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Refugees: wanted?

Commencing Tuesday 21 June, over three consecutive nights, SBS-ONE will premier a world first event: Go Back To Where You Came From. It’s an unscripted, unstaged, doco-drama-reality program that follows the journey of six Australians from different backgrounds. Their journey will be the reverse of the journey taken by many refugees who come to Australia every year. Together these six will experience the trials many refugees face during the search for asylum.

At the start of the journey, one of the six is openly racist and five are hostile towards refugees. One of the participants says, “People who come here without any documentation by boat should be immediately expatriated.” But will this journey change preconceived notions?

The participants begin the journey in Sydney, where they are disposed of their passports, phones and wallets, before being split into two groups sent to spend a week with refugees who now live in Australia.

Half spend a week with the Masudis, a Congolese family  resettled in Australia in 2009, whilst the rest accompany several Iraqi refugees who arrived via boat.

We hear the experiences these refugees went through before arriving in Australia and see what impact their stories have on the six participants.

Following their week long split up, the two groups are reunited in Darwin before boarding a fishing boat for the dangerous journey to Malaysia. It doesn’t take long for the rickety vessel to run into trouble, taking on water and eventually having to be rescued by the coast guard. Thankfully, nobody is hurt and the journey was in fact a controlled exercise using a navy training vessel.

In Malaysia, the six participants experience the anxieties refugees face before boarding a boat to Australia, sharing a flat with 52 Burmese refugees and keeping their bags packed at all times in case immigration control conduct a raid. They then join and observe a dramatic midnight raid by the Malaysian immigration authorities on a suspected refugee hideout. By this point many of the group can see why so many people are willing to risk the dangerous journey to make it to a less hostile climate.

Split up once again into two groups, half are taken to a refugee camp in Kenya whilst the rest experience the existence of urban refugees in Jordan, a city already burdened with nearly two million Palestinian refugees. In an unexpected twist, the six Australians are able to travel back even further. Half journey into the Congo with UN peacekeepers, whilst the rest make it into Iraq, completing in reverse, the same journeys experiences by the refugees they stayed with in Australia during the first episode of the series.

Finally, after a long 25 day expedition across the world, the journey concludes with a debriefing in Dubai. Although many have changed their opinions about how refugees in Australia should be treated, others still hold onto the beliefs they began with.

This certainly isn’t the first documentary about the refugee experience, but there are two aspects which give it a fascinating twist. The first is the tone. There is no doubt SBS are trying to create a documentary that gets people talking, the title alone gives this away. It’s a continuation of the approach that saw Immigration Nation on our screens earlier this year, a documentary that dispensed with neutrality and wore its agenda on its sleeve. More importantly, it will place Australians and their opinions on asylum at the centre of the narrative, holding a mirror up to the nation’s views on asylum seekers and migration.

In a recent interview for the June edition of Monthly magazine, the newly appointed Chief Executive Officer & Managing Director of SBS, Michael Ebeid, said he hoped Go Back to Where You Came From would be a “catalyst for discussion about what matters in a diverse society today”. An ambitious aim certainly. Whether it can live up to the noble aim is yet to be seen.

The program is hosted by Dr David Corlett. He has worked with refugees and asylum seekers as a case worker, researcher and advisor since 1998.

Go Back To Where You Came From will be broadcast during Refugee Week on SBS ONE at 8:30pm on 21, 22 and 23 June. It’s worth watching.

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