In June 2011, Australia’s public multicultural broadcaster - SBS - showed a three-part reality show. What’s surprising about that, you might ask? Australian audiences routinely lap up reality TV—home renovations, talent contests, cooking competitions, extreme weight loss—the ratings and advertising dollars are almost guaranteed to roll in. Formats change from year to year, but the concept’s popularity remains. Reality TV has been much analysed over the past decade, and while the debate is often framed in terms of ‘love it or hate it’, I suspect that for most people interest lies somewhere in between. Either way, the ‘reality’ of reality TV is not straightforward.
Of Australia’s five free-to-air broadcasters, SBS traditionally rates the lowest. Its standard fare of subtitled foreign news, art-house movies, soccer and other non-mainstream sport tends not to attract more than a niche audience. Occasionally SBS breaks through and introduces a program that catches on with the mainstream, such as Southpark and Top Gear, but these successes are few and far between.
This year SBS once again came up with the goods, producing a controversial reality show called Go Back to Where You Came From. The six participants, all of whom had strong and primarily unsympathetic views on Australia’s refugee situation, were sent on a refugee journey in reverse.
Starting in Australia with visits to resettled refugees from Iraq, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the participants took a boat trip to Malaysia where they stayed with Chin refugees from Burma while joining in with Malaysian authorities to hunt down and catch illegal immigrants. From Malaysia the group was split in two: one bunch was sent to Jordan and one was taken to a refugee camp in Kenya. The final destinations were Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo – conflict zones where many refugees start their journeys.
Each of the participants found the gruelling journey to be more challenging than expected, if not changing his or her perceptions of the refugee issue, then at least gaining a better understanding of it. Given the trying and confrontational circumstances in which the producers placed participants, an emotional response was to be expected. Sometimes the danger faced was simulated (the boat began to ‘sink’ on the way to Malaysia), sometimes it was real (on patrol with US troops in Iraq) and sometimes it was too difficult to tell. This is reality TV, after all. Regardless of the authenticity of the risk to participants, simulating the refugee journey made for stimulating television viewing.
Go Back to Where You Came From attracted a range of opinions in Australian media, both favourable and otherwise, with much fiercer commentary on blogs and Youtube clips. Given the political volatility generated by successive Australian governments’ refugee policies and the mixed levels of general understanding of the complexity that cloaks the issue, such a vocal public response is not unexpected. Much of the discussion is underpinned by a perceived class distinction: unsophisticated and under-educated suburban ‘bogans’ against effete and out-of-touch inner-city elites in the ‘latte belt’. In this case, racist bogan ‘refugees’ appeared to have been set up for the mirth of the educated classes watching from the comfort of home. Looking a bit deeper, we can see how Go Back to Where You Came From managed to transcend this tired social dichotomy.
The SBS producers very cleverly employed the tropes of reality TV: contrived scenarios; emotional manipulation of participants; dramatic music and editing to stimulate viewers’ senses. It is very easy to question just how ‘real’ this reality program was – the likelihood of Australians escaping by boat to some of the most grim and dangerous places on earth, like those in the show, is so slim as to be ludicrous. But this reverse journey successfully managed to convey the dire circumstances that so many refugees are fleeing from, and the abject desperation and perilous unpredictability of their journey into the unknown.
Go Back to Where You Came From’s unexpected popularity was large enough to suggest that it had an audience more reflective of ‘mainstream Australia’ than might normally be the case for other SBS shows. Rather than gripping the edge of their seats as competitors struggled to cook the perfect duck l’orange in a Masterchef pressure test or mocking the perspiring and jiggling contestants of The Biggest Loser, viewers were given a glimpse of the multi-dimensional and tangled reality that is the global refugee situation.
Regardless of the average Australian viewer’s ideological persuasion, they would probably have witnessed at least one aspect of the debate for the first time. From Chin refugees eking out a living in the Malaysian underground economy, to disfigured victims of the Iraq war dancing in a Jordanian rehabilitation facility and the heaving refugee camps of central Africa, the messy reality of the world’s refugees was put right in front of the viewer.
Australia, like everywhere else on the planet, has to deal with refugees. This is a ‘reality’. A reality for the government, for Australians, and most certainly for the refugees scrambling for a better life. Despite popular misconception, Australia is not at risk of being ‘swamped’ by bedraggled boat people on our northern shores. The number of boat people arriving in Australia fluctuates from year to year and was 4,940 in 2010-2011, higher than the yearly average as calculated since 1989. Under Australia’s Humanitarian Program for asylum seekers, approximately 13,000 asylum seekers are granted visas each year. Australia has a population of 22 million people, a bit less than that of Taiwan.
Australia’s social fabric is not threatened by foreign arrivals. This is a country of migrants and our national culture/identity/neurosis (if such things actually exist) is forever mutating. Trying to pin down ‘Australian-ness’ to a static point in time is an exercise doomed to failure. Pitching downtrodden refugees as a threat to that even more so.
Boat people are sometimes stigmatised in Australia as ‘queue jumpers’, cutting ahead of legitimate asylum seekers who have applied through the appropriate channels and are patiently waiting in a refugee camp somewhere for their official invitation. No doubt some boat people are rorting the system and fork out cash for a quicker, though extremely risky, passage to freedom. But most are fuelled by pure desperation. These are the issues that the producers of Go Back to Where You Came From were able to highlight.
Australia’s migrant intake, especially of refugees and boat people, will remain an ongoing and contentious issue in the national imagination. Tragedies such as the December 2010 boat tragedy on Christmas Island (where at least 30 boat people died attempting to reach Australian shores) polarise opinion. Recent government attempts to discourage boat people by processing them on cash-strapped Pacific islands have had varying degrees of ‘success’ in deterring boat people and discouraging the much reviled ‘people smugglers’ who charge huge sums to ferry human cargo in rickety old fishing trawlers. The current government’s ‘Malaysian solution’, where Australia has entered into an asylum-seeker trading deal with Malaysia, is dogged by opposition from both sides of the political divide. Inconveniently for the two governments, the dubious conditions faced by asylum seekers in Malaysia were plainly illuminated in Go Back to Where You Came From.
The failure to develop a sustainable solution to the refugee problem not just in Australia, but anywhere in the world, shows just how complicated the situation is. One thing remains sure, at least in Australia, the discussion needed a kick in the pants. Hopefully this is what SBS gave us.
When set against the backdrop of Australia’s ever-droning refugee debate, fuelled by conservative and paranoid commentators and mismanaged by a muddle-headed government, the stark images and conflicted emotions shown in Go Back to Where You Came From can play a useful role. Undoubtedly this glimpse of refugee anguish is a contrived scenario, all ‘reality TV’ is. But the producers managed to create a product that jolted some Australians out of seemingly entrenched stances on refugees. For the rest of the world, this is a reality that is worth taking the time to track down and watch.
I’m not sure if Go Back to Where You Came From will be screened internationally, but you can watch parts of it on Youtube and it will be released on DVD in August 2011.