Australia is a nation of immigrants. But why is immigration such a “hot button” topic around the world?
Recent events have us believe, Dear Reader, that we are in the tiny minority of people who actually welcome immigration to … Australia, Europe, America … and elsewhere.
In the EU, anti-immigration sentiment is running so strongly that right wing parties which previously would not have been given headspace have soared to unlikely prominence in the recent Euro elections, especially in France and Britain, but also in Denmark and elsewhere.
So why is this mood so prevalent at the moment?
It is simply, in our opinion, because it is so easy to mis-handle migrant programmes and annoy the host communities, and also because migrants become an easy target when people become disgruntled generally. And generally disgruntled many people undoubtedly are, with the stresses of the failures of a fundamentally de-regulated capitalist system (especially in America) manifesting itself as a “Global Financial Crisis” which is still reverberating through the world’s economies.
Let us take the first point first.
When waves of migrants land in a particular country, whether it is Chadians in Italy, Algerians in France, Turks in Germany, Poles in the UK, Latinos in America or Afghans in Australia, the Government needs to demonstrate that the society is capable of absorbing those waves comfortably.
A rally in New York protesting cuts in English as a Second Language classes and other adult literacy services.
It needs to actively sell the advantages the migrants bring with them, and to put in place rigorous and thorough integration programmes to both inculcate local values to the new migrants (eg an explanation of and belief in democracy if they come from countries with authoritarian governments, trust and confidence in the police, an explanation of how social support systems work, top up education where required, an introduction to local business norms, and, above all, host language classes) and to reassure the locals that the things they hold dearest are not going to be watered down or abolished.
These are areas in which Australia leads the world, at one time a generation ago having the clarion call “Populate or Perish!”, and it is no surprise that Australia absorbs immigrants with more seeming ease than almost anywhere else on the planet.
For example, there is almost no anti-Islamic sentiment in Australia, despite the current levels of tension between the Islamic world and the West (I say almost, because to pretend there is none would simply be a lie, it exists on the fringes as virulently as anywhere else), and this is in start contrast to the much more overt mutual loathing and suspicion of many in the Muslim community and the host communities in Britain and France, for example.
It seems to us that one of the worst signals a Government can send is to allow “ghetto-isation”, to wit, the geographic concentration of ethnic groups, with high expectations but low levels of genuine opportunity, and especially when they do not share the host country’s language. The people who live in those areas might welcome the variety that comes with it – the new shops, restaurants, looks, sounds and smells – but they are just as likely, depending on the scale of the immigration and its clash with the local culture, to be angered and unsettled by it. And in this respect, even Australia has shown itself to be less than imaginative.
It is not racist to acknowledge this reality. It is annoyingly politically correct, and stupid, to ignore it.
When Government ignores it, people vote with their feet. They often leave the areas concerned (increasing the effects of ghetto-isation) and wax lyrical about how they were “pushed out”, “overwhelmed”, “driven away”. Those who listen to them, who may not have experienced anything negative at all personally, are understandably concerned for their fellow host nationals. They then become easy fodder for those who prey on people’s fears of the unknown. One plus one becomes two then ten then a hundred and ten, and before you know it, a whole set of anxieties about immigration in general have grown up.
Populist parties, to continue to point two, then seize on this generalised anxiety and target migrant groups as a means of crystallising anti-Government sentiment. They could care less if they cause harm to the civic body: they seek power. Hitler was the ultimate exemplar of this process, but his egregious sins have been repeated, to some extent or other, all over the world, both before and since.
Over time, even ghetto-isation fixes itself, because in reality, of course, immigration does not equate to lowered economic results – rather the opposite. Survey after survey shows that migrants tend to work harder and be more entrepreneurial than their host nationality, they make a net contribution to levels of economic activity, and are socially more mobile than the locals. The ghettos become steadily better off, and the occupants move out to the leafy suburbs, while those that stay behind turn the area into a well-regulated locale with their own cultural flavour. (The Chinatowns of the world are the easiest example to grasp.) As it becomes clear that the whole area is not going to hell in a hand-basket, so it gradually becomes more diverse again, (with the children of the host nation often moving into lower-cost accommodation in the newly gentrified ghetto) and it forms a more comfortable relationship with the neighbouring boroughs.
An anti-immigration billboard in Zurich, Switzerland. And if that looks disturbingly familiar, that’s because it is.
What saddens us about the generalised debate about immigration is that it becomes a catch all discussion for debates that are really about economics.
Invariably, immigrant communities make a stunning contribution to their local society, (the research is unanimous), driven by both ambition and their unique skills. Where would America’s track and field team be without African Americans, where would its music be without African and Latino influence, (where would world music be, for that matter), how would any English Premier League team field a side without descendants of West Indian migrants in it, where would Australian science, gastronomy and architecture be without the immigrants from Europe after the war, and so on and so on? Ad infinitum.
Indeed, one could argue that many countries of the world still celebrate elements of their former colonial overlords – which could be viewed as forced immigration, if you like – where would India be without its system of Government and law? In Vietnam they still idolise French cakes and pastries, in Singapore the mercantile system, and so on and so on, again ad infinitum.
