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Polish reality TV show offers participants the opportunity “to live like refugees”

Private Polish broadcaster TVN recently announced it will air, later this fall, a reality TV show where participants will have to live like refugees.

Modeled on a similar program aired in Australia from 2011 to 2015, the Polish version of “Go back to where you came from” will follow, during almost a month, six Polish citizens as they retrace the journey of refugees. Equipped with a bit of money, a passport and their cell-phone, the six participants will leave from Berlin and travel through Central Europe, the Balkans, arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos before embarking on a boat to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Their journey, which includes en-route stops to meet real migrants going the opposite way, will end in the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.

The announcement sparked outrage among civil society organisations. Aid groups accused the television network of “poverty porn” and of trying to make money on the back of refugees’ traumatizing experience and ordeals. The Polish Humanitarian Action (PAH) and the Polish Medical Mission (PMM) have reportedly turned down requests by TVN to provide help and advice on the show. Talking to Reuters, head of PMM’s humanitarian aid program Malgorzata Olasinska-Chart argued that “the show most probably wants to play on those emotions that we wanted to protect” and capitalize on the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war-torn countries.

Others, however, have decided to consider the show in a more positive light. Agnieszka Kunicka, a spokeswoman for Refugee.pl, came out in favor of the initiative: “Television, of course, has huge power, and if (the show) will be produced in the right way, I think it could help”.

TVN has attempted to promote the program as a documentary rather than as a simple reality show, claiming it hopes it can contribute to the debate on immigration and foster discussions on the issue. “This will be one of the hardest journeys of their lives”, it said in the press statement. “How will this journey change the views on immigration for our heroes? Will this change the way they look at their own lives?” Piotr Krasko, one of the journalists who followed the participants on their journey, also highlights the possible benefits of the program: “Usually, we have a very definite standpoint in this matter, but many of us have never met refugees, talked to them, got to know their history, learned how exactly they came to Europe and why they had to run away”.

The show, which chose three participants in favor on their country taking in refugees and three people against, presumably aims to foster the debate in a country which has repeatedly refused, over the last few years, to accept refugees coming from Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East. A July survey by CBOS found that only 5% of Poles believe refugees fleeing a war in their own country should be allowed to establish themselves in Poland.

Such figures would, maybe, be understandable if the country already had to manage the arrival and integration of millions of refugees. But with foreign born residents accounting for less than 2% of its total population (and 1.1% born outside of the EU), Poland is one of the most ethnically homogeneous country in the world. Populist rhetoric and false statements, by elected officials and the media alike, progressively blew the topic out of proportions. So much so that, according to a recent poll, Poles believe that 10% of the population comes from outside of the EU. Ten times the real figures.

Getting the numbers straight would be a first step in the right direction. If TVN’s program can help Poles get a better understanding and grasp of the reality of migration, then, why not…

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