Playing the race card

Last night when I was driving home, I saw a large group of boys standing on the pavement outside the Housing Commission flats. The boys were predominately of African descent. I was thinking about it when I got home. The boys had been dominating the footpath. Would I have felt nervous if I had been walking on the street and had to push past them? Yes, I would have. Was it because they were African? No, not at all. It was because they were male and blocking the footpath. Regardless of race, religion or class, as a lone woman, I would feel slightly worried about having to pass a large group of boys. I don’t think they were a gang, they were just a group of boys hanging out with nothing better to do, but that’s when boys get up to mischief. It made me think more deeply about the news of the last few days.

It was with a sinking heart that I watched the news the other night with stories of Sudanese gangs terrorising Noble Park and Dandenong. The news release dredged up the crimes committed by Sudanese refugees Taban Gany and Hakeem Hakeem. The implication seemed to be that all Sudanese refugees were lawless drunkards and rapists. Sudanese refugees had become an issue because a young Sudanese man, Liep Gony, was bashed to death at Noble Park railway station by two youths who were not of Sudanese descent. Sudanese people have been victims of crime too.

The response of the Federal government was to say that it had limited the intake of African refugees to Australia because of their difficulties in integrating. Various interest groups and Sudanese community groups then said that this was racist.

Neither response is going to resolve the problem. Just because some Sudanese refugees commit crimes does not mean that all Sudanese refugees have integration problems. On the other hand, if there are problems with a small section of the community, they should be faced and people’s concerns should not simply be dismissed as racist. That dismisses the concerns of people who may feel worried. It’s better to actually confront the concerns and see if there’s any valid points.

Sudan is a very troubled area of the world, to put it mildly. It has been involved in successive civil wars and conflicts with neighbouring countries. The conflicts have been partly on religious, ethnic and tribal grounds. Presently there is a terrible conflict in Dafur where it has been alleged that the Janjaweed militia have committed acts of genocide against rebel groups.

The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees says that a refugee is a person who:

“owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”

Refugee and asylum law only really developed after World War II, where there was a massive number of displaced persons. The idea is that blameless civilians should be granted asylum in other countries which are safe and in which people will be free from war and violence. My attitude toward refugee law is “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” If Australia were suddenly dragged into a civil war, and I escaped with my family, I would hope that another country would offer me refuge. Some of my dear friends came to Australia as refugees.

Clearly, there would be many Sudanese people who qualified as refugees. Many of those who arrived here would be traumatised and would have seen and suffered terrible things. Many Sudanese would have grown up in a war zone, with little or no laws. Obviously, there are going to be adjustment problems when people who are traumatised suddenly have to adapt to a totally new society. Sometimes, also, ethnic, religious and tribal conflict is also likely to have been brought across to the new country, especially if a person’s family has been killed by another group. That’s just a fact of life (I remember those Serbia-Croatia soccer matches when I was a kid – which turned into mini-civil wars in the stands). Some refugees may be both perpetrators and victims of violence. Furthermore, refugees may have grown up with little or no laws, a very different culture and a different language.

I should think that, given the above factors, it’s clear that at least some Sudanese refugees will have integration problems, and it does no one any good to deny it. It is also true that there are some “bad eggs” within the Sudanese community, as there are within every community. But does that mean the intake of African refugees should be limited? Aren’t integration problems part and parcel of taking in refugees, and to be expected? I don’t think we should exclude Sudanese or African refugees on a blanket basis. That would be unfair to those Sudanese and African people who genuinely wish to live here in peace and harmony with other Australians. It reminds me of times when teachers say “I’m going to give you all detentions because of the behaviour of one person in this class”. I really hated that. The expectation was that the group would discipline the individual as a result – but why should everyone be punished for the crimes of one or a few? I always felt angry, and as if the teacher was abrogating his or her responsibility.

It must be ensured that refugees are given proper support and counselling, as well as education in English language and Australian laws and culture. I have heard of some refugees being dumped in rural towns, with little or no support, and it is hardly surprising that problems then arise. As the UNHCR says, refugees are required to comply with the law of the country which has given them asylum. Refugees must be made aware of our laws and customs (but certainly not in the manner of that really stupid citizenship test). It must also be ensured that community leaders communicate with their members and say that ethnic violence, tribal violence and violent crime are not acceptable in this country.

