Go Back To Where You Came From Season 1 Essay

Go Back to Where You Came From: Post Mortem

Posted: July 8, 2011| Author:Pauline Vetuna|Filed under:Australia, Refugees, Television | Tags:Asylum Seekers, empathy, Go Back to Where You Came From, Refugees, SBS|

Sorry for the delay in posting this, have been preoccupied with other projects and writing assignments for the last two weeks. 

SBS screened the follow up Special Live Event to the 3-episode Go Back to Where You Came From mini-series on Tuesday 28/6.  The participants were assembled in front of a live audience of family members, the resettled refugees who appeared in the program, other cast and crew, and selected viewers. Each was asked to give their thoughts on the series itself and how their participation in it had affected them.


This is basically the journey of each participant inGo Back to Where You Came From:

Raye (lives opposite Inverbrackie detention centre, South Australia).

Raye started her journey with bitter hatred towards asylum seekers: “They get given everything; all they do is complain; we’re rolling out the red carpet with a glass of champagne at the end of it.”

By the end, she had bonded so deeply with the family of African refugees who had taken her in at the beginning of the series that one of their sons stayed as a guest in her home. Her entire journey, in fact, was punctuated with tears of sympathy, empathy and compassion for refugees.

Raye’s husband encouraged her to participate in the series, after becoming concerned about Raye’s level of anger and it’s effects on her health. A recent retiree, she had spent 22 years working with intellectually disabled children – work she believed in: “People don’t understand people with a disability. They fear them. Bringing them into a community and trying to get the community to accept them is rewarding”.  Part of her bitter resentment of asylum seekers was her perception that the plight of these people was being neglected, whilst the refugees were being cared for.

She now extends her compassion to refugees, and feels strongly that we should be helping refugees still languishing in other countries and camps. The inherent unfairness of the life most refugees face disturbed her enormously.

Racquel (Anglo Westie from Western Sydney).

At first glance, a living stereotype: 21 year-old Racquel is a high school drop out, uneducated, unemployed, breeding dogs in the backyard.  Living in a “working class” suburb (many newly arrived migrants are settled in former “working class” suburbs) and concerned at all the foreigners populating Western Sydney.

Racquel was aware she was kind of racist, expressed support for Pauline Hanson, and admitted to not liking Africans. In Malaysia, she was alarmed when she saw women with “tea-towels” on their heads.

Her journey was thus the most remarkable: despite dragging her feet most of the way, by the end of the series, she had learned to see the humanity in Africans, and in refugees. In the special live event, she distanced herself from the xenophobic statements she had made, regarding them with embarrassment. Her boyfriend, who encouraged her to go on the program, was pleased that she now appreciates how lucky she is, and has overcome some of her phobias about people and travelling. And a Muslim woman in the audience extended a hand of friendship to Racquel personally, so she could get to know “a woman in a tea-towel”.

Occasionally, reality TV gets it right.

Gleny (happy leftie, part-time teacher and singer).

Gleny’s “character arc” was expected to be the smallest, given she went into it with the view that Australia should be accepting more asylum seekers, and was even willing to take some people into her own home. Her experiences did affect her deeply, though, and deepened her appreciation of what she has here in Australia. Notably, Gleny also felt disgusted at the vitriol that was spewed about Racquel by supposedly enlightened “progressives”.

Adam (lifeguard from Sutherland Shire and participant in Cronulla protests/Riots).

Prior to this, Adam, 26, had lived in Cronulla his whole life and travelled through Asia and Europe, working in Greece as a lifeguard last winter. He was a zero tolerance kind of bloke: “Instead of harboring them, we should just put them straight on a plane and send them back. Don’t worry about giving them a feed or shower.”

By the end of the series, his views had changed significantly – he openly admitted that he would “get on a boat” without much hesitation if it offered him a glimmer of hope for a better life. His trip to a detention centre in episode 1 offered him the first real insight into the psychology of being the Other, the asylum seeker – he got to see up close the psychological desperation that sometimes follows indefinite detention.

Interesting to note, too, that his own brother, a firefighter, was on call the night of the Villawood Detention Centre fire in April this year, and that Adam had predicted the tumult beforehand, after his experience.

Darren (Adelaide man with military background, member of the Liberal Party, practicing Christian).

