‘Go Back’ – La Trobe graduate shows the way

Posted on September 5, 2011

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Australians walk in the shoes of refugees:

‘Go back’: A scene from the SBS mini-series. All images courtesy of Cordell Jigsaw.

One of the most talked about and highest-rating television programs this year was ‘Go Back to where you came from’ in which six Australians challenged their ideas about refugees and asylum seekers in front of an audience of more than half a million people.

Their guide on this harrowing journey to some of the most dangerous and poorest places on the planet was La Trobe PhD graduate and former research associate Dr David Corlett, presenter of the three-part SBS mini series.

Sequences for the program were also shot at the University’s Albury-Wodonga campus where participants met the family of Bahati Masudi, a mature-aged Bachelor of Business refugee student. His relatives, languishing in a Kenyan refugee camp, later helped change the attitude of two of the show’s high-profile participants. This provided some of the most emotional moments of the series.

Mr Masudi, father of five school-age children, was born in Burundi and his wife, Maisara Ramazani, comes from the Congo. After leaving Burundi in 2000 they spent nine years in a refugee camp in Kenya.

Mr Masudi and his wife Maisara

He says about his part in the program: ‘It is important to educate the Australian people about the life of refugees and how they came to live in Australia.  It is also a big challenge for us, as Australia is a developed country and our countries are not very developed, so there are lots of things for us to learn.’

Extensive first-hand knowledge

Dr Corlett has extensive first-hand knowledge of asylum seekers and refugees, both as a case-worker and researcher. He completed his doctoral thesis on Australia’s response to asylum seekers in 2003.

In 2004 he joined a research project with Professor of Politics, Robert Manne.  Foreshadowing the part he was to play in the SBS min-series, Dr Corlett followed repatriated asylum seekers ‘back home’ after they had spent years in detention, on Nauru, Manus Island and in other detention centres, documenting their plight in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Thailand.

Discussing this  taxing field-work project in an interview with the La Trobe University ‘Bulletin’ at the time, he described how he found many ‘broken people, psychologically damaged’, some who had fled their homeland again to seek safety, while others, without identity papers, lived as ‘illegals’ in fear of religious extremism, terrorism, crime and State surveillance.

Dr Corlett went on to document these experiences, first in a ‘Quarterly Essay’ article titled ‘Sending Them Home – which he researched and jointly wrote with Professor Manne – and then in a book, ‘Following Them Home’, published by Black Inc.  Since then he has written another book: ‘Stormy Weather: The challenge of climate change and displacement’.

He says he was chosen for his role in ‘Go Back’ partly because of expertise gained as a result of his work at La Trobe, things he’d done before and since, and the fact that his work with refugees has taken him to many different countries. 

What impact does he think the program has had?

Dr Corlett speaks with some of the particpants in Malaysia

‘It’s hard to measure, but the response I’ve had is that it’s been a significant intervention into the debate. I’ve spoken to people who have been quite moved by the series. The online comments indicate that some people have had their opinions challenged and have shifted in some of their thinking.

‘At a broader level it’s hard to know the extent to which a program like this has an impact on public debate or on policy. Young people tell me they are studying it at school in one of their courses. So that seems to me to be pretty significant.

‘I’ve spoken at a number of schools where teachers are showing the series to their students and using it as an opportunity to talk about a whole range of things.’

How does he feel about the ‘Malaysian solution’, introduced by the government since the program was screened?

At a political level, he says the way it was negotiated in public was embarrassingly incompetent. As policy, it raises significant human rights issues.

Real human rights concerns

‘I’ve spent a bit of time in Malaysia, both for the program and also as part of other research that I have done.  There are real human rights concerns with sending people back to Malaysia.

‘However, it is appropriate that Australia engages in regional solutions for people who are in need of international protection, and that means we have to deal with countries whose human rights records are compromised.

‘There are not many countries in the region that can claim a good human rights record in regard to refugees and asylum seekers – and that includes Australia.’ So it’s important, he says,  to strike a balance between a strict moral position of not dealing with countries that violate human rights, and ‘a more pragmatic response which is that we are going to have to engage with other nations because it’s a regional and a global issue’.

Since the conclusion of ‘Go Back’, Dr Corlett has started research into children in immigration detention around the world for the International Detention Coalition, with whom he has worked for the past two years.

Dr Corlett has been an advisor to the Asylum Seeker Project of Hotham Mission and the Victorian Foundation for the Survivors of Torture. He is also author of another book: ‘Stormy Weather: The challenge of climate change and displacement’.

See also:  ‘Broken people, broken lives – The story of Australia’s repatriated asylum seekers’