REFUGEE WEEK | SBS’ Go Back To Where You Came From Episode 1Posted: June 22, 2011
“I believed people who arrived on Australian shores and were living in the centre were being given things that disadvantaged Australians deserved more. I hated them with such intensity – it was eating into me like a disease.”
Raye Colbey, participant on SBS program Go Back To Where You Came From, in this article.
After getting email reminders to watch this for about 2 months, I made sure I didn’t miss the first episode of the 3-part television series Go Back To Where You Came From, which screened last night on SBS1. The show takes six white Australians of different backgrounds and ages and sends them on the journey of a refugee… backwards. Most of the participants (with the exception of one out and proud pro-refugee, pro-love muso) began the journey being against “boat people” – people who arrive in Australia without visas by boat seeking asylum. Their reasons for being against them seem to vary – I’m sure those reasons will be clarified in the next two episodes. A couple of participants, it would seem, are against refugees and migrants in general. One participant is a self-confessed racist who doesn’t like Africans (she’s the female equivalent of my childhood bully…ah, memories) and another, quoted above, is very honest about her hatred for asylum seekers, and her feeling that they are “taking” something from Australians who deserve it more.
For the first leg of the journey, the participants were split into two groups. One group began their journey with three former Iraqi “boat people” in a small flat in Western Sydney. Naturally, this group included two middle-class men passionately against “boat people”, who shared the view that people who enter the country in this manner are not fit to be here (there is an illuminating visit to a detention centre where the participants see first hand the detrimental mental health effects of detention…I’ll expand on that in an upcoming post). The other group (which included the racist) spent a few days living with a family of refugees from Burundi and the Congo, who have now settled in one crowded, lively household in Albury.
A brief introduction to each participant was given in the first half of the program. Although I am interested in all the participants, particularly in seeing how their prejudices or perceptions are challenged, shot down or reinforced, there was something about Raye’s introduction that really struck me. Raye, who works in the intellectual disability sector, describes how “idyllic”, tranquil and scenic her home was in the Adelaide Hill’s, before the Inverbrackie immigration detention centre and its detainees became her neighbours. She describes her furious hatred towards them – a hatred provoked, she says, by her perception that those in detention were living it up in government-funded brand new accommodation – with flat screen TVs, she notes – while dinkum Aussie battlers do without. She’s not alone in her views, of course. Which is why I think it’s important to really examine where these sentiments are originating from, call them out, and the falsehoods that feed them. Sure, the program is doing this in an anecdotal way, but in what is often a very de-humanising debate, a little interpersonal learning is needed, IMHO.
Later In the program, after taking a relatively short voyage on what appeared to be vessel similar to that asylum seekers have arrived on in the past, one participant expressed resentment about having “boat people” stories put “in my face” and being “forced”, apparently, to feel empathy for asylum seekers arriving by boat (he was referring to news reports of this issue in the media). Granted, the man was cranky after a few sleepless nights on what all the participants thought was an unseaworthy vessel. Nonetheless, I find his comments, combined with Raye’s, very telling. That sentiment of “these people are disrupting our lives” seems to be a softer version of the racist woman’s rather blunt assertions about Africans “taking over”: “You go to Blacktown now and it really is black town… I’m probably the only white person here.”
It seems like people who hold this sentiment don’t want to know about refugees, don’t want to think about refugees, don’t want this “problem” to exist in their world or to see or hear about these people in their lives. They just want them to go away… with their complications, and real world problems, and differences. They want the country to be a comfortable gated community reserved and protected for people like themselves.
So to then watch some people who likely hold similar sentiments, either consciously or unconsciously, be confronted with truths they’d probably rather not know about is…compelling television. You genuinely don’t know what is going to happen – these are real people, prejudices run deep, and the issues that are being confronted are so emotive for all involved. There’s no guarantee anyone will change their mind or get along. I’m at least thankful to the participants for being bold enough to put themselves out there and be honest about their views, and opening themselves up to the possibility of having their opinions exposed as just plain ignorant.
Which, I suspect, we will see more of in episode 2 – screening tonight at 8.30pm EST on SBS1. More about episode 2 (and Australia’s Humanitarian Program) soon.