A Short History Of Australia’s Xenophobia Towards Migrants And How Solidarity Always Prevails

Max works in international development and is probably somewhere between Sydney and Borneo

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Approx 7 minute reading time

Australia has a proud, national tradition of hostility to foreigners.

It officially began in 1901 – the advent of our great nation – when ‘white Australia’ was codified as one of the founding tenets of Federation along with anti-blasphemy legislation, capital punishment, life imprisonment for homosexuality, and the denial of citizenship to Aboriginal people.

Unlike explicitly xenophobic immigration policies and the rest of these horrid laws, Australia’s racism and paranoia regarding new arrivals has lived on. What’s more, the racist tropes associated with new migrant groups have been eerily similar over the decades.

Chinese people that arrived during the nineteenth century Gold Rush were initially welcomed for they provided vital services to other miners, like providing food. As gold began to run out, however, anti-Chinese Colonial regulations reinforced racist stereotypes of Chinese as an alleged threat. Supposedly they meant predatorily cheap labour, were carriers of foreign diseases, and engaged in criminal activities such as bribery, prostitution and opium.

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A charming illustration from Australia’s beloved larrikin newspaper The Bulletin. Source: The Conversation

Fast forward 70 years and Vietnamese refugees would be characterised in almost the exact same way. The real threat of Japanese invasion during World War II solidified cartoonish fears of the looming ‘yellow peril’ to Australia’s north desperate to ruin our Anglo-Saxon utopia – a notion strengthened during the Cold War as communism spread through Asia.

But Vietnamese refugees were escaping communism. They were middle or ruling classes, Catholic or Chinese. Yet still, stereotypes abound regarding the potential that people fleeing war and persecution could be communist spies, bringing tropical diseases, or be seeking to import criminal elements from Saigon.

The difference now was the response of elites. With a nascent policy of multiculturalism, political and media elites from both right and left were united in their support for migration and cultural diversity. Back then, even The Australian and Australian Financial Review both argued that the harrowing boat journeys refugees had undertaken illustrated their resilience. Besides, as hard workers there was a very strong economic imperative to bring in cheap labour in what was a sluggish Australian economy.

Asian migrants are of course not the only ones to have the honour of being popularly demonised by Australian society. Everyone’s had a serve.

In the 50s and 60s it was Greeks and Italians who were fulfilling Australia’s need to ‘populate or perish’, while Lebanese Christian migrants escaping civil war copped it in the 1980s. As Osman Faruqi observes, historical racism towards these groups remains reflected in Australian media from “the self-deprecating tokenism of Nick Giannopoulos to … the self-deprecating tokenism of Paul Fenech.”

So, from the drug addiction and deviousness of Chinese goldminers to the supposed existential threat of terrorism and to the Australian ‘way of life’ posed by Muslim refugees today, those who are different are always slandered in the Australian popular mind’s eye.

It’s almost a wonder that the accusation of being carriers of horrific exotic diseases hasn’t been lodged at Muslims. I suppose people are too busy worrying that bacon will be banned…

That said, there has been some downright inspiring solidarity between migrant groups in the face of this crap. For example, during the 2005 Cronulla riots senior figures in the Vietnamese community spoke out in support of the Islamic community, multiculturalism and unity against all forms of extremism.

Phong Nguyen, Chairperson of the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria wrote that multiculturalism is “like a toothache, only when it’s aching do we realise that we’ve got teeth and how precious they are.”

When The Weekend Australian published a headline in 2014 reading “We’ll fight Islam 100 years”, Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders united in opposition to the “barrage of negativity” being directed at Australia’s Islamic community. “Demonising Muslims is wrong on so many levels,” Rabbi Zalman Kastel said. “We want everyone to feel that they belong here, that they are valued members of – yes – the same team.”

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Source: Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Koziol

Recently the Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council released a statement slamming One Nation and voicing its support of Muslim and Asian communities who are the butt of her toxic rhetoric. According to Jeremy Jones, AIJAC’s Director of International and Community Affairs, “Pauline Hanson has, in effect, declared war on Australian tolerance, community harmony and social cohesion, and her bigotry should be exposed for the evil which it is.”