Also the concerns of shopkeepers and the like in Noble Park should be addressed. They obviously perceive a problem, and while it’s easy just to write them off as “racist”, I think that this actually makes the problem worse and increases resentment. People have a right to feel safe, and there should be a swift response to crime which gives a message that it is not acceptable. I tend to think no excuses should be made on the basis that someone is a refugee.

Thinking back to that group of boys on the pavement yesterday, perhaps boys should be made aware that congregating in a large group can sometimes be intimidating and scary to others, whatever one’s ethnicity or religion. But I suspect it’s just something that naughty, bored boys do, wherever they are from and whatever their culture. And I also suspect that some boys enjoy and cultivate the intimidation factor.

It’s a problem that can’t just be fixed by one side alone. The refugee communities, the police, the government, the social workers and schools have to all work together. And there’s always going to be a few bad eggs. It is a fact of life that there will always be negative aspects to granting asylum to refugees. Some people will have difficulty adapting or will be undesirable or criminal. But there are also immense positives. I think of my dear friend, who came here as a two year old, a stateless refugee. She’s now a success story: a businesswoman with two degrees, a mother and wife, an Australian citizen, an Aussie Rules footy fan (far more than me) and an all-round great person. I couldn’t think of a better addition to Australian society. It’s not worth throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Some common sense from all sides would not go amiss.

Finally, I wish the press would show some restraint as well. Sensationalised reporting creates the sense of a crisis and inflames tension. I’m sure there are genuine problems, but sensationalising them helps nobody. Let’s look at this logically and calmly. What am I saying? It’s election time – no one can look at anything sensibly during election time… Sigh!

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14 Comments

Filed under human rights, immigration, law, media, politics, racism, refugees, society, tolerance

14 responses to “Playing the race card

  1. Pingback: A tale of two Kevins « Balneus

  2. Commented in my latest entry.

  3. There is another aspect to this issue that no one on either side of the political spectrum dares to enunciate LE, and that is at what point do we say that we have done our share? Australia has been very welcoming to refugees and displaced people during my lifetime and this has been an act of great virtue. However it seems to me that the most brutal despots are actually encouraged to further abuses by those wealthier nations of the world being so willing to take the people that get in the way of their own ambitions. I tend to think that this has been, at least in part, why there as been such an explosion of people fleeing their countries of origin.
    So how much compassion must we show is my question because it would be very easy, as the far left would have us do, to open the doors wide and we could end up with the same situation as the French now experience. But I think to suggest that Kevin Andrews is acting from racist motives by announcing that we have done our share (for this year) when it comes to the Sudanese is just stupid name calling. Australia is not responsible for the abuses there and neither are we obliged to provide an unlimited refuge for its victims Like the sailor in charge of a lifeboat during a ship wreck we can not be expected to save everyone and risk the death (metaphorically speaking) of all aboard the boat by doing so.

  4. Iain, absolutely, we can’t let in unlimited people. We simply don’t have the resources for it. Much as we might like to help everyone, we can’t do that without creating immense problems for our own home in the process.

    However, my problem with Andrews’ comment was not that he was suggesting that there should be limits, but that there should be limits for a specific group of people, whereas we still had capacity to let in other refugees from elsewhere.

    What then of countries which are next to these warzones and have to take a disproportionate number of refugees, because they simply don’t have a choice? Say a poor country like Chad is destablised by a flood of refugees and thereby falls into civil war? Maybe we could prevent the rot spreading by taking some of the pressure off? I don’t know.

    Your point about encouraging dictatorships by letting in refugees is an interesting one, but I don’t think it holds up. Dictators and despots don’t care what happens to people who flee – whether they die, go to the neighbouring country or go to Australia. They don’t care what happens as long as they’re still in power. To my mind, it’s better that these people be in Australia than they end up dead.

    I do think the international community needs to have a better way of dealing with these despots, however. The UN is pathetic, and has just sat by watching genocide on a number of occasions.

  5. pete m

    LE:”However, my problem with Andrews’ comment was not that he was suggesting that there should be limits, but that there should be limits for a specific group of people, whereas we still had capacity to let in other refugees from elsewhere.”

