Go back to where you came from

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.

While these arrangements have come to an end, they seem in recent years to have been replaced by the “No One Has A Fucking Clue Solution”, and debate in Australia continues to rage.

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.]

34 replies
  1. 1
    drkrick says:

    Does the US government at least get some kind of copyright or patent royalty on the “No One Has A Fucking Clue Solution”? Because it may be our only export in the near future.

  2. 2
    drkrick says:

    OK, having read past the jump, maybe snark wasn’t the best possible response to this. Pretty amazing piece of work by SBS.

  3. 3
  4. 4
    ruemara says:

    The solution is, “Share The Planet In Peace, You GINORMOUS ASSHOLES”. It’s a pity that for some, empathy comes via experience. I commend them for attempting the journey though. Obviously, even that is too much for some.

  5. 5
    NobodySpecial says:

    A lot of people forget that their ancestors in this country came over with nothing in their pockets and only hope for some kind of better life sustaining them. Or fleeing violent persecution.

  6. 6
    CA Doc says:

    Compassion: pass it on….

  7. 7
    MikeJ says:

    Vancouver didn’t have these problem since they took in primarily yacht people.

  8. 8
    pattonbt says:

    I live in Perth and a friend of mine was a baby on one of the first Vietnamese boats to arrive in Australia. He was crying so loudly and constantly on the boat trip that the other people on the boat were worried he would give away their position before they reached land and would cause them to be sent back. Apparently there was talk of throwing him overboard. But a kindly doctor was able to sedate him a little bit and they all arrived safely.

    The doctor actually was a special guest at his wedding. Compelling story.

    And the young man is also now a doctor and upstanding citizen (like his parents who made the perilous journey with him).

    Immigration is a complex issue and crosses political spectrums like few others. It is one where there are no “good” answers. One that I am always very conflicted on having seen both the great and awful sides of it.

  9. 9

    It’s not like there’s no space available in Oz, fer cryin’ out loud.

  10. 10
    Belafon (formerly anonevent) says:

    As one of my conservative friends says: If I were in the position of those Mexicans sneaking into the US, I would be doing it, too.

  11. 11
    pattonbt says:

    This issue, though, really does bring out the ugly in many. I read the horrible West Australian newspaper every day (it’s all we have) and the letters to the editor can make you cringe. No sense of irony or remorse in the mostly white, privileged folks who also came over as immigrants (and stole someone else’s land) yet rabidly hate on those trying to do the same as their ancestors.

  12. 12
    stuckinred says:

    A fucked up end to a fucked up war. We could have gotten thousands of people out if we had tried. Read “Decent Interval” by Frank Snepp ( There were huge barges in the Saigon River but we didn’t get the word out so people went to the embassy.


  13. 13

    You only have to know one or two refugees to realize that they didn’t make the decision to move lightly or just to take advantage of the country they’re moving to. Most of the refugees* I know are from Vietnam, and their stories are terrible. They were persecuted by their government, risked their lives leaving their home countries, and wound up in a new country where they had to learn a new language and go through massive culture shock, and they were often cut off from anyone they knew outside their immediate family. It seems to me that it takes a sick person to meet somebody like that, hear their story, and not have any sympathy.

    *Should I call them refugees still if they’ve been here for more than a decade and become citizens?

  14. 14
    Groucho48 says:

    Wow. Just read that anti-immigrant link at the end. Typical sociopath reasoning…”Empathy!?! We don’t need no stinking empathy!”

  15. 15
    shortstop says:

    As one of my conservative friends says: If I were in the position of those Mexicans sneaking into the US, I would be doing it, too.

    I’d like to meet your friend. Had no idea that such a conservative exists anymore.

    Thanks for this, Sarah.

  16. 16
    LT says:

    Huh. Saw it advertised, but didn’t plan on watching. I’ll give it a look. Thanks, SPT.

  17. 17
    Chris T. says:

    It may help US readers to note that “Liberal” in Australia means the opposite of what it does here. :-)

    @Linkmeister: although there is a lot of space in Australia, the liveable parts are pretty crowded. (Some might even argue that the liveable parts do not exist. :-) )

  18. 18
    bryanD says:

    Funnily, posted memes like this one are what furnished ships and arms and landless sons for centuries to conquer and evangelize and exterminate demons and upset cultures in past times to bring them in accord with God’s law by hook or by crook.

    Hey, at least it was results-oriented! This program, on the other hand seems more of a reality show zoofari. (Less harmful, true, except for the feelings of non-white Australians who might wish to not be put under that ol’ missionary gaze, thank you very much!.)

    PS: I wonder if the movie Driving Miss Daisy pissed off ABL back in the day?

  19. 19
    Dr. Loveless says:

    Anyone else want to see a U.S. version of this show? What’s Morgan Spurlock doing these days?

