It’s the TV show that’s got every documentary maker kicking themselves for not thinking of it first: the three-part SBS series Go Back to Where You Came From, which turns the contentious issue of asylum seekers into a must-watch reality TV show.

Six participants meet two refugee families in Australia — one from Iraq, one from the Congo — and then retrace the steps of these families’ refugee journeys. This means visiting detention centres in Australia, sailing on a leaky boat and then living in an illegal community in Malaysia, a refugee camp in Kenya and temporary housing in Jordan until they finally return to the respective home nations.

But where did the production company find a 21-year-old woman from the western suburbs of Sydney who will happily call herself a racist on national television or a country and western singer who wants to billet an asylum seeker in her own home?

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When making a reality TV show — although series producer Rick McPhee prefers the term “constructed documentary” — it’s common practise for production companies to advertise for applicants via TV, print ads, websites and social media and then have the interested contestants come to them.

But McPhee told Crikey that the show was a “a giant social experiment” and they wanted a variety of views on refugees represented. Therefore, they used no advertising and instead went out on the ground to interview 400-500 people in order to best gather their opinions on immigration and refugees. They then approached those of interest to see if they’d want to be on the show.

Producers attended the community meeting for residents living near the Inverbrackie Detention Centre in the Adelaide Hills and found Raye Colbey, the “loudest most virulently anti-detention centre person at the meeting”, said McPhee. The production team trawled through the Facebook pages of groups like Fuck off We’re Full and The Australian Protectionist Party.

They also contacted army groups — which is how they made contact with ex-army guy Darren Hassan. Producers spent two days standing in Blacktown mall in Western Sydney, a suburb where a large number of refugees have settled, and talked to passers-by about their views on immigration. That’s how they found Raquel Moore, a young woman who resents her suburb being “invaded” by Africans.

One association contacted had a member who was part of the Cronulla lifeguard association, who led them to Adam Hartup, who was involved in the infamous Cronulla riots. Producers contacted all the major political parties, which lead them to Young Liberals vice president Roderick Schneider. When googling former Tamworth mayor James Treloar — who raised international attention five years ago for saying his town didn’t want any more Sudanese refugees — producers found a news story that referenced a country and western singer Gleny Rae who had a song called Redneck Lovesong.

Other participants who nearly made the final cut included a Christmas Island resident who filmed the boat being ripped apart on the rocks of Christmas Island last December (the man was unavailable to participate due to a new job) and a woman from the English Defence League.

But why did these people agree to be part of a TV show like this? It promises neither fame nor possible fortune. For Raquel and Roderick, it was the chance for their first overseas trip. Gleny and Adam viewed it as an exciting adventure. For Raye, “…her motivation was ‘I have hatred in my heart and it’s like a cancer eating me away and I don’t want to be like that'”, said McPhee. Darren, a man proud of his Muslim heritage but resents Muslims dictating lifestyle choices, equivocated over participating but wanted to investigate why boat people would risk their lives when they’d made it safely to a secondary destination.

This concept of ‘finding out the truth’ was a common theme for participants, the show’s psychologist, Victoria Kasunic, told Crikey. “That was a thread that came up with everyone I interviewed, even those who were not selected, that ‘we don’t know what’s really happening. We’re getting a version of events on the news but is that the reality?'”

All potential participants were interviewed by Kasunic, with several failing the stringent mental tests for stress, anxiety and depression.

Partipants knew very little about what they were in for, unaware they would not be able to contact friends and family, clueless as to where their next destination was. This was “part of the experience because refugees live in a limbo state”, explained McPhee. All they knew was that “they would be challenged, confronted and uncomfortable, but that I promised to keep them safe”.

Contestants received only a flat payment for loss of earnings. The refugee families involved had their expenses compensated, but no additional fees paid.

McPhee refutes Paul Sheehan’s claim in today’s Sydney Morning Herald that the refugee families were “carefully chosen” to force empathetic responses from the participants, explaining the difficulty of convincing any refugee family to be involved in the program. “From the 400+ people we contacted, the same two complaints we got were a) boat people and b) muslims. So we had to address both those issues,” said McPhee. But many refugee families refused involvement because “many were fleeing situations that were dangerous and they were too terrified because they know they are putting their relatives lives in danger.”

Participants may be experiencing more stress now as the show airs and the outrage on social media sites begin, says Kasunic. When asked if someone like Raquel, who admits she is a racist, is prepared for a backlash, Kasunic told Crikey “Raquel is pretty resilient woman, she’s a young girl but she’s honest and is voicing what a lot of people think but they don’t necessarily admit it publicly.”

Although Kasunic has not made formal contact with participants since their return home, producers have kept close contact and counselling is available if required.

“I was delighted with the fact that we had a variety of reactions to the journey that they were confronted with,” said McPhee. “They all had different opinions and some people’s changed and some people’s didn’t.”