    You agree that a large number of such immigrants are “high maintenance”, so this is where I disagree with your quoted passage.

    If we put some $ figures on it (ignoring for the moment the increased need for stretched services), so each Sudanese costs $20,000 more on average to look after, in comparison with an Iraq or Vietnamese. The Immigration Dept has to run to a budget, so if taking too many Sudanese breaks that budget, then isn’t is fair to say we need to re-work the numbers in favour of those who are less costly? That we have taken more than we would have if we knew the cost.

    This is not being racist, and the racist card is being played by the MSM.

    Of course lefties scream that is what Andrews wanted, but it is the MSM which turn something quite bland into a frenzy – we have seen too many examples of this.

    Also, given the election is near, anything the Govt does is apparently solely a move to win the election.

  6. I read a spoof email from John Howard to his ministers recently, which ended with: “and if all else fails, kick a refugee”.

    I think the timing of this discussion is extremely concerning, and as a result I don’t think there’s any chance of a reasoned discussion of the issue. This is extremely sad, considering the things these people have been through – they at least deserve the dignity of not being treated like a political football. This is potentially more so, given that they are people who have been approved as refugees with the highest level of need – those with full protection visas.

    I am involved with a community music group who are currently working with a group of Sudanese refugees to make music together. Their stories are extraordinary, from torture to starvation to treatment in Egyptian refugee camps, over long periods in their life, and their gratitude for their safety in Australia is commensurate with how horrendous their experiences have been.

    “Kicking refugees” is a political sport in this country that denigrates us as privileged westerners. I am ashamed that we cannot do better than this.

    I agree that we do need to provide decent support and services to those who come here. Interestingly, the groups “dumped in rural towns” have actually done far better than those in cities, usually because they are filling a workforce shortage. Rural abattoirs have benefitted greatly from refugee labour, and because these people are working and contributing to the town’s economy, they are actually welcomed. For the Sudanese as well, many are more comfortable in rural rather than urban settings.

    And I’m sorry Iain, but as long as we have people who earn enough to own mansions on the North Shore, we are perfectly economically capable of providing the minimal amount of care needed for those who come here with nothing. And we might just learn from them, as I have.

  7. And I should note that I think LE’s broader point about preventing the causes of displacement is an excellent one. But this is not easy…

  8. Pete M, if there had been figures released which proved that Sudanese or African refugees had required a vastly higher sum of money spent on them than Iraqis or Vietnamese or others, perhaps I would have less problem with Andrews’ comments. An economic rationalist argument would at least be something. As it is, I can’t see any evidence that it is not a simple populist appeal to voters’ perceived prejudices, or a need to look like they are doing “something” about crime in Noble Park. But I can’t see how Sudanese refugees could cost vastly more than refugees from anywhere else. The very nature of a refugee is that he or she will come from a country which is very different in culture and outlook, and that he or she will speak a different language. Often the country of origin will be in some kind of civil turmoil or war, or under the rule of a despot. Therefore all refugees will have integration problems at first, regardless of where they come from.

    When each fresh wave of people come in, the previous group are accepted… People say, “Well, the Italians and Greeks fit in fine” or “Look at how well the Vietnamese have integrated now” – but it wasn’t easy at the start, and there were deep cultural tensions initially. It’s just that with time, things ease and people become accustomed to one another. The best we can do is ease those tensions at the start, I suppose, is by learning about each other, and making it clear what we expect of people who come to live here (that they will obey the law and the like).

    I am reminded of a story my mother tells. She was a teacher. One day, she was cleaning down the chalkboard after class when she heard some boys denigrating “chinks”, saying that they weren’t real Australians, and they didn’t fit in properly. Her school had a very high proportion of students from Asia.

    She turned around and asked each boy where his parents had come from. One said Greece, another said Persia (Iran), another said Latvia and the last one said England. My mother asked them to think about how they would have felt if someone had made comments like that about their parents. The boys looked very embarrassed and slunk out with their tails between their legs, saying, “Sorry. Yeah, that’s a good point. We won’t say it again.”

  9. My grandmother is still convinced that all Italians are drunks who bash their wives… and even before non-English speaking migration, the Irish were socially, economically and politically ostracised for many years.

