Press Conference Assignment and Lessons from “Go Back to Where You Came From”

Earlier this year I had an assessment for uni in which a mock press conference was held in one of our lectures. We then had 24 hours to write a news story from the answers our ‘talent’ gave to our questions. Our ‘talent’ was the Executive Manager for the Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland (ECCQ) Ian Muil. He had a lot of interesting things to say, and here’s what I came up with:

“The Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland says its advocacy for promoting multiculturalism has been successful, but says political leadership is need on the issue of asylum seekers.

ECCQ Executive Manager Ian Muil said yesterday that their first success was to gain “a genuine hearing” with policy makers.

Mr Muil said Queensland now has a new multicultural policy.

“We haven’t seen the final version of it, but we had a lot of input.”

“There have been instances of physical results, with money and portions of the budget being allocated,” he said.

Mr Muil said the role of the ECCQ was varied, but has particular focus on settling new arrivals, and helping them to understand their rights.

He said responsibility lies with landlords and real estate agents to not take advantage of migrants who are unaware of their rights as tenants.

The ECCQ said in a media release that a study found that 80% of refugees in Queensland “struggled to find somewhere appropriate to live” whilst “62% cited affordability of housing as a key issue”.

Mr Muil said that no timeframe can be put on the success of multiculturalism, as it is an ongoing issue.

“Society is dynamic, it’s changing all the time.”

“The mix of our refugees and migrants is changing, and as the nature of our economy changes we’re bringing in different skills,” he said.

In relation to asylum seekers and the perceptions of migrants in the wider community, Mr Muil said leadership was important.

He said the leadership shown by Malcolm Fraser to allow all Vietnamese refugees of the Vietnam War into Australia after 1975 lead to the successful integration of the Vietnamese community.

“The leadership was there, the community didn’t rise up, there were no huge repercussions as a result of that settlement.”

“Today we have a Vietnamese community that is very well established in Australia, and the children of those refugees are doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers – Australia’s benefitted hugely,” he said.

Mr Muil also said the responsibility of the media and education system where also important.”

What I found most interesting was Mr Muil’s comments on the Vietnamese community in Australia. What he said, in full, was this: “After 1975, when North Vietnam won the Vietnam War, thousands of refugees – boat people – from the South arrived on our shores. Malcolm Fraser, the Prime Minister at the time said ‘We will take in every one’, and it was done. The leadership was there, the community didn’t rise up, there were no huge repercussions as a result of that settlement. Today we have a Vietnamese community that is very well established in Australia, and the children of those refugees are doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers – Australia’s benefited hugely.” Mr Muil works with refugees, asylum seekers and other immigrants, behind the media hysteria and political brawling, and sees them as an economic and cultural asset for Australia. Indeed my father, who manages the largest tomato growing glasshouse in Australia, finds his employees from India, Sudan and other nations are both more willing to work and harder workers than their ‘Australian’ workmates.

Last night saw the broadcast of the last installment of SBS’s excellent ‘Go Back to Where You Came From’ series. In contrast to the rest of the series, the final episode was regrettably ‘reality TV’-ish, with far too much self reflection, tears and gratuitous overuse of the word ‘journey’. I was hoping for (and this being SBS and all, was probably justified in expecting) an open forum where politicians and social commentators could debate with the shows participants in light of the glaringly obvious facts that ‘Go Back’ made, well, more obvious.

Therein lies the sadness at the heart of ‘Go Back to Where You Came From’. It’s not the stories of the refugees and the unlivable situations they’ve escaped, but the simple fact that ‘Go Back’ was necessary at all. Do we really need to be reminded that yes, refugees and asylum seekers are on the whole generous, kind, friendly people, just like the rest of us? That yes, sending asylum seekers to Malaysia is a grossly irresponsible act on the part of our government? Even Malaysia’s Bar Council, the country’s main lawyers association says “Malaysia still falls far short of the standards to be to be expected of a country entering into an extraterritorial processing arrangement”. Yes, the situations these people flee really are that bad. We see images of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan on the news every night. We know how repressive the governments of China, Burma, Syria, most of Africa etc are, and what they do to their opponents. If we don’t, we’re not looking, or traditional journalism has failed to make us care.

