SBS reality TV show Go Back To Where You Came From has caused a worldwide stir, trending in first spot on Twitter and gaining mention in the New York Times.
By
SBS

22 Jun 2011 - 11:45 AM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 9:20 AM

A cross between a documentary and reality TV, in which SBS sent six Aussies on the same harrowing journeys faced by asylum seekers, has caused a worldwide stir.

Go Back To Where You Came From, part one, screened on SBS One at 8:30PM on June 21, with two parts to follow on June 22 and 23. It was watched by 524,000 viewers, the networks' highest ratings for the year so far.

In it, six ordinary Aussies - among them self-confessed racists - were stripped of their mobile phones and wallets, and sent on rickety boats to Iraq, Kenya, Malaysia and other refugee centres.

TWITTER STORM

After an initial flood of hundreds of tweets urging anyone who wasn't watching the show to change the channel, reactions began.

"Okay, I'm watching 'Go Back' now. Already shocked, dismayed and horrified," tweeted a poster called @fickwalker.

"I was a bit gobsmacked at how little several of these people knew about any of it," posted Denis Wright.

In addition, an online simulation gave web users the chance to test themselves in situations based on real asylum seeker stories.

During the show, the hashtag #GoBackSBS became the number one trending topic on Twitter worldwide, and remained the number one topic in Australia until midnight - hours after it ended.

The thread was still active at the time this article was written, 15 hours after the show, with dozens of new entries every 10 minutes.

The debate spread beyond the issue of asylum seekers, with ABC blogger Matt Granfield criticising the vitriol aimed by many tweeters at one participant who openly said she 'didn't like blacks'.

"A few thousand, probably even 10,000, Twitter users around the country decided the most appropriate reaction to the SBS documentary was to pass judgement on this girl for daring to be so judgemental," he wrote.

"What hypocrites we are," he added.

INTERNATIONAL COVERAGE

The New York Times published a detailed article on the series and the wider asylum debate in Australia, and it was published on the front page of its subsidiary, the International Herald Tribune and the Korean International Herald.

The discussion thread on the series website was flooded with more than 1,000 comments - around 20 times the usual number of posts for an equivalent programme on the network, noted SBS's newly-appointed Managing Director, Michael Ebeid.

One poster, billing him or herself as a former employee of the Onshore Protection Unit in the Department of Immigration, rebuked Australians for their lack of knowledge of the situations faced by asylum seekers.

"You think what you have seen on TV tonight was bad? You have seen nothing yet. When they are facing death or worse, seeing their families being tortured, sometimes the only option for them is the illegal way, rather than sit there and wait for UN to approve their humanitarian status. Most of the time they have no choice," the post said.

"Thank you SBS for trying to bring some information to this debate. However, other than on this show, the media neglects its responsibility to present information to the public to allow them to make up their own minds," wrote a Brisbane poster.

For Matthew, of Perth, the show raised more questions than it answered.

"This is a challenging and needed programme. Yes - we do have moral obligation. But how much moral obligation? Maybe the rest of the series will answer that better for me. We cannot take everyone who decides to leave misery," he wrote.

The attention continued the following day.

In a pre-series interview with SBS World News Australia, commissioning editor Peter Newman said the show did not aim to preach to its participants.

"No matter what side of the debate you fall on ... you're going to be challenged," he said.

Go Back To Where You Came From, Episode I is available for online viewing here, and parts II and III will be aired on Wednesday and Thursday at 8:30PM Eastern Time on SBS One.

For facts and figures on refugees and asylum seekers, visit WNA Online's special feature for Refugee Week.