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Smiling faces mask an unease about growing ethnic diversity
January 9, 2010
The year 12 school photo surprises many who stop to look at it closely: more than 80 per cent of the students grinning into the camera are Asian-Australians. Most were born here of parents who came from China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, India and the Philippines. In the small world of the selective high school, the face of multicultural Australia is unmistakable.
Take a walk through the city at lunchtime. You don't have to know that 35 per cent of Sydney's population was born overseas. The ethnic diversity is overwhelming. Move west or south-west into the suburbs and the colour, smells and sounds of the whole world swirl around you. In Fairfield, almost 60 per cent of the residents were born overseas; in Bankstown, it's 40 per cent.
Australia was once touted as a multi-cultural success story, a beacon in a xenophobic world. Now it is branded as racist. After attacks on Indian students, culminating in the murder of Nitin Garg in Melbourne, our reputation, and one of our biggest export industries, education, is imperilled.
There is no room for complacency about Australia's capacity for bigotry. Australians are not as racist as the Indian television networks shrilly assert. We like the economic benefits migrants bring. Even in the face of the global financial crisis, we supported high levels of immigration. Unlike the British or Europeans, we think of ourselves as a nation of immigrants. But nor are we as tolerant as we protest. History shows it only takes a wilful politician or hard economic times to whip up latent prejudices and bring out the worst.
As a nation we are less accepting of ethnic diversity than Americans, Italians or Swedes, the World Values Survey reveals, but more accepting than the Germans or Spanish. We have not banned minarets on mosques like the Swiss, or headscarves in classrooms like the French. But groups of Australians fight the building of Muslim schools, and the Cronulla riots are a permanent stain on the national psyche.
There is anxiety about hard-working migrants who keep their businesses open to midnight and get their kids into selective schools; we don't believe we are better than the "brown skins" as the English do; we fear we are inferior.
A hard-core 10 per cent of Australians are dead-set against immigrants. This intolerant nub can quickly expand when the times are right, or should I say wrong, to encompass the deeply ambivalent - a significant 35 to 40 per cent, research shows. When politicians make migrants a political issue, as Pauline Hanson did, or when unemployment rises, bigotry erupts like a burst boil.
The best account of how we are tracking is a new report for the Scanlon Foundation called Mapping Social Cohesion, by Andrew Markus, of Monash University. It is the source of my figures. Based on a survey involving 3800 people in July last year, it shows the glass is half full, the picture more nuanced than can be conveyed in a TV sound bite.
Racism flourishes in some locations, and among some groups. It is more prevalent in poorer areas, and where third- and fourth-generation Australians live in ethnic enclaves, feeling like minorities. It flourishes where people don't trust each other, and don't feel safe, and are financially struggling. In this lies hope. Projects to build trust between groups, increase employment and bring better policing and lighting to poorer neighbourhoods can have spin-offs in better relationships.
The shift from white Australia to ethnic diversity in 30 years is full of contradictions. There is ammunition in the Scanlon report for both sides of the debate about racism. To celebrate is the 68 per cent agreement that migrants make Australia stronger; the proportion that thinks we take too many migrants is at a record low despite immigration levels being at a record high.
Under prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, 75 per cent thought immigration was too high; now it's 37 per cent. The Labor prime ministers were considered captives of the ethnic lobby and people feared we were becoming a nation of tribes. John Howard's genius was to raise the immigrant intake while distancing himself from the multi-cultural lobby. Kevin Rudd has followed suit.
To cheer is that 88 per cent of migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds feel they belong here; and they believe, even more strongly than the rest of the population, that Australia is "a land of economic opportunity where in the long run, hard work brings a better life". Between 60 and 70 per cent of Australians say people of different ethnic backgrounds get on well together in their neighbourhoods.
Yet coexistence masks high levels of discrimination because of skin colour or ethnicity, with Indians and Sri Lankans reporting at twice the national average. Physical assaults, though reported by less than 10 per cent, have doubled since 2007.
Most Australians appreciate that the kids grinning in the school photo will help make Australia stronger, clever and competitive. The economic benefits of immigration, at least in good times, are understood. Yet there is some way to go before many Australians overcome their ambivalence and unease and embrace ethnic diversity with enthusiasm.
Foreign students tell of fear on the streets
Lauren Wilson - The Australian - January 09, 2010 12:00AM
RAILWAY stations in Melbourne's industrial north and west are the places feared most by Indian students.
It is there, after dark, as they make their way home from part-time jobs as taxi drivers, cleaners, or from staffing the counters of fast-food restaurants or convenience stores that they are most likely to face racist slurs - or, on a bad night, physical attacks.
Their attackers, they say, are Anglo-Australian teenagers and young people in their 20s who, for whatever reason, resent the presence of these foreign students in their suburbs.