Looking at the ‘Your Say’ comments section on the ‘Go Back’ website it becomes apparent that there’s a big emphasis on the source of the refugee ‘problem’ – the problems in the source countries and how we can help alleviate them. This is a worthy notion, but when we consider acting on the behalf of oppressed people in other countries we must learn from history. Military interventions like those in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq don’t work. Likewise, sanctions can prove catastrophically ineffective, as evidenced by Saddam Hussein’s continued rule whilst child mortality rates more than doubled in Iraq under UN sanctions. Humanitarian aid needs to be carefully directed and monitored so corrupt officials don’t take advantage, and the money is wasted. Furthermore, aid can only address and help economic refugees. It does nothing to alleviate the repression of authoritarian regimes. Thus, foreign intervention is at best unable to address the absence of political freedom, and at worst terribly harming the people it’s supposed to help. In the absence of an effective alternative, the acceptance of both economic and political refugees is possibly the best we can do.

Additionally, there’s also an unsettling racial element to some comments, directed chiefly at the Muslim and Arab immigrant population. Some comments claim that Muslim immigrants openly resist integration into Australian society, whilst others go so far to claim that they want to create some kind of Islamic caliphate here. Really? People believe this stuff? In ‘Go Back’, the participant Darren makes the same claim. He’s sharply rebuked, both by fellow participants and the Iraqi immigrants he was staying with.

During our mock press conference one girl – I guess she was eyeing a career at Today Tonight or A Current Affair – wondered wasn’t Mr Muil concerned that Australia would become ‘culturally tainted’ by the arrival of so many asylum seekers? ‘Culturally tainted’?! Mr Muil can be commended for his restrained response. A white man, he replied saying “What, you mean if they don’t have barbecues on the beach or go out and glass people at 3am on a Sunday morning? I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean by culturally tainted. Did I culturally taint your country when I arrived here thirty years ago?” Our young offender was silent. Asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants, boat people – they’ve become politically toxic terms in this country. Why? Why are we so averse to the idea of people seeking a better life for themselves and their families in ‘our’ country?

Some of the comments on the ‘Go Back’ website seem to come with the assumption that asylum seekers are inherently greedy. John Wilson from Nambour claims that most boat people are economic refugees. He may be right, I’m not sure of the numbers. But the effect of this, he says, will be that

“Our grandchildren will be doomed to live in a teeming, crime-ridden, multi-cultural hell and will curse us for our lack of foresight and blind stupidity. Many of the boat people must see us as a soft- touch and behave accordingly. I have not heard any reports of riots or arson attacks occurring in the awful overseas refugee camps depicted in your program. Ask yourselves why?”

Firstly, I would advise him that those “awful overseas refugee camps” are much worse than those run by the Australian government, even if only marginally so. Did he even watch the program? And see the experiences of refugees in Kenya’s Kakuma camp? Secondly, it makes the assumption that all poor people in third world countries are greedy for wanting a better life for themselves and their families. In one of the deleted scenes from Episode 1, Adam goes with Thair, an Iraqi refugee, to his workplace in western Sydney. There, Thair’s boss informs Adam that a) Thair and other migrants are among the hardest workers (a claim backed up by my father’s experience as an employer) and b) that more migrants are needed to do those sort of entry level jobs, to start to gain experience and move up in the trade.Thirdly, I love Mr Wilson from Nambour’s assumption that allowing in more refugees will automatically turn Australia into “a teeming, crime-ridden, multicultural hell”. Spot the racism?

‘Go Back to Where You Came From’ is, as one punter put it, probably the most important television event in the past decade. What’s sad is that it needed to happen. There’s obviously a racial element to all this, hidden beneath the surface, and this is where political leadership is needed. Ian Muil admired Malcolm Fraser’s political leadership because, in the aftermath of the White Australia Policy and the ‘Yellow Peril’, he decided to take the initiative and let in the Vietnamese asylum seekers. The result has been a great success for multiculturalism. However, as Mr Muil stresses, we must be aware that multiculturalism is an ongoing issue – you can’t create a time frame for its ‘success’. That’s part of the fun. “Society is dynamic. It’s changing all the time.”

For further reading I recommend the Refugee Council of Australia’s Frequently Asked Questions or Myths About Refugees pages.

Finally, I welcome comments. This is a hotly debated issue after all. All I ask is that before you start blasting away, please do some research. Back up your claims with verified facts and some links. Anyone can claim that more refugees/immigrants will destroy Australian society, or that pigs can fly.

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