It’s an interesting quirk of Australia’s personality: we are a nation of immigrants, yet each wave wants to be the last ones in.
After leaving Britain for this wide brown land that held so much promise, our early settlers and their descendants spent much of their time worried about the possibility that the Yellow Peril was going to sweep down and take it from them. Even the Irish were considered worthy of suspicion in those days; while most people today would regard them as not so different from any other ethnic group of the British Isles, the early Irish settlers in Australia were viewed with much the same xenophobia that has greeted migrants from Asia and Africa.
So when the government following WW2 embraced a “populate or perish” outlook and moved to bring in large numbers of migrants from continental Europe, it was hardly surprising that the reaction from Australians of British extraction was not so favourable. Suspicion undoubtedly remained towards some nationalities as a legacy of fighting a war in Europe, but in many cases it was antipathy based on familiar themes: these were people with different languages, appearances and foods, and Australians weren’t quite sure if they were suitably civilised to fit into our society. Today, Italian surnames, culture and food are so ubiquitous in Australia that it’s hard to imagine that these early migrants were bullied and viewed with great apprehension for their strange ways and appearance. But over time, they became more and more accepted, as did the Greeks, Maltese, Croatians, and many others from Europe.
When in the 70s significant numbers of migrants from Asia began to arrive, they too were regarded with some suspicion and had to struggle against racism. Ironically, some of this negative reaction came, and still comes, from those who had struggled against the exact same thing. While it’s certainly true that the European migrants did a lot to pave the way for the Asians that followed them, in my youth it was common to observe that some of the young men who would happily call Asians “nips” and “gooks” were the same ones who bristled at being called “wogs”.
Of course, those Asians who overcame the racism and xenophobia to become successful immigrants would never go on to be racist and xenophobic themselves, would they?
Attitudes towards asylum seekers in the community and the political sphere have gradually soured, particularly in the post-9/11 era, and Asian-Australians as a group do not appear to be bucking the trend. Labor MP Hong Lim, himself a refugee of Cambodian-Chinese background, has previously complained about the lack of prevailing interest in the asylum seeker issue from the Chinese and Indo-Chinese communities. The sort of comments I’ve heard from Asian-Australians about some of the newer wave of migrants (from India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and elsewhere) are surprising; surprising in their lack of awareness that the same things were being said about them and their parents a generation ago. I’ve had two Vietnamese- and Chinese-Australians mention to me that they would never rent their property out to Indians, for example.
A common comment that you might hear from old migrants about new migrants is that they have it too easy and don’t work hard like in the good old days. You’ve probably heard it before. “When my family came here, we had nothing, but we worked hard, we didn’t ask for anything from the government. Nowadays all they want is handouts.”
I don’t think that’s a particularly factual point of view. But even if we accept it at face value, and believe for a moment that the immigrants of yesteryear were harder working than today’s, there’s an important factor to bear in mind as well. Society has changed significantly since the first great wave of non-Anglo migrants arrived in the post-WW2 period.
Back then, many European migrants arrived with little English, and with little background in any kind of academia. This was not a problem them, as there was significant demand for labour in the manufacturing industry. The Snowy Mountains Scheme, the largest engineering project ever conducted in Australia, relied on a workforce of which two-thirds were migrants from continental Europe. These sorts of opportunities still persisted in the 70s and 80s as the new wave of immigrants from Indochina arrived here.
Today, manufacturing is in decline, and there are less jobs around that unskilled refugees can easily do. The Australian workforce is becoming increasingly white-collar, and increasingly reliant on technology. This is a disadvantage for someone who struggles with English or is a latecomer to the use of computers. So the Italians and Yugoslavs and Greeks who arrived 60 years ago didn’t necessarily face the same obstacles to success that new arrivals from Myanmar, Afghanistan or Sudan might face today.
This is not to say, of course, that earlier migrants did not do it hard, or did not face obstacles. Countless migrants have found their skills unwanted or unrecognised here. My own uncle was a speech writer for members of parliament in Indonesia, but found himself mostly consigned to factory work after moving to Australia, and similar stories are everywhere. Every trained doctor, engineer or similar-skilled individual who ends up driving a taxi represents a missed opportunity not just for him or her, but for Australia as a whole. But our country also has a long history of migrants starting their own businesses, often because there were few opportunities elsewhere. Most of us have known Greek fish-and-chip-shop owners, Italian fruiterers and Chinese restaurateurs, amongst many others. These people represent the entrepreneurial spirit of many earlier migrants, people who have had a huge positive impact on many aspects of our national culture.
Why then do some of us have a hard time imagining that newer migrants would not have a similar positive impact?
Everything I’ve said here does not mean it is wrong to believe we should take in less immigrants, or that we might be better off taking more people from country X and less from country Y. Those are relatively understandable opinions even though I might not necessarily agree with them. But I think it’s worth bearing in mind that whatever complaints might arise about the new waves of immigrants, we have probably heard the same ones being made time and time again, about earlier groups to arrive here. And despite the doomsayers, we seem to be doing okay.
Of course even our indigenous people were immigrants at some point, lost back far in the mists of time. Although in their case, their suspicion of “boat people” in the early days of Australian colonialism has proven to be quite justified.