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Go Back returns for second series

For three consecutive nights commencing Tuesday 28th August at 8.30pm, SBS-ONE will be looking to repeat success with the return of the Go Back To Where You Came From series, a show that in series one sent ordinary Australians on the reverse journey taken by many refugees on their way to Australia. In series two viewers will see Australians make their way through some of the most dangerous places on earth to find refuge and safety on their homeland, mirroring the hardships faced by displaced people across the world. They will travel and experience the anarchic cities of Mogadishu, Somalia and Kabul, Afghanistan, as well as the worlds largest refugee camp in the deserts of Ethiopia. They will then make the familiar journey with people smugglers in Jakarta to the Christmas Island detention centre, where viewers will have extensive access to Australia’s most famous detention centre.

The first series was a critical triumph for SBS both at home and abroad, receiving the Golden Rose for the best program of 2012, the Best Factual Entertainment program at the Rose d’Or Awards in Switzerland, the TV Week Logie Award for Most Outstanding Factual Program and two prizes at the 2011 United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Awards for best television documentary and for its promotion of multicultural issues.

Unsurprisingly, given this critical reception, SBS seem to be happy to leave much of the format from the first series unchanged, but there will be two notable exceptions. Firstly, instead of the journey taking place in reverse, the participants will start at the country of origin and make their way to Australia, offering a more realistic portrayal of a refugee’s journey. Also, rather than ordinary Australians, there will also be some familiar faces taking the trip.

In this series, voluntary refugees include musician Angry Anderson, former shock jock Michael Smith, comedian Catherine Deveny, model and actress Imogen Bailey and former Commonwealth Ombudsman Allan Asher. Perhaps the most interesting participant to watch will be Peter Reith, the former Howard government Liberal party Minister, who was a prominent figure in the infamous children overboard affair of 2001. Whereas the first series commenced with the participants predominantly and vocally opposed to refugees arriving by boat, this time SBS have tried to balance the opinions of the participants, with attitudes about boat people dividing evenly.

Before being sent on their journey, the contestants are split up into two groups. Anderson, Reith and Deveny are sent to spend time with Hamid Sultani, an ethnic Hazara who escaped Afghanistan in 1999, aged 15, now living in Dandenong, Melbourne. Smith, Bailey and Asher meanwhile pay a visit to Abdi Aden, a Somali refugee who fled Mogadishu when he was 13 years old. Both men tell remarkable, heartbreaking stories of the circumstances that led them to flee their native lands. As the participants are going to be sent to Afghanistan and Somalia, this encounter allows viewers to put a human face and story to the places they will see, giving the show a stronger emotional impact. Perhaps this is the series greatest strength; the ability to humanise a debate that’s become so polarised.

It doesn’t take long for flashpoints to emerge amongst the participants. Deveny takes every available opportunity to spit poison at Peter Reith, whilst Abdi almost throws Michael Smith out of his house for taking a tone he believed to be disrespectful and racist. Even though they have entirely different views on the asylum issue, both Deveny and Smith come across, at times, as brash and arrogant for their preference to shout and pontificate rather than engage in calm debate. What is striking is how often those who oppose boat people fall back on stock phrases and clichés instead of engaging with the argument (describing refugees as illegals, queue jumpers, gaming the system), though even Deveny, who advocates for asylum seekers, constantly accuses Reith of ‘having blood on his hands’ and ‘towing the company line’, which is just as aggravating and unhelpful. These differences, although sincere and genuine on the part of the participants, is the type of format that commercial television thrives on. Conflict on TV is a sure means to increase audience ratings.

Predictably, SBS will insert commercial breaks in the program but the overall scripting and construction of the program does not appear to accommodate the breaks that were forced into the series during the final stage of editing for transmission. The preview episodes sent to SaveOurSBS.org reveal that the cut into-and-out of the short black sections with countdown leader where commercials will be inserted at time of airing, does not suggest a scripted or natural position for a break. Not at all. These forced pre-selected ‘gaps’ appear to be an edited after thought – not desired by the program maker but only there to satisfy SBS’s mandatory requirement for an artificial number of breaks to appease their advertisers ahead of audience. However let’s ignore the disruption to program flow and just pretend these forced breaks are natural ones, because SBS will, as the law only permits breaks in program if they are "natural".

