms after a decade of 'boat people'-bashing from the previous government. Three years later, we are back where we were. To understand how this happened it is helpful to overview the changes under Labor and the gradual decline in 'key immigration values'. Essay by Kerry Murphy

Kerry MurphyKerry Murphy is a partner with the specialist immigration law firm D'Ambra Murphy Lawyers. He is a student of Arabic, former Jesuit Refugee Service coordinator, teaches at ANU and was recognised by AFR best lawyers survey as one of Australia's top immigration lawyers. 

Topic tags: Kerry Murphy, Go Back Where You Came From, SBS, Documentary, Asylum Seekers, refugees, reality TV



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Existing comments

One wonders whether this commentary on the program adds anything to it?

Obviously, any TV show has to be edited, so we only ever see the editors view of what goes on, it hardly seems worth bothering to note that.

The show is rather good though, and the poor girl from Blacktown who admits be being a bigot, or was it just being a racist?, does indeed represent a multitude of 'Alan Jones' type listeners right across Australia.

Totally devoid of any imagination, she has to deny everything she sees because she simply has to framework to measure her experiences against.

The over riding thought I have, particularly when thinking of the 'girl who does nothing' and her imagination free world perspective, is that the education system of Australia is responsible for turning out dunderheads, some of whom go on to make important policies that affect us all, and most of whom who simply go on to breed ever duller children who the politicians would prefer to pander to than to ensure we have a real attempt to create a worthwile education system.

Finally, the 'girl who does nothing' insists she is a Roman Catholic. I don't doubt it, but what does that say about the teachings of the Church?

Oh yes, 'and some fell on stony ground'.

Janice Wallace | 23 June 2011  

As always, measured and focusses on the heart of the issue, the human story of a refugee.

steve sinn | 23 June 2011  

Yes,I agree with your assessment of this program. It is worthy of our attention, is fairly true to its aims despite bowing down to the weakness and potential crassness of the reality genre.
It suffers most perhaps because of the limited range of stereotypes it portrays in its protagonists. I'm pretty average, but I don't see myself of my peer group in this show, nor a number of other views.

Shane Giles | 23 June 2011  

Thanks Kerry for your insightful reflection. I also commend sbs, and believe the series - with its limitations - will open the door to more insightful dialogue, understanding and action, as well as an increasing willingness to share the stories of our refugee sisters and brothers.

vivien williams | 23 June 2011  

Thank you for this article. It helps me clarify some thoughts I have been having regarding the program, which think is very worthwhile, allowing viewers to reflect, especially on the decision to send people from here to Malaysia. I realise now that I have been concerned about the dichotomy between 'good' and 'bad' asylum seekers but yes, the issue is much more complex than that. I think we forget that the characteristics of asylum seekers is as complex and diverse as ours. We tend to stereotype them. I have been thinking, too, that we reward high achievers in Australia who want to advance their careers and wondering whether asylum seekers willing to risk their lives to travel by rickety boats in the hope of a better life are not also high achievers within their own situation? Just a thought.

Maureen Strazzari | 23 June 2011  

Janice, you're spot on in identifying the education system, such as it has become, as a real culprit here and the pandering of the major parties to just those sorts of people who you would least like to have a crucial say in policy formulation. These were the "type" (though I am generalising here more than I would want) who major political parties fell over themselves to listen to in the last election, so is it any wonder that we have the abysmal policy on refugees we now have? Of course, we have to be careful not to treat this as a problem of the individual.

Detestable though her "pontifications" are, it is so thoroughly sad that this young woman has been given so little opportunity and experience on which to draw that she has to come out with such cliches.

I applaud the one participant who seemed to know what she was in for. For that reason, she was very brave. I also applaud the woman who started off so naive but is at least open minded and has a capacity for change and learning. She is on a sharp learning curve. I hope yet that "the girl who does nothing" might later reflect on her experinece and draw something from it. She is a long way out of her comfort zone and desperately drawing on stereotypes and denial. We can only hope.

Meanwhile, shame on the institutions who have produced such a large number of "people who don't think and can't think" in a land of such opportunity for most of us.

WicketWatcher | 23 June 2011  

Have you ever thought of being a Migration Lawyer ?

Dimity | 23 June 2011  

What is also showed last night was Australia blatantly breaking the law with stopping refugees in Malaysia and having them jailed.

Yes folks, Gillard gloated last year that she knew we had stopped 5,000 innocent people from seeking asylum.

It's a good program but in light of tortured and kidnapped kids from Indonesia locked up in adult prisons with rapists it is time to expose the whole lie of people smuggling.

It is not people smuggling, it is a need for transport driven by the need to flee and we are the only country in the world to jail the ferry men.

Marilyn Shepherd | 23 June 2011  

This really was a little on the ordinary side.

Belinda | 23 June 2011  

Award winning stuff and thankfully, driving some change in public attitude!

As you say, the dilemma of "good" refugee versus "bad" boat refugee lingers on.The bare facts of our legal obligations towards asylum seekers who cross our borders and our voluntary/elective largesse and humanitarian generosity to the UNHCR camp dwellers whom Immigration selects from the vast pool of refugees still needs to be clarified. We don't have to resettle the Kakuma camp people. We do have to protect asylum seekers claiming protection, and process them.We have no real option but to resettle those who are fully adjudicated as refugees. Unlinking the on and off shore is urgent. They are two different programs.

frederika steen | 23 June 2011  

My heart was broke. Thanks SBS for this wonderful show. I want to show those who went to R.D CONGO the history of that country. 5.000.000 people killed but there is no justice. Below there is UN MAPING REPORT released 31-10-2010. My question is: Why UN doesn't step up and arrest those criminals? Do we really support Human Right? Who is behind this Genocide? Does this country know this tragedy? So…

If you have a time, watch or read this:

Then you can ask yourself what is going on!

Olivia | 23 June 2011  

With the hindsight of all three episodes, I do not see much 'reality television' in the "Go Back ..." program. I believe the program plug of 'social experiment' to be a more accurate descriptor.

The flooding and fire on the 'fishing boat' in the first episode was not so much a 'sinking boat stunt' as to give the participants a more realistic feeling of what many refugees experience.

And the 'poor girl from Blacktown' was not a product of our education system ... it was clearly stated she left school at fourteen. And while a 'product' of leaving school too early, she deserves credit for her comments in the final episode after her eyes were opened by the best period of education she had ever undertaken in her life.

And on 'good' and 'bad' refugees? David Corlett mentioned in the program that only a small percentage of the world's refugees go through what might be called official channels.

Good on SBS for yet another excellent program to remind us that refugees are people of whom a minority seek asylum in Australia, the far greater majority seeking asylum in poorer African and Middle Eastern nations.

Ian Fraser | 27 June 2011  

The first man who had fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody. ”

— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754

Marina Byron | 27 June 2011  

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