August 2012

Prominent Australians feature in “Go Back” series 2

As one way of gaining an understanding of the complexities facing many asylum seekers, why not watch series two of SBS ONE’s Go Back To Where You Came From, suggests Moira Byrne Garton.

BY Moira Byrne Garton

Following the success of last year, SBS ONE is screening another series of Go Back To Where You Came From, the award-winning reality television show tackling the meaty and meaningful policy issue of immigration.

Last year’s show presented six ordinary Australians holding strong views on refugees and asylum seekers, with the prospect of undertaking refugee journeys in reverse. Without documentation or the means to communicate, these people visited detention centres, boarded a leaky boat across sea, experienced refugee camps and even war zones in what were transformational experiences for most participants.

In this year’s programs, the ‘ordinary Australians’ are replaced by more familiar faces: a kind of ‘Celebrity’ or ‘All Stars’ Go Back. It will be fascinating to see whether any of the participants softened their views on refugees and asylum seekers, as did some of the regular citizens in the first series.

Former Howard Government Defence Minister Peter Reith’s indications on ABC’s The Drum do not bode well for a change of mind on his part. Peter Reith gained notoriety on refugee issues when he alleged that asylum seekers on a sinking vessel were throwing their children into the water (‘children overboard’), a claim later refuted in the Senate inquiry into A Certain Maritime Incident.

To be fair to Peter Reith, he like many other Australians is probably not completely aware of the at times quite harrowing backgrounds of many people arriving by boat. From a first world perspective, it is easy to assume that asylum seekers are able to access many of the facilities available to us: consular assistance, information, resources. The facts are very different.

It is difficult for many asylum seekers to know where to go to join the so-called ‘queue’ in a refugee camp. Some countries from which refugees flee do not enjoy diplomatic relations with other countries, nor information on avenues for assistance. Many refugees are unaware of processes and do not own technology let alone the internet to obtain information. And of course, many do not possess the necessary funds for airline travel and visas. Understandably, they seek to travel to another country to claim asylum.

While some may try to understand what it may be like for asylum seekers, there are still many in Australia who take a hardline approach to refugees and asylum seekers. The participants reflect such views.

Angry Anderson, former lead singer of Australian rock band Rose Tattoo, said, “I don’t accept the boat people at all. Send them home”. Former broadcaster, Michael Smith, stated that “[W]e treat people who lob by boat here far too well”. This remains to be seen; however it’s notable that in this season, there is a greater portion of participants with more compassionate views. Actress Imogen Bailey, writer and comedian Catherine Deveny and former Commonwealth Ombudsman, Allan Asher, all express sympathy for the plight of asylum seekers.

This year, Go Back participants will go to the countries of Somalia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Jakarta. Following experiences of refugee camps, people smugglers and storms at sea, they will ultimately visit Christmas Island, including within the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre.

Christmas Island was the scene of a devastating shipwreck shortly before Christmas 2010 in which 50 people lost their lives. It is also near to where a vessel holding another group of asylum seekers capsized in June this year in which at least 17 and up to 90 asylum seekers drowned. These deaths and other deaths from boat mishaps in recent years add to the tragic dimensions of asylum seekers and afford an increased gravity to the difficult issue of continuing boat arrivals.

Each year, Australian Churches observe Refugee and Migrant Sunday on the last Sunday of August. This year, this coincides with the eleventh anniversary of the Tampa incident on August 26. It is an occasion to reflect on the lives, difficulties, achievements and gifts of refugees who have become part of our community. It is also a time to consider asylum seekers who are unable to reach a place where they can claim refugee status. And it is a time to remember those who died making their way to Australia by boat.

As one way of gaining an understanding of the complexities facing many asylum seekers, this year might we also take the opportunity to watch the Go Back series?

Series two of Go Back to Where You Came From will air on August 28, 29 and 30 on SBS ONE at 8:30pm. The series will be followed by an Insight special on Friday August 31.

Moira Byrne Garton

Dr Moira Byrne Garton is a mother, caregiver, public servant and writer.

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