Pub talk, reality TV, reality and “Go Back to Where You Came From”

The pub talk on Sunday turned to — or rather ON — asylum seekers. Perhaps we all need someone to hate sometime; B has been hating almost everyone unlike himself for years, even before his disastrous love affair with Pauline Hanson began. But it wasn’t only B. It appears that hating asylum seekers is the go these days, thanks I suspect to our God-awful politicians and worse media windbags. Strangely I don’t blame the average Aussie; they can be pretty good when confronted with actual asylum seekers and refugees.

That’s one of the things I do like about the powerful reality TV show now on SBS. (Incidentally I generally despise reality TV, but it does appear the genre can work as an educational device.)

Six ordinary Australians agree to challenge their preconceived notions about asylum seekers and refugees by living like refugees for 25 days. They move in with real refugees building a new life in Australia, before taking a perilous journey to unknown shores on a leaky boat.

I like the fact that the makers of Go Back to Where You Came From have allowed very non-PC voices a say — before taking the owners of those voices to places they had never before imagined.

I was interested to read the reaction of one of the participants: Lib’s refugee experience hasn’t softened stance. But he has been affected.

If SBS documentary series Go Back To Where You Came From was meant to soften Young Liberal Roderick Schneider’s stance on stopping refugee boats reaching Australia it hasn’t worked.

Schneider, along with five other Australians, was taken on a 25-day tour through refugee camps and border patrols in Asia, Africa and the Middle East for the filming of the three-part program meant to challenge preconceived notions of asylum seekers and refugees.

Having seen so many people struggling for survival in refugee camps, the experience strengthened the 29-year-old Brisbane man’s belief that Australia needed to be stronger in pushing for an equal and orderly immigration process…

Schneider believes the asylum seeker issue in Australia is clouded by emotion and hysteria.

Politicians from both sides of the divide, he argues, offer up catch phrases which are readily gobbled up by the public and the media. Detailed discussion of the issue focusing on policy and outcomes rarely rises to the surface.

But he said he intended on using his experience to push for Liberal Party policy which would improve aspects of the detention of refugees and their resettlement in Australia.

“I’m going to use this trip to find some policy areas where we can do better which I think the Liberal Party can agree on because I don’t think anyone looks at the refugee situation and thinks ‘we can’t do better’,” he said…

And fair enough really. At least he now has some idea what he is talking about unlike all of us in the pub on Sunday.

The pub discussion focused on two stories concerning asylum seekers and the public purse. It appears reffos, as we once used to say, get it coming and going. If they are too successful they are clearly stealing our jobs, but if they have problems they are draining the public purse, hanging off the public tit — whatever image you like. The emphasis now is on the latter view. Whatever the case we are outraged, and we do like a good outrage!

To take one of the stories in this entry. (I’ll deal with the other one in another post.)

I was told how shocking this was:

…a recent Herald/Age investigation of Iraqi interpreters who were evacuated and resettled in Australia in 2008 after working for Australian troops. Only nine of 223 adults reported finding full-time work, even though well over half the group have university or other tertiary qualifications.

The new report concludes: “It cannot be doubted that discrimination in the labour market is still in evidence. The initial years of settlement of humanitarian settlers are often difficult and intensive in the use of government-provided support.”

OK, first thing is the person retelling this story forgot the point of his source: Refugees make their mark after hard slog. The story begins thus:

REFUGEES are increasingly settling in regional towns and filling labour market gaps, according to a major study on the impact of the 700,000 refugees accepted into Australian society.

While refugees find it harder than other migrants to gain work in the short term, the situation improves over time.

They are more likely to become business owners and have highly educated children who suffer far lower unemployment rates than the broader Australian community. The University of Adelaide study, commissioned by the federal government, tracked the fate of both refugees and their Australian-born children.

It highlighted that refugees provided a bigger ”demographic dividend” for an ageing population because they are younger than other migrants and a high proportion arrive as children who will go on to work all their lives in Australia….

Not exactly a ringing condemnation of idle reffos. You can read the report behind this story for yourself. One of the stories told in that excellent report concerns Nizar:

Nizar is a Chaldean from Iraq and arrived in Australia in August 1999 with his wife and four sons. He has a PhD in mathematics from University of North Wales, Bangor (UK). The family were in the UK during the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990. They were forced to return to Iraq in January 1991. Nizar stayed to finish his study, which he did
in April 1992. He went back to Iraq in May 1992 where he held the post of lecturer at the University of Baghdad until 1997.

‘These were terrible years for the family—five years of torture—mental and physical. Following a series of threats I knew we must go and with the help of friends travelled to Turkey. We applied to the Australian embassy and with the sponsorship of my sister were able to travel to Australia in August 1999….

I trained as an interpreter and I can now link my community with the broader Australian community. I have also been volunteering with the St Vincent de Paul — I really appreciate what they do to help others who are poor.

I also volunteered at the Sydney Olympics in 2000—directing people around (I hope they found their way with my directions). It was a fantastic opportunity to get to know people, to talk about where they came from and to tell them a little of my story. It was fantastic!

This is a beautiful country—without the opportunity to come here we would not have this beautiful life.’

Not a boat person, but definitely a refugee — and who but a fool would deny the success here for Nizam, his family and Austraia.

But then some other Iraqi interpreters come into our story — and not only ours.

The issue exercised the minds of people in the UK and the USA also. It became an issue here in April 2008, as John Quiggin noted at the time.

I only saw this item flashing briefly across the TV screen, but it’s an issue that has been vigorously debated in the UK and over at Crooked Timber. The new Australian government, which is withdrawing combat troops (though not some troops guarding our embassy) from Iraq, has announced that Iraqis who have worked with Australian forces in Iraq will be offered resettlement in Australia. The estimated number of Iraqis to receive visas, including family members, is 600. Australia had only about 500 troops on average, so that gives an idea of the scale of commitment that might be expected from the UK and US if they met their obligations in a comparable fashion.

The decision to accept the interpreters ahead of other refugees has been criticised, but I think this is justified. The essential point should be to treat this intake as additional to, rather than part of, our general obligation to accept refugees.

On the same point, this Times story indicates that the first three workers to be accepted under the much more restrictive British program have finally arrived in the UK, and that the program has so far delivered visas to a total of 12 Iraqis and their families. The total estimated intake is 2000.

The Australian Army Training Team Iraq AATTI weren’t to be found among the critics, referring their readers to this excellent interactive site in the Sydney Morning Herald.

OK so these interpreters — not boat people either — are here because of us and had to leave Iraq because of us. It seems there may have been some settlement issues. I would need to know a lot more about the individual circumstances, but can point out that the Herald story pins this on discrimination:

The extent to which Australia’s job market can be hostile to migrants was confirmed in a recent Herald/Age investigation of Iraqi interpreters who were evacuated and resettled in Australia in 2008…

That part of the story was not mentioned in the pub, nor would it have been whenever the tale was retold with righteous horror in pubs and across back fences and on talkback radio across the nation.

Go and read Iraqi interpreters’ acts of heroism lost in translation.


See Reality TV Gets Real by Mike Carey.

Last night’s premiere of ‘Go Back to Where You Came From’ did in one night what television news and current affairs has failed to do in a decade, writes former Dateline EP Mike Carey

So reality television has finally embraced reality. ‘Go Back to Where You Came From’ on SBS TV last night was a refreshing look at the refugee debate in Australia. In the first episode of three on consecutive nights, it smashed a few stereotypes and undermined a shibboleth or two without preaching once.

It allowed ordinary Australians to imagine what it’s like to be an asylum seeker. Until last night’s ‘Go Back’ have any programs given viewers the opportunity to walk in a refugee’s shoes or literally sleep on an asylum seeker’s leaky boat? I can’t remember many, perhaps a couple of Four Corners stories using amateur or surveillance footage of the horrors of incarceration.

I know of a Dateline story or two…

…the mainstream’s failure to do in years what ‘Go Back’ did in one night. I don’t believe reality TV is implicitly better at telling these stories — it’s not — but mainstream television current affairs has been captured and tied down with editorial rules by producers who are too afraid to challenge the system.

In ‘Go Back to Where You Came From’, the asylum seeker story is creatively told in the abstract using all the devices of Master Chef. It’s a fantastic concept, but also an indictment of mainstream news and current affairs…