    If you’re going to take very damaged people, there’s a lot to be said for doing it well. But like you LE, I don’t see the evidence that the numbers need to be reduced in order to facilitate this.

  10. “it seems to me that the most brutal despots are actually encouraged to further abuses by those wealthier nations of the world being so willing to take the people that get in the way of their own ambitions. ”

    Oh please. The thing about brutal despots is that they’re brutal. They’re hardly more likely to perpetrate wrongs on their own people because somewhere deep in their evil despotic hearts they know that we Westerners will take care of them. They don’t actually give a damn.

    Look. We don’t have an obligation to take in every single person who’s in trouble. But we are obliged to assess potential refugees on the merits of their fear of persecution, not on some trumped-up and, yes, racist idea of who fits in best. It’s hard to see how people fleeing Darfur don’t qualify.

    Great piece, Legal Eagle. Refugee-kicking is indeed disgraceful.

  11. There can be little doubt that Andrews’ statements were intended to generate some political mileage through race-baiting. The decision to restrict intake of African refugees has already been taken, without any need for grandstanding.
    This is part of a fairly consistent pattern from this government when it comes to non-Anglo migrants or refugees.
    Howard is still remembered for his anti-Asian comments in the 1980’s.
    Since then, we’ve had the disgraceful children overboard incident and Tampa, both of which allowed Howard some chest-beating opportunities on ‘border protection’.
    We’ve also seen Howard all but endorse Alan Jones’ comments preceding the Cronulla riots. Howard also trivialised incidents of Australian armed forces playing dress-ups in KKK uniforms.
    Anybody who doesn’t get the pictute by now must be pretty thick-headed.
    By the way Iain, the French have problems because they themselves created a great many refugees through their colonial misadventures. Since Fortress Australia doesn’t take too much responsibilty for its own colonial misadventures, we won’t see the same problem here. Also, France has no policy of multiculturalism – ‘integration’ is expected, and, like in Australia, is loudly trumpted as a cure-all by far-right populists.

  12. And then we have the issue of mispronunciation…
    according to one of my students, people from Sudan are “Souvenirs”, not “Sudanese”.

  13. Leena

    I always wonder what that word ‘integration’ means – how far and to what extent someone from overseas is supposed to embody the values and practices of the domestic population.

    When my grandmother came to Australia in the 1950s and began to work, the feral local sheilas were telling her to go back to where she came from because women in Australia don’t work, that she was being greedy. Immigrants who challenge the status quo can teach Australians a lot about their own deficiencies…

  14. Isaac

    I think Australia will now begin to see a sense in the American (USA) constitution of limiting the years of presidency to two terms (8 years). They do not do this just to give others a chance to rule. They do not do it because the president would be too old to rule for more than 8 years. The only had to do this because they know that as you become a president for more years, you start to develop a sense of arrogance and become the worse president in your last years of being in power.

    Every election, you have to think of what to say to give you an upper hand in winning elections and if more elections have been done, you run short of what to say to be re-elected and so people like John Howard had to bring new faces to his front bench to develop a “new” love with the Australian people (Joe Hockey, Kevin Andrew, Malcom Turnbull etc).

    Other propaganda like the child overboard had worked in the past but this time, it had to be “Africans not fit to be Australians” propaganda.

    In the past, Australians were educated by Howards government that muslims or Arabs were a big threat to the Australain way of life. This had to backfire and all you could read from the faces of most muslims/Arabs is nothing but “no vote for John Howard”. The cleaver Howard has to make sure that he reconcile this and so had to send out kevin Andrew to go and please the middle east people (by increasing their refugee intake by slashing the African intake). After all, we only have a handful of Africans and their votes would not be significant compared with the Asians whose population is in millions. This has to be blamed on Australians who elect John Howard election after election.

    unfortunately, I see John Howard coming the Australian prime minister for more years to come “as long as his party wants him to”. How many times had he broekn his promises even between him and his deputy Tim Costello? He can simply break another promise this time by getting rid of Costello in the front bench so that no more threats to his position in the short run. Kevin Andrew and Hanson will be enough to assure him of securing the votes of the few racist Australians. Other ministers will be busy designing the child-overboard-like strategies to ensure a succussful re-election.

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