M is for Migrants
“‘I understand the strength of emotion that causes people to behave improperly, to use rash, angry words and to resort to violent actions. I understand the deep empathy which brought you all here today. I also understand what drives people from their homes to risk their lives on such uncertain promises as made by unscrupulous smugglers, exposing themselves to untold dangers. Do not forget that I am a boat person. I arrived in this beautiful country as an illegal immigrant, a queue jumper, courtesy of the money my father paid to a smuggler. I do understand the issues. The concern of course it how to get the balance right. Neither an open door policy, or a turn the boats around policy will suffice to humanely and justly manage this complex problem.’
He paused, and inhaled the anticipation of the audience. With the protestors long gone, and the juice stains drying nicely on his suit, the time had come to close his address. It was vital that he leave them hungry because he had more to feed them later, when he was ready.” from chapter 6, Ashmore Grief
Australia is a migrant nation. We have been dependent on migration for growth since Arthur Phillip led the First Fleet into Sydney Cove in 1788. Beginning with convicts and a smattering of free settlers, through the Gold Rush which saw 600 000 people come to Australia from all over the world, to federation in 1901, when migration policy began to be dominated by the infamous “White Australia Policy” which effectively ended Asian migration for fifty years.
The end of the second world war caused another dramatic shift with then Prime Minister, Ben Chifley declaring that we should “populate or perish” (my paraphrase). A Department of Immigration was established and Australia began to accept significant numbers of refugees from Europe. In 1972 with the coming to power of the first Labour government since 1946, the racist quota system was replaced by something called ‘structured selection’ whereby migrants would be chosen according to social and personal attributes, and occupational group rather than country of origin. Three years later the first ‘boat people arrived and Australia experienced a wave of refugees from Southeast Asia, principally Vietnam and Cambodia.
Despite Australia’s incredible ethnic diversity, (around 50 statistically significant ethnic groups) and our continued record of successful and peaceful multiculturalism, the hysteria surrounding our current crop of illegal boat arrivals demonstrates the xenophobia which lies beneath the surface of our smiles. Roughly one in four Australians were born overseas, and sadly, this still bothers too many people.