Over the last few days I have been privileged, by means of my various international connections, to have watched a reality TV show called “Go back to where you came from”, which has recently been broadcast over three consecutive nights on the Australian television channel SBS. (You probably won’t be able to watch the show at that link, but there is a massive amount of background information available.)
Immigration issues have been a matter of significant debate in Australia in one form or another since the 18th century. However, the debate is particularly heated in the context of what are called “boat people”.
The first boat people – an unauthorized boat carrying five Indochinese men – arrived in northern Australia in 1976, and was followed by a further 2059 Vietnamese refugees arriving by boat over the next five years. There was a further wave of predominantly Indochinese refugees from 1989 to 1998 at the rate of about 300 people per year. Since 1999, however, boat people arriving in Australia have been predominantly (and unsurprisingly) from the Middle East. It is worth noting that boat people have never made up more than a tiny percentage of migrants (or even refugees) reaching Australia.
Public reaction to boat people has been extremely polarized. The refugee issue was used successfully by the conservative Liberal government as a wedge issue in at least one election, finally resulting in the implementation of the so called “Pacific Solution” where boat people were prevented from landing on the Australian mainland (where they would have rights under the UNHRC rules) and instead were transported to detention camps on small island nations in the Pacific.
In the SBS program, six ordinary (in some cases very ordinary) Australians were placed in the position of refugees, over 25 days retracing their steps backwards from Australia to the source countries of many refugees.
After having their passports, wallets and phones taken away, they stayed with two groups now resident in Australia – a family from
the Congo Burundi and a group of Iraqi men.
Next they were put on a boat and sent off towards Indonesia. The boat sprung a massive leak and caught fire in the middle of the night, although they were later informed that the boat was in fact a seaworthy training vessel.
They stayed in an apartment with illegal immigrants in Malaysia and participated in an immigration raid.
Most affectingly, they then travelled to Kenya and Jordan, meeting with the families of the refugees that they had stayed with in Australia – beautiful and bittersweet scenes that reduced me to a weeping mess on the floor – before being taken by US and UN forces to see the devastation of the Congo and Iraq from which these people had fled.
Five of the six started the show with (broadly) anti-immigration views, but only one was still clinging desperately to his stance at the end of the series.
From an article written by participant Raye Colbey:
I live near the Inverbrackie immigration detention centre in the Adelaide Hills. Having spent my life working with intellectually disabled children, I believed people who arrived on Australian shores and were living in the centre were being given things that disadvantaged Australians deserved more. I hated them with such intensity – it was eating into me like a disease.
When the boat carrying asylum seekers crashed into Christmas Island last December I thought: serves you bastards right. Come the right way and it wouldn’t have happened.
Earlier this year, after speaking my mind about the Inverbrackie detention centre at a town hall meeting, I was invited to participate in an SBS documentary. This involved a 25-day journey tracing in reverse the journeys that refugees have taken to reach Australia. I began this amazing journey with a mindset that all refugees coming to our shores should be sent back. Since then my life has been turned inside out.
On Monday, March 14, 2011, I found myself standing at the front door of a home in Wodonga. The Masudi family – Bahati and Maisara with their five sons, Chris 16, Lionel 14, Felix 6, and twins, Omba and Shako, 7 months – were from Burundi, in Africa. After waiting nine years in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, they had been resettled in Wodonga 18 months ago. For the next six days I lived with the family – people I had once feared.
We shared food and laughed and cried together. Each night I listened to their stories. These beautiful people had endured unbelievable atrocities. I found myself wishing I could do anything to help stop their suffering.
During the next part of my journey in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I met and lived with Chin refugees from Burma. Again I was told incredibly sad stores of brutal persecution in their own country, fleeing to Malaysia only to suffer further persecution. The Malaysian government did not recognise them, therefore it was illegal for them to work or live in the country. They were considered criminals and lived in constant fear of being arrested, which meant jail, caning and being trucked back to the Thai border.
My emotions were in turmoil. At night, as I lay on the hard floor, unable to sleep, the reality of following in the footsteps of a refugee was sinking in. I wept for their pain and suffering. Was it a crime to want a life of peace, to raise children and watch them grow and develop?
Unbeknown to me the worst was yet to come. I was sent to Africa to spend time at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, not far from the border of Sudan and Ethiopia. Here, 84,000 people are “housed” (and I use that term loosely) on an area 14 kilometres long and five kilometres wide. This is where I met the remaining Masudi family whose relatives I lived with only a couple of weeks ago in Australia.
You build your own little one-room home out of mud bricks and the water used for the bricks must be saved out of your water ration. If it rains your house dissolves, so the process must start again. I met Deo Masudi, the older brother of Bahati, and he said to me: “Raye, I close my eyes at night and pray to God for tomorrow, please give me tomorrow.” Why tomorrow I asked? Deo replied: “We can’t ask for any more than that.”
When it came time to leave Kenya I was devastated to leave these desperate people here. I had spent many nights awake, tossing and turning struggling with my thoughts and emotions. I had started this journey with such intense hatred for refugees and here I was sobbing, holding onto them, my arms refusing to let go.
The usual suspects in the Australian media – people with bitter and shriveled hearts – have rubbished the show by resorting to the half truths and emotional manipulation of which they falsely accuse the program.
For those with their souls intact, this was extraordinary television which cut to the issue that should be at the very heart of the immigration debate – that the vast majority of refugees are ordinary people who want the chance to live without constant fear of hunger, disease, torture, imprisonment, rape and death.
We shouldn’t all have to travel in a leaky boat to the Congo or to Iraq to understand something so simple.
[Cross posted at Sarah Proud and Tall.]