In an appeal to Secessionists in his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln appealed to ‘the better angels of our nature’. Today we lack the bi-partisan leadership on refugees that would appeal to our better angels. I have yet to hear Julia Gillard make an informed case for generosity towards refugees who are amongst the most vulnerable people in the world. She competes with Tony Abbott to show how tough she can be. Tony Abbott in his opportunism appeals to our darker angels. The Holy Family was indeed lucky when it fled as refugees to Egypt that the Pharaoh did not have a policy to ‘stop the donkeys’.
To some, the plight of refugees is a political opportunity. A senior Liberal Party official, as reported by Wikileaks, told the US Embassy in November 2009 that the issue of asylum seekers was fantastic for the Opposition and ‘the more boats that come the better’. (SMH 10/12/2010)
If Ben Chifley and Malcolm Fraser had appealed only to our darker angels we would never have taken large numbers of Jewish and Indochinese refugees.
Fear of the foreigner, the outsider and the person who is different is as old as human history. It is the personal struggle of each one of us, the struggle between our generosity and our fear.
The Jewish people know almost better than anyone what exclusion and exile means. The Torah repeats the exhortation more than 36 times ‘Remember the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt’. This is many more times than any of the other biblical laws, including the Sabbath and dietary laws. The references to ethical treatment of the ‘stranger’ and the ‘outsider’ are explicit in the Torah more than any other laws. There is a whole body of rabbinical law derived from this much repeated exhortation and command which spells out the proper and humane treatment of ‘the stranger’. Indeed the whole festival of Passover revolves around celebrating freedom from slavery and so remembering, in fact re-enacting, what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land.
I recall two recent stories of our better angels and our generosity and welcoming the stranger.
- Last month, a Larrakia woman led a welcome to country ceremony in Darwin’s detention centre. It was scarcely mentioned in the media, but how beautiful it was.
- Hieu van Le, the Lt Governor of South Australia, in an address in old parliament house in Canberra this month recalled his coming into Darwin Harbour as a boat person in 1977. ‘A tinnie with two blokes with shorts and singlet, sunhat on, with zinc cream on their noses, fishing rods primed and sticking in the air, and with the first beers of the day in their hands came close. They waved to us and steered their boat very close to ours and one of them raised his stubby as if proposing a toast. Goodaye mate, he shouted, welcome to Australia.’
We now look back with pride on what we have achieved in welcoming strangers. The society that migrants, refugees and older Australians have formed together is our greatest national achievement.
Since WWII, Australia has settled over 750,000 refugees from war-torn countries and societies wracked with violence and persecution. Settlement in Australia has not been trouble-free. It is always work in progress. But it has been a great success story in which we can be proud.
Refugees, by definition, are risk takers and highly motivated. They have abandoned almost everything for an opportunity in a free and prosperous country.
Some well-known refugees have contributed to this success story – Judy Cassab, Anh Do, Mirka Mora, Wolfgang Sievers, Henry Szeps, Ilsa and John Konrads, Tuong Quang Luu, Les Murray, Sir Gustav Nossal, Sir Peter Abeles, Frank Lowy, Harry Seidler, Bishop Vincent Van Nguyen.
But more important than those well-known names are the hundreds of thousands of refugee families who have quietly gone about building their communities, acquiring skills, getting a job and educating their children. Early days are difficult for refugees. They come with little or no financial resources, their skills are probably not recognised and they will usually have language difficulties. These early difficulties are reflected in higher levels of unemployment and concentration in lowly paid jobs, often jobs that others do not want.
But their situation steadily and rapidly improves. Professor Graeme Hugo, ARC Australian Professorial Fellow, in his study ‘Economic, Social and Civic Contributions of First and Second Generation Humanitarian Entrants’ of May 2011, describes their contribution.
- Refugees are younger and have higher fertility levels than the Australian population as a whole. (Hugo, p.xxii)
- ‘They are more likely than other groups to spend their entire life and raise their families in Australia.’ (Hugo p.xxii) Their uptake of citizenship is extremely high. A study prepared for OECD by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (October 2010) reveals that the naturalisation rate by birthplace for all foreign-born is 80%. For significant refugee groups it is much higher – Croatia 97%, Poland 96% and Vietnam 97%. For New Zealand it is 45%, for the United Kingdom 71% and the United States 70%. (p.24)
- ‘Refugee-humanitarian settlers are increasingly settling in regional Australia.’ (Hugo p.xxii)
- ‘Humanitarian settlers place a high store on education for their children.’ 48% of second generation people who are Australian born have post-school qualifications. For the total refugee-humanitarian groups, the percentage is much high at 59%, with some refugee groups showing remarkably high levels of post-school qualifications, e.g. Estonia 65%, Latvia 65%, Slovakia 65%, Sri Lanka 61%. (Hugo p.140)
- ‘Humanitarian settlers are more likely to demonstrate entrepreneurial and risk-taking attributes’. .. ‘and have a higher incidence of owning their own businesses than other migrant groups.’ (Hugo p.xxiv)
- ‘The second generation of [humanitarian settlers] have a much higher level of labour force engagement than the first generation and in many cases, the level is higher than for second generation Australians.’ (Hugo p.xxiii)
Not surprisingly, refugees in their early years are ‘takers’ of Australian generosity. But year by year they become great contributors. They pay back many fold the generosity they initially receive. They contribute to Australia out of proportion to their number. It is a great success story for all Australians. But success cannot be taken for granted. Political leadership, community understanding and progress to ensure equal opportunity, like English language training, are essential.
In spite of Government timidity, coalition opportunism and media failure, we can draw comfort from the very successful refugee programs of the past. We can do it again. If our political leaders won’t encourage the better angels of our nature, and we all have those better angels, then other leaders in Australia in business, the trade unions, community and religious groups, need to be heard. Why are they so silent?