In a new reality show, Poles will play refugees

The fall schedule of the most popular commercial tv station in Poland, TVN, has sparked a major controversy. In one show, six Poles will travel the route undertaken by the refugees from the Middle East, visiting refugee camps and smugglers' boats.

Ada Petriczko
Ada Petriczko NewsMavens, Poland
In a new reality show, Poles will play refugees - NewsMavens
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Why this story matters:

"Wracajcie, skąd przyszliście” ("Go back to where you came from") is a local version of an Australian show that has aired in many countries. Its producers' aim is to make viewers more aware of the reality of the refugees' lives.

The problem, of course, is that reality shows don’t have much to do with reality.

According to TVN's press release, "for almost a month, the participants of the series will live like refugees and with refugees -- deprived of wallets, mobile phones and passports.” The producers seem to have forgotten that many refugees do actually have mobile phones -- a fact often used to their disadvantage by xenophobic commentators.

But being a refugee is not about lacking a phone. It’s about lacking a choice.

Before the show begins, will the producers bomb the houses of the participants and kill some of their relatives? Will they starve, dehydrate them and force them to have sex with a smuggler for a life jacket? Or will they put makeup on their faces and negotiate a lucrative deal with the sponsors?

And what if we staged a similar show in Auschwitz -- a place where not only Jews, but also many Poles were murdered.

Would the producers be equally keen on airing it?

In a heated debate that followed the release, some argued that the show could succeed in making Poles more sensitive to the issue of refugees. The problem with this argument is that -- although it seems to come from a well-meaning perspective -- it falls into the same trap of objectifying the refugees. They are seen here as merely means to an end -- a way of raising social awareness in Poland.

And even if the show does fullfill this goal, then the risk is that -- with the help of reality tv's cheap pathos -- the mass audience will quickly accept the refugee experience as part of pop-culture, instead of as real trauma.

In the end, there is something fundamentally immoral in the idea that Poland, a country that refused to welcome refugees from the Middle East, is now commercializing their fate.

Details from the story:

  • The four episodes of "Wracajcie, skąd przyszliście” will be aired in late fall.
  • The press release of the show reads that its participants will travel through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Greece, Lebanon and Kurdistan. "It will be one of the toughest excursions in their lives,” the producers boast. "They will find themselves in a refugee camp, on a smugglers' boat and even in an area of conflict.”
  • "We are aware that this is a politically sensitive and potentially controversial subject, but we would like this show to be a voice in a wider debate,” claims Bogdan Czaja, deputy head of TVN programming.
  • This is not the first time that TVN commercializes the lives of people from developing countries. In "Asia Express” -- a show that was also bought on a license from abroad -- celebrities travelled through the continent, trying to survive on one dollar a day (which used to be the threshhold of extreme poverty). In "Efekt domina” ("Domino effect”), a wealthy entrepreneur and philantropist, Dominika Kulczyk, takes the viewers on a world tour while engaging in charity.
  • The original Australian series "Go back to where you came from” was sold to the following countries: Denmark, The Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, South Africa, Israel, Belgium and the United States of America.
  • The idea of Europeans travelling the Balkan route does not necessarily have to be ethically dubious. Last year, a Polish journalist and activist, Anna Alboth, led the March for Aleppo. Over the period of 8 months, a group of Europeans walked from Berlin to the border with Syria, to show solidarity with the refugees and raise awareness. This year, the initiative was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
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