Leaving Australia behind, the participants board the planes to Kabul, Afghanistan and Mogadishu, Somalia, quite possibly the two most dangerous places on earth. Kabul will be familiar to many viewers from the US led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Australia’s involvement in the conflict and subsequent reconstruction efforts. Somalia has experienced ongoing conflict since the collapse of its central government in 1991. Famine and warfare between rival warlords is estimated to have claimed over one million lives. Both countries have problems with large swaths of displaced people, living in refugee camps, urban slums and foreign countries. The SBS has provided an excellent website full of detailed resources for anyone wanting to research further.

The sense of threat and danger is palpable as the participants are shepherded around the cities by heavily armed security teams. Mogadishu is a burnt out shell of the city it used to be, with almost every building damaged or full of gunfire holes. A visit to a Somali slum, bursting with tents, families and lacking the most basic facilities illustrates the scale of the disaster that has befallen Somalia. Despite the devastating images of war-torn cities, the human stories are still the most striking aspect of the series.

One of the most salient encounters is with an ethnic Hazara called Reza who was sent back to Afghanistan, after trying to seek asylum in Australia in 1999. When his boat to Australia got into trouble, they were rescued by a Norwegian freighter, The Tampa. Peter Reith was Australia’s Defence Minister during this incident and ordered Australian Special Forces to board the ship. Reza was then sent to the detention centre in Nauru, a facility Peter Reith was instrumental in setting up. Reza claims he lacked access to adequate facilities and legal aid, even being threatened with further moves between camps unless he agreed to leave Nauru for home. 14 months later, his asylum was rejected and he returned to Afghanistan. When Deveny asks what happened to the 312 people who returned home, Reza lists the names of people who were killed upon their return. This moment, more than any debate, more than any arguments between the participants, or information offered by the show makers, bring home the devastating danger consequences that refugees face in their search for asylum.

Despite the many terrible sights and stories, there are moments in the show that are uplifting. The participants in Mogadishu manage to find the house that Abdi grew up in before he was forced to flee Somalia, encountering some of his relatives who remember him almost two decades later. During a visit to a makeshift refugee camp, Michael Smith grows close to a young Somali orphan and even talks about the possibility of trying to find a way to adopt him and bring him to Australia.

Throughout the series we see the participants evolve their attitudes towards asylum seekers and those who were stridently opposed begin to reign in their anger. Rather than being a source of hope, this may be the most worrying aspect of the program. It is only through witnessing the carnage and tragedy first hand that has softened the attitudes of participants. This is a situation only open to a handful of people in Australia. Witnessing the level of debate and language used by participants prior to the journey beginning, it’s a wonder how such a charged issue will ever be solved, as two polarised camps that spit poison at each other stay firmly entrenched. Shows such as Go Back To Where You Came From do much to try and offer Australians a better understanding of the refugee experience, but whether it will have an impact on the tone of the debate remains to be seen.

Overall, producers Cordell Jigsaw has delivered another excellent series to SBS. The inclusion of famous participants, particularly Peter Reith and Michael Smith, improved on the first series and didn’t come across as a gimmick. The producers also employed music, camera work and narration very effectively to give the show a fast pace, keeping the show from falling into a dry, documentary style but without being overbearing. Most importantly, the series gives viewers a remarkable insight into the refugee experience that few shows can rival.

There will be chances for the public to participate during the show with a special Twitter feed set up for viewers to leave comments. Immediately following each episode, Insight’s Jenny Brockie will host a fifteen minute Q&A with a prominent guest, streamed live to the SBS Go Back To Where You Came From website sbs.com.au/goback 

Go Back to Where You Came From will screen on three consecutive nights: Tuesday 28, Wednesday 29 and Thursday 30 August, at 8.30pm on SBS-ONE. The series will be followed by an Insight special on Friday 31 August, hosted by Jenny Brockie.

