Pffft! Refugees?! More like Shmefugees! AMIRITE?!

This week witnesses Paul Sheehan’s response to the SBS series ‘Go Back to Where you Came From’, which takes six Australians of varying political leanings and with different beliefs about refugees and gets them to live ‘the life of a refugee’ for 30 odd days.

Sheehan complains that the series is manipulative- both of the people involved and of the audience viewing the program at home. He believes that the program is engaging in what one of the participants described as ‘enforced empathy’- meaning that those involved are being forced to empathise with refugees against their will. In attempting to stir up this empathy Sheehan believes that the program is perpetuating a ‘falsity’ that underpins the debate on boat people, which is that those who are opposed to the arrival of refugees by boat are necessarily lacking in empathy and compassion.

Firstly I want to tackle this issue of ‘enforced empathy’ because it is a concept that I am wholly unfamiliar with. According to my understanding of empathy, which is to put yourself in another’s shoes and feel for them as you would for yourself in that situation, it is not something that actually can be forced. Yes, the participants are being put in other people’s shoes (an integral part of achieving empathy) by living the life of a refugee, but the issue of force is not one you can really justify here seeing as they volunteered for the experience. What also must be recognised is that merely living someone else’s life does not mean you will have empathy for them, it does not mean that you will be able to suspend your own perspective and fully engage with somebody else’s, nor does it mean that if you do that, that it will result in you feeling for that person.

Empathy cannot be forced and no matter what situation this documentary puts these people in, they cannot actually force them to feel bad. Evidence of that can be seen in the program itself, where one of the participants, Raquel, continues to lack empathy for refugees despite her experiences. She calls them criminals and continually denies her commonality with them due to the difference of race and upbringing. She fundamentally sees herself as separate to black people and as a result the only person she feels sorry for in the Kenyan refugee camp is herself. Quote- “I don’t see how I can possibly get through this.”, “I wasn’t brought up like this. These guys were brought up like this but I wasn’t so it’s harder for me.”

Or we could look at when Raquel witnessed a raid on refugees working illegally in Australia and she stated how good she thought it was and how exciting and fun it was to be there, as a grown man broke down in tears near her, clutching the leg of one of the officers saying “Please God. I just needed some work. Please forgive me.”

Alternatively one could look at the reaction Darren Hassan, the man whose words of ‘enforced empathy’ have so captured Sheehan’s heart, and his excitement and sense of power that he visibly exhibits when helping the police to locate refugees who are trying to escape arrest- an arrest which could lead to being caned, imprisoned or deported.

Sheehan believes that it is completely false to suggest that those opposed to ‘boat people’ are discompassionate or prejudiced in any way, but that they merely operate on a benign political principle of ‘border control’, “[it is suggested] that if you believe in stopping the small number of asylum seekers who arrive by boat, you are lacking in empathy, lacking in compassion, and probably anti-Muslim…[but] this debate is not about empathy. It is not about numbers. It is not about race. It is about principle: control the borders.”

What Sheehan fails to acknowledge, however, is that people who oppose ‘boat people’ do lack empathy for boat people and they do hold racist and Islamaphobic views. You need merely look at the people in the documentary, the people whom Sheehan champions, to see evidence of this. Darren Hassan talks about “bloody Muslims” and interrogates a Muslim refugee on his attitude to women. Raye Colbey says that when she saw footage of the boat of asylum seekers crashing and sinking off Christmas Island, subsequently killing over 50 men, women and children, she thought “Serves you bloody right”.

Even when faced with refugees telling their stories- of watching their children die, their young sisters being raped and their parents killed, the most empathetic thing that Young Liberal Roderick Schneider can muster is “Not a very happy story” as he gives a Brentian look of discomfort to the camera.

Race is certainly a factor for participant Raquel who openly admits that she is racist and that she doesn’t like Africans. She firmly believes that ‘Africa is for Africans and Australia is for Australians’, clearly indicating that she views ‘Australian’ as synonymous with ‘white’.

It seems to me that the issue is endemically one of race, or at least one of difference, because ultimately these participants (until they come face to face with actual refugees) are entirely unable to empathise with or understand refugees and the paths they take for survival. They view coming here by boat as an act of disrepect, not an act of desperation- they see it as the act of people who are ‘not like us’ and whose behaviour we could never possibly understand. Yet I wonder if these people were white- if they were American or British- would there be such a lack of empathy? Or would American and British refugees be seen as more familiar, more like us and therefore more easily understood and loved.