42 year-old Darren’s surname, Hassan, can be attributed to the fact that his ancestors were in the first group of Muslim families to arrive in Australia in the late 1800s. He is married to and raising a family with a Taiwanese woman, with whom he is also running an import/export business. Darren also believes multiculturalism is generally not working.

At the beginning of his journey, Darren was staunchly against “boat people”, arguing that they are not refugees, but economic migrants.

He is still against “boat people”, but has more compassion now for “genuine” refugees stuck in countries like Malaysia – like those he met during the series. Darren believed that getting on a boat was an incredibly irresponsible thing to do, and that in order to get on that boat, the “boat people” would first have to travel through other countries – any of which they might be “safe” in. He still holds this view.

Roderick (Vice President of the Australian Young Liberals and a former president of the Young Liberal Nationals in Queensland).

Roderick, 29, had never been overseas before this series. His biggest fear was being perceived as a giant lefty, which I guess is why he wore those “Keep Right” and creepy Tony Abbott fanboy t-shirts. His concern about asylum seekers arriving by boat and the ensuing debate was that the focus should be on the issues that drive them here in the first place.

His views had not significantly altered by the end of the series, although he did insist the experiences of the journey had affected him. I got the sense that as he sat in front of that live audience, he was still concerned about being perceived as a giant lefty, whilst simultaneously being concerned about being perceived as an insensitive right wing asshole. Probably why he wore the “Keep Right” t-shirt with the pants that were given to him as a gift in Africa.

I don’t think he is a lefty or an asshole. Just a centre-right financial planner.


Over the 3-night screening of the series, and afterwards, I did read/hear many viewers in forums and my own conversations express the opinion that “the people” who really needed to watch this series would not be watching it. Raquel’s transformation, however, indicates to me that we need to expand our understanding of who “the people” are. So many people rushed to judge Raquel from the get-go, understandably – she expressed vile, offensive opinions. But I always kind of viewed her as a product of her environment (given her level of education, her 21 years, her narrow life experience, her upbringing) rather than a hardcore, incurable racist ideologue, and was thus not surprised at her turnaround once given exposure to other places, other people, other eye-opening experiences.

If given an education, more life experience and human interaction with those they would otherwise have no contact with, some people who would otherwise wallow in the mental swamp of ignorance, smug judgement and fear could conceivably transcend their beginnings.

An enlightened society would try to facilitate this transcendence…. for ALL its members.

And if you’ve had the good fortune to have been born into a fairly comfortable family with enlightened parents who could afford to give you a broad education, be thankful (for your accident of birth), but also, ask yourself: if you had been born into Raquel’s situation, had the same family, level of life experience, education, socialisation… would you really be drastically different to her? I doubt it. People can change, but they need to be supported and educated to be better. Inside and outside the classroom.

With that in mind, it’s worth remembering who else changed their attitudes towards asylum seekers during this journey: Adam, who was at least self-aware enough to admit to being “sheltered” in the first episode, and Raye, who in the final episode admitted that she had previously had “tunnel vision”.


Participant Darren complained at one point during the series that he did not appreciate being forced to feel empathy for boat people. I found it odd that he said this, given the premise of the entire program was to retrace the steps of a former boat person or refugee all the way back to their country of origin. To walk in their shoes…. i.e. to EMPATHISE.

Something that Paul Sheehan objected to strongly in this article  (friend shared this on FB with preamble too rude to reprint here). But Sheehan should note that Darren, having apparently been forced to empathise through participation in a television program he willingly signed up for, still holds the view that boat people are not legitimate refugees (despite the fact that the majority are found to be legitimate refugees).

How could this be? How could someone take an empathic journey and not be brainwashed, as Sheehan might say, with a bleeding heart progressive “let them all in” mindset?

Because what all the moronic knee-jerk empathy haters fail to understand is that there is a difference between empathy and sympathy (although the two are not mutually exclusive).

Empathy doesn’t necessarily mean you eschew your own thinking or analysis. Empathy is about seeing the humanity in others. It’s about seeing yourself in others – including in others who, on the surface, are not like you. Empathy is about understanding where other people are coming from. It doesn’t necessarily mean you condone what they do or agree with the decisions they make. It means you understand the reasons behind those decisions, and, hopefully, it means that you stop branding those people with unnecessary and de-humanising labels.

