Back to where they came from: against conditional belonging

The docu-reality series Go Back to Where You Came From was launched by SBS/CJZ Productions in 2011, giving six Australians the opportunity to ‘walk in the shoes’ of those seeking asylum, and to hear refugees share their stories first-hand. The series ran for two further seasons (including a ‘celebrity’ iteration), and its fourth – a live version – aired a few weeks back. The series has been praised for its innovation, with previous seasons winning a slate of awards and being developed as teaching resources. But what possibilities are foreclosed in the program’s centring of the judgments, journeys and emotional reactions of its Australian participants?

Go Back Live’s aim is to increase understanding of the contexts in which people become refugees, and to foster criticism of Australian border policy. The first series saw its participants take a refugee journey to Australia in reverse, surrendering their passports and being hosted by refugees in a range of locations in Australia and abroad. Go Back Live revises this format with pre-recorded scenes mixed with live crossing to various global sites of displacement, including Syria and South Sudan, anchored by in-studio commentary. This season follows a combination of eight ‘ordinary’ and ‘high profile’ Australians (former senator Jacqui Lambie, media personalities Gretel Killeen and Meshel Laurie, and retired AFL player Peter ‘Spida’ Everitt). Go Back has evolved significantly since its first season, with an even split of participants who support Australia’s border policies, and those advocating for increased refugee intake, including Marina, an immigration lawyer and former child refugee.

The new series uses its live format to convey the immediacy and urgency of the refugee crisis and its global reach. The show’s strength is its attention to the complexity of contexts that lead to displacement: moments in which refugees speak for themselves, such as the video diary made by Hassan, a Syrian refugee living precariously in Kuala Lumpur airport for six months, are especially powerful. However, the airtime for such stories is constrained by the show’s focus on Australian participants’ responses, in an often sensationalised way: as co-host Ray Martin intones in the first episode, ‘Live means unpredictability. Live means danger.’

The show’s ‘liveness’ is also deployed to emphasise the authenticity of the footage, framing refugees as in need of proving their ‘legitimacy’ to Australians. In this way, Go Back Live sets the terms by which participants come to acknowledge refugees’ right to seek asylum and to be resettled. For participants who believe asylum seekers to be economic migrants – a damaging myth repeated by Tony Abbott recentlyGo Back Live’s transformation narrative occurs through them recognising the impossibility of refugees ‘going back’ or staying in their country of origin. This emphasis on demonstrating refugees’ ‘legitimacy’ thereby necessitates an emphasis on experiences of suffering.

In his book White Nation, Ghassan Hage[i] argued that Australians who feel entitled to the ‘fantasy position’ of whiteness enact ‘governmental belonging’: a sense of one’s own innate right to decide how others are positioned within, or excluded from, the space of the nation. Hage argued that this is evident in not only overtly racist discourses, but also progressive ones; in Go Back Live, governmental belonging informs not only the outlook of some conservative participants, but also the program’s use of participants’ journeys to mediate refugee experiences. Tony Birch[ii] has emphasised Indigenous sovereignty in response to the issue of asylum seekers, urging a reframing of refugee politics that does not assume the authority of the settler nation-state. However, Go Back Live operates within the terms of the dominant national discourse, by elevating its participants’ emotional responses to, and assessments of, refugees’ experiences.

Governmental belonging is at work in the way Go Back Live centres its participants’ reactions to refugees’ suffering, often articulated as recognising ‘their humanity’. Trauma is presented in the program as central to ‘human stories’, making a person’s status as a refugee understood primarily through them having undergone sufficient pain. This is exacerbated by the series’ live format, in which refugees are prompted to share traumatic memories, or respond to emotional prompts and sometimes insensitive questions from participants, in real time during a live cross.

Refugees’ ‘legitimacy’ in Go Back Live also comes to be legible through participants’ judgments of their worthiness as potential Australian citizens. Participant Steve notes at the outset, ‘There’s a lot of people that don’t deserve to come to Australia. There’s probably a lot of people that don’t deserve to BE in Australia.’ The idea that citizenship is a matter of merit rather than an accident of birth would seem to contradict Steve’s concern that increased refugee intake will compromise services for needy Australians. The emphasis on worthiness is echoed in Jacqui’s comment that many migrants ‘don’t appreciate what we have to offer them’.