Ultimately when Hassan and Sheehan complain of ‘enforced empathy’ what they are really saying is that they resent having to feel bad for people that they don’t really want to have to care about.

The one thing I do agree with that Paul is saying, is that the documentary is slanted in the favour of refugees. I believe that it is, however I don’t think it is engaging in half-truths in order to evoke its audience’s endorsement. Rather, I think that they are revealing a rarely seen world of refugee experience and that as human beings with the ability to judge what is right and wrong- we are compelled to see and understand the truth.

Ignoring these issues that I have with Sheehan’s logic I’d like to now have a look at some classic Sheehan-isms where he engages in his own technique of manipulation. Such as presenting half truths.

Sheehan states:

“In the first part, on Tuesday night, the unseen narrator said the participants had just ”survived a sinking, burning boat”. In fact it was an obvious charade.We were told that ”at the last minute, the stricken boat is spotted”. Again, only for the gullible. The rescue was as false as the emergency.”

Sheehan is completely correct- it was an elaborate charade. What he doesn’t mention, however, is that the documentary tells the participants and the audience afterwards that it was manufactured and that they were never in any real danger. Which, if you had any understanding of the concept of liability and endangerment, you would have realised from the get go. Yes, this manipulated the participants into fearing something that wasn’t actually real but it still stuck within the show’s guidelines- which was for the people involved to go through the experience of a refugee. Boat’s sinking and burning and malfunctioning is a pretty standard experience for refugees travelling here from Malaysia- so just because the show didn’t actually put 6 people in mortal danger, that doesn’t mean that the experience itself is mythical.

Sheehanism number two is the ole ‘hit and run’, where he calls shenanigans on something and then doesn’t explain why. Witness:

“The narrator told us that only ”1 per cent of the world’s refugees are resettled by the UN”. Again, a highly misleading statistic.”

*cricket’s chirping*

Oh, that was it? That was your argument? Just stating that it’s a misleading statistic and not countering it with any argument or explanation. Ok. Cool. You do that.

Paul also presents questions asked by the participants that he complains are unanswered by the documentary. Let’s have a gander.

“Adam Hartup: Why didn’t the boat people stay in Malaysia or Indonesia where they were in no danger?”

The documentary does answer this question by explaining that in Malaysia and Indonesia, refugees are actually in danger. They can’t earn money, they live in squalor and because neither country is signatory to the UN refugee convention, their human rights aren’t protected.

“Why do 99 per cent of them arrive with no papers?”

This was answered in the first episode when an Iraqi refugee explained that the people smugglers take your papers and if you refuse to hand them over then you are shot.

“Darren Hassan: Once they leave Malaysia, and then Indonesia, they become economic migrants. We need to send a tougher signal. People who are destroying documents, what are they trying to hide?”

This is just the first two questions combined so…see above.

“Raye Colbey (after visiting settled refugees from Africa who had come via the UN process): These are real refugees. They came the right way.”

That’s not a question, Paul. That’s a statement of opinion. But hey, let’s consider it anyway. In saying that those in refugee camps are ‘real refugees’, Raye is actually applying a value judgement and altering the definition of refugee. To clarify, a refugee (according to the United Nations Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees) is: “a person who is outside their own country and is unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, political opinion.”

Raye’s sweeping generalisation implies that those coming to Australia by boat are not living in fear of persecution, a fear that forces them to leave their country. I don’t believe that is a judgement that either Sheehan or Raye are qualified to make, which is why there is an intricate process in place to process asylum seekers and assess their claims.

Sheehan is right that the documentary doesn’t answer this last question directly- instead it presents the evidence to the audience and allows them to make their own decision as to whether this is true. Which, for someone who is complaining that the documentary is biased, you would think Sheehan would be happy about.

Furthermore, by implying that people coming by boat aren’t genuine refugees Sheehan undercuts his own argument that he is really only interested in border control and refugee welfare. Rather, what he is doing is presenting a facade of compassion while accusing boat people of not being refugees, but rather of being suspicious, paperless people who are coming here for underhanded, unknown reasons.

Sheehan says that “None of these basic questions were seriously addressed by the producers in their opening salvo” but (apart from the fact that that isn’t true) I think there’s actually a more serious question that hasn’t been asked.

When on earth is Paul Sheehan going to get all of that sand out of his vagina?

To read Sheehan’s article, dial 666 and offer your first born. Either that or go to this link:


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