  20. 20
    John says:

    I have a friend ‘J’ originally from Vietnam. His widowed mother converted all their assets into jewelry, and took a boat with J and his older brother. J was about 5 at the time. Their boat began to take on water, and in the process of being rescued by a small fishing vessel, one of J’s shoes came off and got left behind. He tried to get it back and in the process of trying to rescue him, his mom dropped her handbag carrying all the jewelry into the water. They eventually made it to the US years later, and both he and his brother grew up to be accomplished and wonderful people. Imagine having to live with that all his life. And yet, as he said, he was one of the lucky ones.

    Also, this is a great, eyeopening film that centers on human trafficking – http://www.unodc.org/pdf/india/film.pdf (disclosure – I know the director, so take the plug FWIW.)

  21. 21

    @ BryanD

    I’d respond to this, but I’ve read your post six times and I still have no fucking idea what you’re talking about.

    ETA: Bryan – I apologize for my strong language. I’m genuinely not sure from your comment what your concerns with the program and/or my post were.

    Having watched all three hours of the program, at no time did it strike me as patronizing or glib or evangelizing or sensationalist towards the “non-white” people either in Australia or in the overseas locations.

    These people willingly admitted the participants into their homes, shared their food and their friendship and their stories, telling the (mostly) uninformed (mostly) white people about the horrors they had suffered or were still suffering, about the joy of being able to live their lives free of fear, and about the torment of being separated from their loved ones who had (or had not) had the chance to escape to a better life.

    It gave the participants the chance (in the words of a Doctor Who episode) to be “helped into an act of humanity” and we saw their attitudes change before our eyes when confronted with the reality that people are just people. It showed quite unflinchingly the conditions that people lived in, but also the joy that they managed to find in their lives in the middle of such awfulness.

    Most importantly, it has sparked a debate in Australia and made it that much harder for the bigots to argue that refugees should just stay where they come from or that it is cruel for refugees to risk the lives of their children by fleeing their countries or that refugees are just “economic” refugees whose only concern is money. It has put a human face on suffering that was not seen by many people before.

    I don’t understand how any of that is a bad thing, but I’m happy to be enlightened.

  22. 22
    Comrade Mary says:

    @ pattonbt (#8): Wow. Got me crying here.

    Way too late in Toronto, and I have to go to bed, but I’ll watch the videos on the weekend. Thanks, Sarah.

  23. 23
    Nellcote says:

    Morgan Spurlock had a Minuteman live with an undocumented immigrant family in LA in his series “30 Days”.


  24. 24
    kdaug says:

    Do go righteous, SPT.

  25. 25

    Ms. Sarah, this is a wondrous story. Painful in parts, but still wondrous. Thank you for posting about it.

  26. 26
    Just Some Fuckhead says:


    I have a friend ‘J’ originally from Vietnam.

    Tell him to back off before he’s banned.

  27. 27
    northquirk says:

    Thank you SPT for this post; it’s a great reminder that for all our snarky bitterness, we take far too many things for granted in this country.

    Immigration policy in the US is a disgrace, particularly considering that everyone pushing for tighter policy has directly benefited from their ancestors immigrating here and destroying the civilizations of the first nations.

  28. 28
    montana says:


    Put down the grain alcohol and step slowly backwards.

    Thank you

  29. 29
    AxelFoley says:

    Didn’t the original white Aussies come to Australia on boats, too?

    I’m just sayin’…

  30. 30

    Didn’t the original white Aussies come to Australia on boats, too?

    And usually in chains…

  31. 31
    Debbie(aussie) says:

    Thanks for this post Sarah. the anti-boat persons make me ashamed to be an Aussie. The figure for those who risk everything to come here by boat is less than 1%. But it gets all the coverage, while keeping ‘illegal’ immigrants in detention costs about $250000/person/year and it often takes two years for all the beaurocratic bs to be finalised it just makes no sense at all. Unless of course you have no heart. And what are the righties for if if not their lack of empathy.

  32. 32
    DaveInOz says:

    It was brilliant television and eye-opening for a lot of people here. It’s great to see it being watched in the States.

    There have been some pretty despicable politicians playing the fear card over ‘illegal immigrants’. John Howard won an election on it by grabbing Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party rhetoric and policies and Tony Abbott now is just as bad. It also doesn’t help that many major cities in Australia only have Murdoch empire newspapers available. Thank God for The Age here in Melbourne.

  33. 33
    El Cid says:

    Google the show on the torrents, and those who know usenet voodoo and binaries, it’s all on there.

  34. 34
    Mitchell Young says:

    Maybe some day they’ll make a documentary about the ‘Anglo’ construction workers in California who are either unemployed or have seen their wages reduced to 1991 levels– in dollars, not real wages. Maybe they’ll make a documentary about Bob Clarke, Christmas Story director and his son, killed by an illegal alien drunk driver who, having been in through our ‘justice system’ (soliciting prostitution), should have been deported.

    You see, the problem with these documentaries is that they are totally one sided, and even having picked a side, are likely to feature only those moments that the pro-mass immigrationists want to you see.

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