Although Go Back Live presents Steve and Jacqui as ideal candidates for its narrative of conversion, governmental belonging is implicitly supported by the program’s foregrounding of resettled refugees’ gratitude, national pride and family values. A short video accompanying the series interviews resettled refugees about what they are most grateful for in Australia. Go Back Live revisits Deo Masudi and his family, who the participants visited in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya in Series One.

The Masudis have since been resettled in Australia, and the story emphasises the family’s commitment to ‘giving back’ to the nation, with Deo’s son hoping to join the Australian Defence Force. Spida, who began the program with racist views about ‘Sudanese gangs’ in Melbourne, notes at the series’ close that South Sudanese people are ‘no different, they’re so family orientated and their culture definitely doesn’t say gangs and fighting.’ Many of the participants cite their own position as parents for why they are moved by refugees’ experiences of loss and separation from children.

This emphasis on refugees as unthreatening and useful future citizens, and the appeal to the generosity of Australians, is consistent with Go Back Live’s approach to Australian foreign policy. Although the series offers an opportunity for Jacqui and Marina to speak with an Amnesty International researcher about the need for an investigation into civilian casualties caused by coalition forces’ air strikes in the city, this critique is rapidly defused. During the live cross, the participants quickly become defensive, insisting that airing our nation’s culpability for death and displacement will detract from the positive story of how Australians can help refugees. Back in the studio, the series producers apparently agree: co-host Janice Peterson says, by way of conclusion, ‘in the theatre of war, the rules go out the window for all sides involved.’

Seven years ago, the first series of Go Back demonstrated how empathising with a refugee’s situation did not necessarily result in a shift in political views: for some participants, it actually refined their prejudice, supporting a distinction between ‘worthy’ refugees in UNHCR camps, and those seeking asylum by boat. While Go Back Live yielded two unambiguous converts to the critique of our border policy – participants Gareth and Spida, who admits he was ‘ill-informed’others’ change of mind was more provisional. For some, like Steve and Dannii, the series’ investment in their emotional response was a deterrent to conceding a change of opinion, reflecting how empathy has been portrayed as a threat to Australia’s borders since the commencement of offshore processing in 2001, when Phillip Ruddock claimed of asylum seekers that ‘our humanity … is their incentive.’[iii]

Recent weeks have seen some rapid shifts in public opinion regarding offshore detention, prompted by the crisis in detained children’s mental and physical health, highlighted by a petition signed by 6000 Australian doctors and the Kids Off Nauru campaign, and evidenced in the Wentworth byelection. Although some children have been transferred to Australia for medical treatment, none will be resettled, families have been separated, and future medical transfers may be blocked. But to transform our border policy and end mandatory detention in a way that is not limited to children, or to responding to crisis in the short-term, we need to rethink the dominant mode of framing refugees’ right to resettlement as conditional on Australian benevolence.

Upon shifting his position on refugee policy at the close of the series, Spida reflects: ‘People say you’ve got to live it to believe it and sometimes that’s what you have to do.’ This reference to ‘belief’ reveals how doubts about the ‘legitimacy’ of refugees are embedded in Australian discourse around asylum seekers. When governmental belonging is foregrounded, staged experiences take precedence over actual ones: after all, the work of resettled refugees and former detainees, and the recent release of Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains, offer ample insight into what it is like to truly ‘live it’. Go Back Live’s emphasis on ‘seeing for yourself’ suggests that refugees’ experiences of displacement are legible only when witnessed and embodied by ‘one of us’. But where empathy is posited as accessible only through first-hand experience, or conditional on displays of suffering and gratitude from refugees, it’s inevitable that opinions will shift back to where they came from.


[i] Hage, G 2000, White nation: Fantasies of white supremacy in a multicultural society, Routledge, New York, pp. 46 & 58.

[ii] Birch, T 2007, ‘The invisible fire: Indigenous sovereignty, history and responsibility’, in A Moreton-Robinson (ed.), Sovereign subjects: Indigenous sovereignty matters, Allen & Unwin, Crow’s Nest NSW, pp. 105–117.

[iii] Cited in Piper Rodd, C 2007, ‘Boats and borders: Asylum seekers and elections, 1977 and 2001’, in D Lusher & N Haslam (eds), Yearning to breathe free: Seeking asylum in Australia, The Federation Press, Leichhardt NSW, p. 42.



Image: still from Go Back Live

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Tinonee Pym is a research assistant in the Department of Media & Communication at Swinburne University of Technology.

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