"You f--ing bloody Indians," is a jeer 20-year-old Samar Abbas has heard more than once. The irony is that Mr Abbas is not Indian, but Pakistani, but he says the people who make these comments don't make distinctions.
Like 21-year-old Nitin Garg, who was stabbed as he walked through a poorly lit western suburbs park last Saturday night, Mr Abbas works nights at a Hungry Jack's restaurant to support himself while he completes a degree in business and accounting.
For the past six months he has lived in the northern suburb of Jacana, a train-stop before the flat, industrial expanse of Broadmeadows.
As news of Mr Garg's death caused diplomatic headaches and strained relations between India and Australia, Mr Abbas said it just made him more afraid living here. "I feel very threatened and afraid. I thought maybe that might be me."
Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe has faced relentless questioning this week on the high-profile murder investigation of Mr Garg's death.
Repeatedly he has stressed that there is no evidence to indicate the stabbing was racially motivated.
Official police statistic nonetheless show that crimes against Indians in Australia are on the rise.
In 2008, 1447 people of Indian origin were victims of violent crime, a jump of more than 30 per cent from the previous year.
Engineering student Piyush Shukla, 22, from New Delhi, who works with the Federation of Indian Students of Australia, says the death of Mr Garg is a reminder that Victoria's police must "provide students with security".
A close friend of Mr Shutla was released from hospital last week with a broken jaw after being set upon by eight or nine men as he tried to enter a city restaurant.
Mr Shutla has not been attacked in Melbourne, but he says racism is a problem for him: "The other day I was walking down the street and there were teenagers driving past me and they threw beer cans at me. They were saying, go back to your own country."
Of the six Indian and Pakistani students The Weekend Australian spoke to yesterday, each said they felt most threatened by Australians aged 16-26.
With most South Asian students living and commuting from traditionally working-class suburbs that have high youth unemployment, Mr Shutla believes racial discord often has its roots in young Australians feeling their opportunities are being handed over to foreigners.
"They think that we are taking their jobs. People say to me Indians are smarter, they get spots at university easier and they get jobs easier," he said. Other young students, such as 25-year-old Pakistani graduate Kamran Younas, echoed the sentiments of Australia's high commissioner to India, Peter Varghese, who this week said most crimes against Indians living and studying in Melbourne were simply "opportunistic, urban" incidents.
Mr Younas said South Asian students were at particular risk because they were vulnerable to opportunistic crime and racial intolerance. "Most Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan students . . . are doing restaurants, taxis, cleaning, those sorts of jobs, and they normally finish late and are risky."
Last year, Mr Younas was set upon by three young men at Glenroy station. They wanted his bag and kicked him down to try to snatch it. "I wouldn't say it is racist, I think they just wanted money, that would happen anywhere in the world," he said.
Mr Younas's parents have begged him to return home. His close friend, 23-year-old Sami Nisar, believes the problem is deeper than random theft and thuggery. He has lived in Melbourne for two years. "There is a lot of racism in this country," he said.
Indian man's burning in Melbourne not racially motivated - Victorian police
From: AAP - January 09, 2010 2:37PM
CRIME squad investigators say the circumstances leading up to a 29-year-old Indian man being set on fire in an alleged attack are "unusual" - but not racially motivated.
The man is recovering in hospital in serious condition with burns to his hands, face and legs after parking his car in Melbourne's northwest.
It's alleged that the man was randomly approached by four men who burned his car and set him on fire.
"I believe there's no reason at this stage to consider this in any way racially motivated," Detective Acting Senior Sergeant Neil Smyth said today.
"The circumstances of parking a car randomly on a side street and just some people approaching him are a bit strange and it's highly unlikely, therefore, to be a targeted attack on any individual."
Police were told the man and his wife left a dinner party in Essendon between 1.30am and 2am (AEDT) this morning and drove to their nearby home in Grice Crescent.
The man told police he dropped his wife off and then drove to a nearby street to park the car.
As the man was getting out of the vehicle, four men allegedly attacked him, pushed him back against the vehicle and poured an unknown fluid on him.
One of the men is alleged to have then ignited the fluid with a lighter before all four men fled.
The man then ran from the car, throwing his burning clothes into the street.
The man suffered burns to 15 per cent of his body.
The attackers have been described in only a "generalised description which is really just unspecific, just four males," Det Act Snr Sgt Smyth said.
"It is an unusual event," he said.
Neighbours across the street said they heard the car explode into flames but didn't notice any kind of fight or disturbance.
Raymond Yacoub, who has lived in the area for 30 years, said he woke up to see the car ablaze and firefighters spraying it down.
"Actually, to be honest, I thought maybe it was an insurance job," he said.
Police say their investigation into the incident is a priority and are appealing for any witnesses to contact them.
Acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the federal government condemned all violence - regardless of motivation.
"The government condemns all acts of violence in the strongest possible way," she said today.
"This matter remains under investigation by the Victorian police," adding that the Government would not comment further until police could provide more information.