Sydney Morning Herald, July 3, 2010
With Kevin Rudd dispatched and the ‘great, big tax on everything’ defanged as an election issue, Tony Abbott's firepower will be aimed squarely on the issue of refugees. It will be his last straw, and he will clutch it. Once again Australia faces the ugly prospect of an election that will plumb the depths of xenophobia, just as in 2001.
The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, with her repeated references to Australia as a ‘sanctuary’ (for those of us safely here) gives no early sign of taking a principled stand to change the rhetoric or assuage Australians' fears about the ‘boat people’.
The fears about refugees are irrational in light of the small numbers of asylum seekers who hope to call Australia home; and in light of Australia's proud record of multicultural harmony. There is a curious disjunction between the racism that lies latent, ready to be whipped up by opportunistic politicians, and the civility and everyday rubbing along of all the diverse people in our nation.
Australia is the most cosmopolitan country in the developed world, research by the UTS academic Jock Collins has shown. We have more immigrants per capita and from more diverse sources. In Sydney, 58 per cent of people are first or second generation migrants. People from all over the world live here, and most of the time - the Cronulla riot notwithstanding - they get along pretty well. You just have to lunch in the food hall at the Bankstown shopping centre, as I did this week, to see both the diversity and the harmony. From the wearers of turbans and burqas to those in blue jeans and crop tops everyone was united in the great Australian pastimes of shopping and eating ‘ethnic’ food.
This is the irony of Australia's response to the boat people. Many Australians, in their enclaves, never meet a refugee or recent migrant. But traditionally those who do are polite, accepting, or at least benign, and newcomers have, over time, felt welcome and fitted in. That is why almost 90 per cent of migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds told Monash University researchers last year that they felt they belonged here. They believed even more strongly than the rest of the population, that Australia is a ‘land of economic opportunity where in the end hard work brings a better life’.
My mother, now 82, has been teaching English to refugees in their homes for 10 years, and, being Jewish, was extremely nervous at the start about Muslims, having never met one. Now after having taught several people from Sudan, Syria and Somalia, she realises there are ones she likes and ones she doesn't, and a couple she has loved, including her current student, a mother of two from Sudan, who spent some of her small budget last week to buy my mother a dressing gown for her birthday. My mother won't hear a bad word about Muslims, or refugees, knowing you can't generalise.
Yet this success story, repeated over and over among ordinary people, is a dirty little secret instead of a proud boast. Political leaders shy away from accentuating the positive. They recoil from emphasising that Australians have done a pretty good job in accepting, helping, and accommodating waves of migrants and refugees, and the nation is economically and socially better for it. John Howard stoked the fires of anxiety about terrorism, disease and difference, and it is hard to put the evil genie back in the bottle.
Yet fears about asylum seekers are irrational because of the small numbers involved. Last year Australia received 6206 applications for asylum, according to 2009 Global Trends, a recent report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In comparison, South Africa received more than 220,000 asylum applications, the Republic of Congo received nearly 96,000, France 42,000, Malaysia 40,000 and Canada 34,000. Indeed 32 nations received more applications for asylum than did Australia; on a per capita basis we ranked 41st; and relative to national GDP we were 71st.
It is not that tens of thousands are clamouring to come here - about 3400 have arrived by boat this year - and compared to countries like Pakistan and Iran, with porous borders, and more than 2.7 million refugees in camps between them, our boat people problem is minor. Last year just 3441 asylum seekers were given refugee status in Australia, a number so small it amounts to about 1 per cent of the total immigration intake for that year. They would not be noticed.
The hysteria is utterly disproportionate. And though the numbers of boats are relatively few, it will not be so easy to stop them. Australia is part of the global community, and, like it or not, a world experiencing turmoil, war, and persecution will send millions across the globe looking for safety. A small number is bound to come our way.
The xenophobia the Howard government unleashed in 2001 to help it win an election has left its mark. Another race-based election campaign might be Australia's last straw, inflicting permanent harm on our social cohesion, and unpicking the work of generations.
The most cosmopolitan county in the world lacks a leader who will defend its honourable record as a welcoming multicultural country, rich enough to be generous rather than afraid.