It is this point we wish to stress. The mingling of races, cultures, religions and peoples is as old as humanity itself, and it is actually, more often than not, a spur to progress and positive evolution. Yes, it can create stresses and tensions, but it should not be beyond our wit and wisdom to ameliorate those, and certainly not beyond our ability to counter the toxic propaganda of those who argue fiercely and frequently ignorantly about the role that migrants play. It is all about a steady, unspectacular exercise of the political will. To often, though, our spineless politicians quake and quiver in the face of ignorance, lacking the leadership ability to win the contest of ideas.
In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote these words. In 1903 they were engraved on the Statue of Liberty.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me …”
How did we ever stray so far from ideals like that?
The Ainger Award winners from 2013 – last night was the 2014 final.
Your indefatigable correspondent has been given over to these ponderings in the last 24 hours because we have just finished judging the Ainger Awards, a competition for public speaking for teenagers in Melbourne.
Over 100 youngsters stepped up to the plate and spoke on any topic they liked for four high-pressure minutes, from new technology and how it blinds us to the world around us, to the plight of the disadvantaged native peoples of the world, to the position of women in society, to their inability to drive or relate to the opposite sex, their fascination with space travel to their love of words.
Over four heats and a final, the brightest and best young people from a host of Melbourne schools dazzled and occupied us with their intellectual capacity, their passion, and their empathy for the world around them. It is the fourth time we have participated, and it was, as always, inspirational. There is a blessed naiveté in the young that we should do everything to preserve as long into adulthood as we can. Theirs is a world of moral imperatives, or problems that can and should be righted, of moments that should be seized, or barriers that must be broken down. The wary and weary cynicism of adulthood is yet to invade their tired limbs and minds, and we are all the better for it. We should listen to them more.
What really struck me, though, in a quiet moment, was their ethnicity. As the Chairman of the judges, it was our role to announce each speaker, and more than once we simply could not divine how to pronounce their surnames. Impossibly complicated names from Iran, India, Sri Lanka, Albania, Russia, Ukraine, Kenya, Nigeria, China and Vietnam. It is a noticeable trend that increases every year, reflecting the variety of immigration into the country.
With a cheerful smile they would correct our stumbling attempt and then deliver their speech, sometimes in heavily accented English, and sometimes in perfect Aussie English, showing that their parents had been the immigrants and they were born here. To a boy and girl, they watched their fellow students with polite and rapt attention, applauded furiously, and chatted cheerfully to each other in the breaks. Reflecting, no doubt, the character of their school life, they were very obviously and completely oblivious to the ethnic background of their fellow contestants.
The kid from Russia talked, with a strong accent, of his magnificent stumbles and struggles to learn English and of how he appreciated the opportunities available in his new country. And yet here, also, in the blink of an eye, was already the cliched version of a perfectly-formed Aussie – tall, lithe of limb, blonde, an amiable ambling giant, modest and shy in company but with a ready smile.
The pocket-rocket daughter of an African immigrant delivered a riveting piece on concepts of self and identity, challenging us to look beyond the surface of people to understand their needs, their drives, exactly what it is that makes an individual. Immediately one could see her successfully prosecuting a case at the Bar, or leading some seminal social studies research.
And the winner, the child of Hare Krisna immigrants from Northern India, had us laughing our pants off with a humorous confection of “Things that annoy” me, delivered in perfect accentless English, but with a gleaming smile and confident swagger that could have been imported direct from the can-do markets of Madras. We confidently expect him to head a major corporation one day.
His parents, vegetarians, quietly and with great dignity, knowing that they were unlikely to be catered for but not wishing to make a fuss with the waiting staff, brought tupperware containers of their own food to the silver-service white napkin- and candle-laden table. They politely insisted we share their “paneer”, little cubes of cheese nestling with diced courgettes in a delicious lightly-spiced tomato gravy, which complemented the rubber chicken the hotel served us perfectly – saved it, in fact. Their generosity was as unforced as it was moving.
We have been given over to pondering, who wouldn’t want these people in their society? These driven, uncompromising teenagers. Their smiling, polite, and patently obviously decent parents, sacrificing, one does not doubt, some of the creature comforts of life to ensure their kids get a decent education in their new land.
As we left, the mother of the Russian boy, who didn’t win, by the by, pressed a small plastic key ring into my hand, with the Kremlin on one side and St Basil’s on the other. She patted herself on the chest and told me her name with a big grin. Then she indicated the keyring. “Moscow! Moscow! Hello to Moscow!” she beamed at me. “Spasibo!” I replied, to her obvious delight. Her son asked me to sign his speech notes. “I am not a rock star!” I protested. “To me you are,” he smiled, quietly.
I signed his speech, and then turned to congratulate the girl with Ukrainian parents who had just delivered the best exposition of society’s need for a rational, sane but determined feminism that I had heard in a decade. She pumped my hand with thanks as I urged her to smash through the glass ceiling when inevitably she came up against it, how it was as much in womens’ heads as it was in men’s hearts, and how inspirational I found her speech and how I hoped she remembered it when that day inevitably came.
And then I hurriedly left before my watery eyes betrayed how proud I was of all of them. My fellow Australians. Who wouldn’t want these people here?
Not me. I want more like them. Am I really alone?