Australia's Immigration Dilemma

In 1949, during the White Australia era, the Minister of Immigration tried to deport an Ambonese mother of eight children, although she was then married to a white Anglo-Australian who had fathered her latest child.

That may be a depressing and dispiriting tale, but it is an indication of how far Australia has come, in the six decades I have lived in Australia, including working for nine years at the director level in the immigration ministry, on a wide range of migrant and refugee settlement policies. We are no longer a racist people although we are faced today with a handful of mullahs and professional ethnics who want perpetuation of ethno-tribal differences. We are gradually moving towards the goal that I worked for; one people out of ethnic diversity. This is the backdrop to the current controversy raging in Australia over a plan to send 800 illegal immigrants to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 of theirs, most of them from Burma, who have beens stranded in the latter country. It is part of a largeer --- and currently deeply unpopular -- plan to rationalize illegal immigration across Southeast Asia.

The fact is that by the mid-1970s, this country faced up to the reality that its attempt at a white man's paradise set far from European shores was no more. A white Christian nation set in colored seas was unviable, surrounded as it was by newly independent nations with durable foreign faiths.

The transition of Australia from mono-colored to multi-colored, from mono-faith (but with two warring major sects) to multi-faith, from mono-cultural (with a dreadful cuisine) to multi-cultural, was necessitated by the drive to economic development. But it was a slow and painful process that would change dramatically – and Australia would discover that there was nothing to be afraid of. Selective immigration, the aim of which was to benefit the nation, led from the preferred British to the European (Roman Catholics a bonus), to the slightly tinted Levantines (of the Mediterranean), to (not so strangely) the lightly colored East Asians (most self-titled Christians). The entry of the darker people from the Indian subcontinent, however, was limited by having fewer migrant selection officers out there.

Driven by the concept of a “big Australia,” entry numbers have increased substantially from all over the world, irrespective of color or culture (Christians preferred). Family reunion, obviously popular but which adds little to the productive capacity of the nation and refugee and humanitarian entry, not so popular and which probably adds to the nation's welfare costs, are part of the intake.

Sudden bursts of responsible policy result in the entry of needed skilled immigrants, the value of which is then diminished by permitting entrepreneurs to bring in allegedly skilled temporary workers from Asia. Many of these have been reported by the media to be exploited by fellow-ethnic employers.

Initial assessments of immigrants are now made by private immigration agents, but do they consider the applicant's ability to fit into the country? Comparable to shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, the government now stresses the need for citizenship applicants to support Australian values. It then permitted dual citizenship, presumably to benefit rich guest workers to protect their tax positions back home, or to protect Chinese Australians hoping to counter the Chinese citizenship they cannot disown, or to enable Jewish Australians to live in Israel without losing their Australian passports. The downside is that a dual citizen cannot be viewed as a mercenary were he to fight for his other country of nationality!

Yet the government, aided by many caring individuals, has done an excellent job in assisting immigrants to settle into the country. Migrant hostels (with ethnic cuisines) were available to skilled immigrants and refugees, supported by ethno-specific community social workers.

After a long period of dismay, some anger and some intolerance reflecting unhappiness at their nation being suddenly inundated by people of all kinds bringing foreign cultures, the Anglo-Celt Australians initially, then the cosmopolitan Europeanised Australians, then the multicultural Australians have reached a level of mutual tolerance and coexistence that prevailed in British Malaya before World War Two. There are no isolating ghettos. And migrant-impacted fusion cuisine is the prevailing fashion at eateries.

Gone are the days when foreigners were described as wogs, dagoes, blacks, chinks, or chows; were spoken to rudely in public places, had empty seats next to them on public transport, had difficulty in finding private accommodation and were the last to be served in the shops. Now, even the criminals and prostitutes are multicultural although some categories of crime are ethno-specific.

However, one might wonder whether there is an underlying antipathy to dark skin, reflecting two centuries of a pejorative perception of the indigene. Even the government took a while to notice India despite the latter's powerful navy nearby, and the huge export markets available. A proud-looking ‘Indian' does seem to attract a strange look on some faces, the Europeans being more respectful of the great civilisations of Asia. The issue of equal opportunity, right to the top of the totem pole, needs more time for resolution.

What of racial prejudice? Race, a relic of colonial superiority (all ‘colored races' then being inferior) is now meaningless. Ethno-cultural prejudice prevails. This is tribal superiority. However, like the age-old contest between Catholic and Protestant, such prejudice is now subterranean. Political correctness requires that. As long as prejudice is not translated to discrimination.

Of course, it will. It will take at least two generations for the sudden admixtures of peoples who had not dealt with one another before to move from tolerant co-existence to relating more personally with those of other tribes, Malaysia and Singapore provide the necessary evidence. As for the attacks on some Indian students in one city, this seemed adequately indicative of the serious danger of walking alone through public parks and on empty public streets late at night in any city. Some ethnic youth gangs are also likely to protect their patch (possibly only a street) in the manner of a parade of prostitutes.

However, following the historical practice of the Catholic Church keeping its flock away from all others, some imported mullahs now want sharia law in Australia. If they had enjoyed this law at home, why did they leave it? Is this claim any different from that by some descendants of European immigrants to keep their ethno-tribal cultures identifiably distinct? Both claims may represent an attempt to avoid cultural integration into the nation.

Unlike those nations which perpetuate ethnic community differences for political reasons, Australia seeks integration, not assimilation. Until recently, integration was making good progress. Integration does not prevent anyone from praying as they wish, eating their own foods, dressing according to their custom and celebrating their festivals – as they do now as free citizens.

In the event, why do some signifiers of ethno-tribal differences need to be retained after emigrating by choice into a secular cosmopolitan nation? The obvious signifiers are skull caps, turbans and face cover including full beards. There are no desert sand-carrying wind storms in suburban Australia. Why too would a third generation Australian need to adhere to grandpa's traditions in another land?

Without interference from divisive priests and their acolyte politicians, the natural tendency displayed by little children to reach out to others without regard to skin color, language, etc., will result in what is already seen in Australian schools, in sporting organisations, and in marriage: an osmotic blending of values and a shared behaviour.

Countering those who want retention in perpetuity of their imported cultural differences, or who wish to change the institutions of Australia to enable continued control of their religious flock, will strengthen the path of progressive integration of an ethnically diverse population into one national people. This will need time.

Arasa is the pen name of a bi-cultural Asian Australian who has published three books on ethnic affairs, citizenship, refugee & humanitarian entry, and migrant settlement services.