Saturday, January 20, 2007

A better system for all?

Dandenong is a multiethnic working-class suburb in Melbourne's far south. A councillor and former mayor of Dandenong, Peter Brown, made the news last week when he queried the wisdom of bringing African refugees to Australia.

Following reports of a brawl involving 700 Sudanese youths in an area of Greater Dandenong, Peter Brown wrote a letter to The Age, in which he pointed out that:

If the Australian Government chooses to ease the ethnic problems of Black Africa by transporting their citizenry to Australia by the jumbo jetload, then the only achievement will be to remove the problems from one continent beset by them to another continent, Australia.

He made a similar comment to an Age journalist a few days later:

Africa is a basket case ... We're not going to sort out their problems by bringing out people here. Australia is not here to solve the problems of the world.

These are significant criticisms of the current refugee programme, but I'd like to add to them what I think is an even more fundamental objection.

Word is that the next wave of refugees will be Tamils from Sri Lanka. This strikes me as odd. It's true that there has been a conflict between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, so it's certainly possible that there are Tamil political refugees.

But why send these refugees to Australia? The Tamils originally came from the Indian mainland, only 30km away from Sri Lanka. After WWII a number of Tamils (those brought to Sri Lanka in the nineteenth century) were repatriated to India.

The Indian state closest to Sri Lanka is called Tamil Nadu and is a kind of ethnic homeland for Tamils. So doesn't it make sense for Tamil refugees to be sent there, rather than to an entirely foreign country like Australia?

It's not as if India is the worst destination in the world to send refugees to. In fact, there are Indian migrants to Britain who are now returning to India because of the lifestyle attractions. This is how Amrit Dhillon describes her decision to return to India in a recent Age article:

British Government statistics show that thousands of Indians who settled in the UK - mainly professionals - are returning to India in a reverse "brain gain" because India's booming economy offers great opportunities and a quality of life that is no longer irredeemably inferior to what the west offers ...

Indian cities now offer the amenities of the west but with some great extras. The most important of these is the new zeitgeist. India is on the move. It is vibrant, optimistic, confident.

And yet the society is still relatively gentle with relatively low levels of crime. Children can play in the neighbourhood parks and streets.

If you don't find this evidence persuasive, then consider the findings of a recent international wellbeing survey:

The MTVNI study tells a tale of two worlds; a developed world where young people who are materially wealthy but pessimistic about their futures, and a developing world where young people are optimistic and hopeful despite facing greater challenges.

And according to MTVNI's own Wellbeing Index, Indian young people have the greatest perceived sense of Wellbeing out of the countries surveyed.

According to the survey 91% of Indian 16-34 year olds were proud of their country, compared to only 33% of Germans and 35% of Japanese young people.

So the children of Tamil refugees are very likely to grow up happily in India. But what about in Australia?

They are likely to be caught between cultures and identities in Australia. Consider the case of Kabita Dhara, who is of Indian ancestry but grew up in Britain, Singapore and Australia.

She describes in another recent Age article how for 27 years she suffered an "anxiety ... growing up and straddling my Western reality and Indian identity".

She believes that she was only finally able to recognise how her "Indianness fitted into my Australianness" when she married an Australian man according to both Indian and Australian customs.

But why force a young person to go through such difficulties. Wouldn't it be better to have a system which places refugees in countries most ethnically similar to their own?

Such a system would have several advantages. First, it would discourage "economic refugees" from clogging up the system, as resettlement would tend to be in countries with a similar standard of living to the source country.

Second, it would allow the refugees themselves to assimilate most easily into the mainstream culture of their new host country. They wouldn't face the same loss of culture and identity as they would in an entirely foreign Western country.

Third, it would also better respect the ethnic rights of the existing Western populations.

Is it impossible to imagine the UN adopting such a policy? Let me just point out that the UN has already followed such a policy when it comes to orphaned children. When the tsunami hit Sri Lanka in 2004, there were calls for the children orphaned by the disaster to be brought here en masse.

Carolyn Hardy, the Chief Executive of UNICEF Australia, politely declined these calls for exactly the reasons I am pointing to; as The Age report put it:

Ms Hardy said that UNICEF was trying to help children stay in their own community by finding extended family members to care for them.

While Australians wanting to adopt were acting with generosity, Ms Hardy said removing a child from their culture, language, customs and communities would add to their loss.

So it's not impossible to imagine the UN adopting a similar policy for refugees if Western politicians were to support such reforms.


  1. Just a short note to tell you that I have moved my blogging to a wordpress blog at and I would apreciate it if you could update your links accordingly

    best wishes

    Iain hall

  2. Mark, you’re right, it’s difficult to justify it either on moral grounds or by cold hard logic.

    So who is arguing for it and why?

    1. Bureaucracies take on a life of their own, and there is quite a large refugee industry in Australia. In a round about way, most of the negatives you outlined would in fact be positives for them – in the same way that sickness is good for the health industry.

    2. An anti-national middle class commentariat, who whilst having little chance of living amongst the newcomers, feel that they are increasing their social status by becoming "activists" for the "cause".

    3. Perhaps another thing is that the government gets special favour with the UN.

    Add a couple of mindless phrases like "we should open our arms and hearts" and "Australia is a nation of immigrants" – then by default, any opposition is framed as "mean spirited rednecks" at best, closet genocidalists at worst.

  3. Living in the Dandenong area (aka Bogan Central), there seem to be more and more Africans arriving on a daily basis. At least it feels like it.

    I have a few houses of hoons in my street, and when even they are uncomfortable with the Africans, it suggests that something is not right.

    I see no reason at all why refugees shouldn't be settled closer to home, but I guess that makes me a genocial redneck.

    So be it - I'm tired of feeling like a minority in my own suburb.