Then there were the beautiful reciprocal statements of support from the Australian Islamic and LGBTQI communities in the wake of the attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Muslim community leaders from across Australia united to reject “the hatred and anger that leads to this abhorrent violence” and to urge “deeper compassion” for LGBTQI Muslims.

Then, a huge cross section of the LGBTQI community in NSW responded by condemning “without qualification the Islamophobic and xenophobic narratives” around the Orlando shooting. This long list of organisations and leaders committed to the Muslim community that it would “stand against Islamophobia, violence and persecution.”

#BlackLivesMatter is becoming a movement in its own right in Australia too, with thousands marching in Sydney and Melbourne in July.

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These are but a few examples of the beautiful intercultural exchanges that take place every day amongst fellow peace and diversity-loving Australians, regardless of different backgrounds and beliefs.

As millenials we have all benefitted from multiculturalism. For starters, I think few of us can imagine our local shops without a Thai restaurant, a kebab or Halal snack pack after a big night, or combatting our hangover with yum cha. Not to mention Australia’s coffee culture imported directly by Italian migrants, which is now famed as far as New York (editor note: who also had Italian migrants but for some reason this is not reflected in their coffee culture don’t @ me). Given half of us have at least a parent born overseas, many of us literally owe our personal existence to migration.

More importantly, an official policy of multiculturalism makes Australia almost unique on this planet. Whilst many European countries may have comparable migration programs, they are strictly assimilationist and don’t harness people’s diverse beliefs, languages or customs. Arguably this is why a country like Belgium, which has a significant Muslim population, also has the highest rate of people going to ISIS. Without multiculturalism, ghettos, stark social inequalities and bitterness are created.

Whether we know it or not, our experience of growing up here – in a safe, affluent and comparatively tolerant nation – is defined by this policy of multiculturalism. Australian-raised Guardian columnist Paola Totaro has noted that despite experiences of racism in her youth,

the prism through which I see the world has no limits and no borders. It was Australia that showed me this new way.

Perhaps accordingly, we don’t have a Donald Trump, nor a Geert Wilders, nor a Marine Le Pen, nor a Nigel Farage. Whilst elected to parliament alongside three colleagues with the assistance of Channel 7, Pauline Hanson remains marginal. Her narrow worldview is antithetical to those of most.

As Fred Hiatt, opinion editor of The Washington Post has argued, Australia has more foreigners yet less xenophobia than the United States. The culture shift since the end of White Australia has been drastic and fundamental. Hiatt observed that in the 1970s it was unimaginable that Indian and Chinese migrants would be the fastest growing demographics in Australia, yet it is the contemporary reality.

Despite years of hysteria regarding ‘boatpeople’ and some very public challenges to multiculturalism, mainstream politicians across the political spectrum remain committed to ongoing mass immigration – particularly from Asia.

While Australia elected (at least) four avowed bigots to its Senate, there was also some good news for diversity in the traditionally white, male institution that is federal parliament. Australia elected its first female Muslim federal parliamentarian, Dr Anne Aly. The first Aboriginal person to ever serve in NSW Parliament, Linda Burney also became the first indigenous woman to be elected to the Australian House of Representatives.

This does not mean we can be complacent. The rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation means that defending diversity is more vital in 2016 than ever. Let’s send a message of respect, love and empathy, which will make her views irrelevant to the electorate once again. Then Hanson can get back to what she does best: dancing with Salvatore.

We need to actively speak out for minority groups under the pump by anti-migrant panic merchants. We must vocally reject Islamophobic rhetoric that’s becoming increasingly kosher (or halal) in Australian public discourse. As Roxane Gay argues, the fight for racial equality and minority rights belongs to all of us.

Moreover, we must never forget whose land multicultural Australia is built upon. Recent revelations about abuse of Indigenous minors in the Northern Territory is merely yet another sobering reminder that Australia’s brutal tradition of institutional racism towards Aboriginal people continues.

In the strangely poignant, recent words of Danny Devito, “Why we gotta be terrified of everybody? Ease up a little bit. We can all live together. It’s a big beautiful world.”

Bloody oath it is.