8 comments to Go Back returns for second series

  • Ahuva

    I am really looking forward to this program except for the commercial intrusions. After Tampa I lost all respect for Peter Reith and John Howard’s smug attitude too. I hope with the passage of time and this program Reith has changed. You never know. Other great Liberal’s like Malcolm Fraser, always a humanitarian, yet still managed to grow in himself and expand in his thinking, after leaving politics. Reith should take a leaf out of Fraser’s book not Abbot’s.

    Equally I hope this new series will cause both Liberal and Labor politicians to be more compassionate towards asylum seekers, no matter how arrival occurs. It seems not though.

    For those who dam boat people, think again. A boat smuggler may be a shoddy business and out to make a buck but so was Schindler as in Schindler’s List. In bad there is sometimes good, especially when people’s lives are saved. For the persecuted the only choices may be to stay put and die or take a gamble with a shoddy businessman where you might be saved.

    An entire race was almost wiped out during the Second World War. The surviving lucky ones who managed to get to our shores, only settled here because our attitudes then were welcoming. In today’s Australia with current attitudes, would we turn away a race where ordinary people were murdered on-masse? Would we lock them up for years? With the new immigration laws we now will. Full marks to SBS for making this show. Pity our current political leaders weren’t the ones in it.

  • Yossi

    Having heard about the second series of “Go Back To where You Came From”, I’m looking forward to how more prominent Australians’ will feel after they have experienced the journey of fleeing and becoming a refugee. Fortuntely for them, unlike real refugees who have fled by boat, the people in the program will never truely feel the horror and desperation because they know they will eventually return to their own safe lives in Australia. I hope that the participants, the audience, the wider community and the politicians in general will start to wake up and make the right decision in treating asylum seekers with dignity and compassion.

  • Polly

    Aren’t most irregular arrivals by plane not boat and do those on holidays who overstay their visa get a better deal than boat people? Yet it is boat people who are the ones fleeing from dangerous life threatening circumstances with no home. We should be hounered that they choose our country of all places to want to live.

  • Jackson m

    Thank you Save Our SBS for a very compressive review. I haven’t seen any other articles this detailed elsewhere. You’ve enticed me to watch but I’ll get the DVD to see it without ads blasting at me as I couldn’t stand to have such an important topic ruined by commercial disruptions. If SBS got the biggest funding increase ever, why are there still advert breaks in the programs?

    SBS makes some good programs but it is not fair that my only access to this ad free is to buy a DVD when it ought to be free of commercial breaks on public TV.

  • peng

    this show was lots of non agreement person. very bad. sad truth when many dead name for people returned to birth land. this was cruel australian law that not let them stay. I wish all australian to watch. pleasi to sbs play again. thank yo

  • Luciano

    Thank you SBS for this program. I just finished watching the series. Recorders are great to skip the adverts. I would have watched it live if it weren’t for the annoying disruption to continuity.

    I am glad Angry Anderson changed his views. What have we come to though as a nation that so many people dislike or hate asylum seekers – but not many get the chance to go to Afghanistan to see the reality then change their mind. I hope this programe has the same impact on all Australians.

  • Lucy S

    A program well made. A bit tabloid in parts I doubt it did anything to better the public debate. For me it failed.

    How silly of SBS to schedule Insight the night after Go Back To Where You Came From. If it had been after the final episode, I would watched it.

  • Bill

    The “Go Back to Where You Came From” second series was at times harrowing viewing. By all reports it achieved a very large audience by SBS standards and I believe it has made a worthy contribution to the debate in Australia. However, the placement of advertising within such a program was a big mistake. The viewer is jolted out of the horrors before us in Somalia and Afghanistan to see ads for the likes of McDonalds $3 burger deals, Commonwealth Bank (where you can apparently fund whatever you want), Renault cars, Werther chocolates, etc. As if these juxtapositions were not enough, these ads themselves were sequenced with spots for World Vision and UNHCR. These latter were obviously highly compatible with the program, but not with the other ads!

    To top it off, SBS ran jarring promos for “The School: Educating Sussex” within the breaks, and other upcoming programs. If ever there was a documentary that should not be interrupted, “Go Back” was surely one. I felt distress at being jerked out of the program into ads which promoted such a wealth and lifestyle that the suffering people in the documentary could not begin to imagine. The program loses impact in the process.