A reasonable person, having seen the kind of things a refugee has to go through in order to find a life in another country, would probably think twice before assigning a group of people they really know nothing about a crude, derogatory name. And they might think twice before making a statement like this:

“Instead of harboring them, we should just put them straight on a plane and send them back. Don’t worry about giving them a feed or shower.”


The level of debate about asylum seekers and “boat people” would be greatly improved upon the exclusion of this kind of rhetoric. Empathy and sound policy analysis… and an appreciation for the fact that the refugee and asylum seeker issue is immensely complicated, affecting real, desperate people, is what’s needed in this debate.

And that is essentially what host Dr David Corlett said in his final words to the participants in episode 3 – that this issue is extremely complicated and multifaceted. Each of the participants, some of whom had very black & white views prior to the journey, have a greater appreciation for this fact now.

Hopefully the audience does too.

More on Australia’s Humanitarian program, Mandatory Detention and the Malaysian Solution soon.  

Like this:



Go Back to Where You Came From is a groundbreaking series which clearly demonstrates the power of experiential television. Although the program contains a level of artifice and situational storytelling common to reality TV, this program is a sophisticated example of the power of this genre to take both participants and audiences on an emotional as well as intellectual journey. Through the eyes and experiences of everyday Australians, the audience is able to gain insight into a highly politicised contemporary debate. The program aired only a month after Julia Gillard’s federal government announced its proposed ‘Malaysian solution’ for the management of asylum seekers.

Scheduling the program over three consecutive nights has the potential to intensify an immersive audience experience but is also risky in terms of nurturing ongoing viewer commitment. This programming gamble clearly paid off when Go Back To Where You Came From became the highest-rating program for SBS in 2011. The producers encouraged online and mobile participation and, on its premiere night, the program became the number one trending topic on Twitter worldwide.

A skillful mix of the political, personal and experiential, Go Back To Where You Came From intercuts direct experience with expert opinion. Documentary footage, often confronting, along with a voice-over by actor Colin Friels, provides easily digestible grabs of political and geographical background. The host is academic and refugee expert Dr David Corlett, who interacts with the participants who have been carefully cast to reflect a diverse mix of views on asylum seekers and refugees in Australian society. Original music (by John Gray) adds another emotional layer to the unfolding human drama.

Interviewed in The Australian newspaper in 2011, SBS commissioning editor Peter Newman said the program was designed to show the full complexity of the issues: ’We’re not taking sides. The show itself is editorially neutral. What we wanted to achieve was … emotional engagement.’

A device common to the reality genre is the use of tightly constructed backstory packages to neatly summarise the views of the participants and document their transition through their experience. Here, each participant is introduced succinctly in the first episode, both in terms of background and their perspective on the refugee issue. The strong words of the individuals are constantly revisited in view of what each person discovers about the world and about themselves through their experiences on the show. In the studio follow-up program, The Response, each participant responds to a highlights package which selects the most extreme moments from their journey.

‘Reality TV’ is an ambiguous term, generally identified by the use of documentary-style footage of ordinary people for entertainment. Most examples of the genre share an emphasis on factual unscripted content, feature ‘real people’ as opposed to professional actors, involve the creation of situations or environments controlled by the producers, and the editing of ‘live’ footage to enhance or create storylines. In Go Back To Where You Came From an on-camera aside from one of the participants having found out that the leaky boat they had been rescued from was in fact a seaworthy yacht adapted for training purposes, highlights their awareness of the manipulative social experiment in which they are taking part. The producers’ conscious decision to include these moments adds another intellectual layer to the series and treatment of both participants and audience.

Go Back to Where You Came From was broadcast on SBS over three consecutive nights from 21-23 June 2011. The televised forum The Response went to air on 29 June 2011. A second series, featuring celebrities and public figures, was produced in 2012. The format has been sold to production companies in territories including the US, Netherlands, Sweden and South Africa, with the first international version (Send Dem Hjem, or Send Them Home) airing in Denmark in early 2013.

Go Back to Where You Came From has won many Australian and international awards including: Rose D’Or for Best Factual Entertainment, Logie Awards for Most Outstanding Factual Program, AACTA Award for Best Documentary Series, Banff World Media Festival Award for Best Social and Humanitarian Documentary and an International Emmy Award for Best Non-Scripted Entertainment.

One thought on “Go Back To Where You Came From Season 1 Essay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *