June 29, 2011

When we went back to where they came from.

Over 600,000 viewers tuned in to watch the SBS documentary, Go Back To Where You Came From, giving SBS its highest television ratings ever. The social experiment that sent six Australians on a reverse refugee journey, has been applauded for providing balance and humanity to an issue that has long been misrepresented in the mainstream media. 
The documentary coincides with the Government's plan to send 800 Australian asylum seekers to Malaysia - in exchange for 4000 registered refugees over a four year period - a plan that has come under a scathing attack by the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser. 

As explained by the narrator of Go Back, Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, and the humane treatment of asylum seekers, particularly children, cannot be guaranteedWhat struck me most about this remarkable series (apart from the extreme juxtaposition of poverty and hardship) was the shift that took place in the hearts and minds of the participants. Perhaps the most striking shift was that which took place for the youngest participant, self proclaimed racist, Raquel Moore, 21, whose hardline attitudes and beliefs about Africans were challenged and overcome in the last episode of the series. 

Moore spent the first two episodes in what seemed like a perpetual state of anxiety as she moved further and further away from the comfort zone of life back home in Australia. Criticised for her overzealous reaction to an official raid on an illegal Malaysian construction site, Moore surprised the nation, including her fellow participants, when she began to let her guard down and show empathy for a family trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, inside a Kenyan refugee camp. 

Perhaps the greatest strength of Go Back was its ability to bring depth and context to the complex issue of asylum seeking, that has long been portrayed as black and white in the secular media. The individual stories of heartbreak and hope, of adversity and struggle, of war, torture, trauma and desperation, provided balance to the depersonalised reportage style that has repeatedly been used as political leverage by both sides of government. 

As Leigh Sales explains, it is harder for a journalist to get inside a detention centre than it was to get inside Guantanamo Bay, because the government are very careful about what they will and will not reveal. However, when the news media is prohibited from entering the coalface of this debate, and from sharing their findings with the wider Australian public, then surely that says something about the ulterior motives of our government in a free and democratic society.  

Malcolm Fraser argues that ' politicians who participated in this debate have contempt for all of us, for the majority of the Australian people. They believe that despite all the evidence to the contrary, that if they appeal to the fearful and mean sides of our nature, they will win support.' 

Clearly this issue must be rescued from the slingshot of the political pinball machine where it has been used as leverage since the strategy first proved successful under the Howard Administration. For as long as both sides of government have anything to gain from using fear mongering and scare tactics to secure electoral votes, then the issue of asylum will continue to be inflated, manipulated and misrepresented in the news media and political landscapes. 

Dating back to the infamous Tampa incident, which secured the Liberal Party's bid for re-election in 2001, the asylum seeker issue has been plagued with misleading information, particularly regarding Australia's border protection. There is a common misconception that Howard singlehandedly stopped the boat arrivals, when in actual fact, he simply diverted all boats from entering Australian waters (outside the migration zone), to be processed offshore, via the Pacific Solution. (Just as a mater of interest, any government slogan with the word 'solution' tacked onto the end, usually isn't one). 

According to New Matilda, 'as well as the Tampa episode which was exploited for the purpose of electoral gains, the plight of hundreds of others shipped to the solitude of Nauru were ignored, the truth about the long and indefinite detention of men, women and children was never included in the debate, the access of journalists to the detained asylum seekers were restricted — all for the political and electoral convenience of the party in power. Howard's border protection campaign was successful in its attempts to steal the redneck votes from Labor and fast forward to 2011, where both parties have become embroiled in a political ping pong match to reclaim the redneck vote'. 

'The Malaysian Solution is a disgusting indictment on this country's human rights obligations as we prepare to embark on what can only be described as the trade off of human misery. This nation was more outraged by the treatment of its cattle than it is regarding the treatment of human beings'. 

The fact of the matter is, we are not being flooded by boat people because only a fraction of asylum seekers arrive in Australia by boat, with 90% arriving via plane. 

Another common misconception is that asylum seekers are not genuine refugees. However, over 90% of asylum seekers last year were found to be genuine refugees and besides, why on earth would anyone risk their lives on a potentially perilous journey when there are safer ways to travel - unless they were absolutely desperate? 

In the wake of the SBS series, old arguments have resurfaced regarding the right way to enter Australia as a refugees, but as New Matilda points out, 'there are no queues for Afghan refugees in Pakistan or for the Tamils in Sri Lanka: a torturous trip of up to four weeks on leaky boats in deadly waters and an additional year in detention.

It is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia under the declaration of human rights, and although 'there are approximately 50,000 people living illegally in this country - they are not asylum seekers - they are visa overstayers and they are much more likely to be backpackers from Britain or the U.S. (GetUp 2011). 

Our current politicians are profiteering on the lives of refugees, however this is hardly surprising given the fact that most politicians are focussed solely on the prize of being elected or reelected into power. The scare campaign surrounding border protection proved successful for the Howard Administration during the 2001 election, when more than 80% of Australians voted in favour of mandatory detention.  

Overtime and through media saturation, stereotypes of fear and safety, legality and illegality, good and evil, us and them, right and wrong, were socialised and successfully normalised within Australian society. For any government to attempt to move away from that now could mean political suicide and neither party has the time nor the courage to risk re-educating the Australian people, even if they wanted to.   

Nevertheless, given the overwhelmingly positive response to Go Back and the compassionate transformation that took place in the hearts and minds of the participants, it seems possible that when armed with more factual information (rather than hype), the opposite might also be true for the majority of the Australian people who currently oppose all boat arrivals. What is needed now is a bipartisan approach to the issue of seeking asylum, so that the political agenda is removed from the decision making process, and through which information, strategies and solutions are explored in alignment with the declaration of human rights. 

SBS is to be applauded for airing the series Go Back To Where You Came From. It may only be a television series, but it has injected balance, humanity, complexity and depth into an issue that has otherwise been demonised and stereotyped. It begs the question though, if everyone went back to where they came from, how many of us would be left? 

For more facts on asylum seekers see this refugee myth busting animation by GetUp!. 

Here are some more articles on the subject:

Asylum Seekers: The Facts - Port Phillip Planning Policy, Vic

Malaysia's appalling rights record - Refugee Council of Australia

1 comment:

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