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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 May, 2004, 16:06 GMT 17:06 UK
Australia's unease with outsiders

By Phil Mercer
BBC correspondent in Sydney

Australia's population has more than doubled in the last 50 years, and the march towards a multicultural future appears unstoppable.

Perth, Western Australia
Immigration has given Perth a distinctly English and South African flavour
Around a quarter of all Australians were born somewhere else. The British make up the biggest group of migrants along with those from Asia, followed by New Zealand and Italy.

Melbourne is one of the world's biggest Greek cities, while the tropical outpost of Darwin is one of Australia's most cosmopolitan. Immigration has given Perth, the remote capital of Western Australia, a distinctly English and South African flavour.

But for a country shaped by waves of migrants, much of Australia shares an uncertainty and even a fear about outsiders.

'Protecting paradise'

In Perth, there's a family from the north of England who may help explain this uneasiness. They have everything they'd ever wanted: a big house and a successful business.

Australia recruits people it needs through skilled migration programmes
There are three pictures on the living room wall. Queen Elizabeth is flanked on one side by the legendary footballer George Best. On the other is a portrait of Pauline Hanson, the co-founder of the anti-immigration One Nation party, who in the late 1990s warned that Australia was in danger of being swamped by Asians.

There is a seemingly incompatible situation of a migrant family from England supporting a controversial anti-immigration politician.

Their reasons are simple enough - if unpalatable for many people. Here they are away from the gloom and the cold and they don't want anything or anyone to come in and spoil what they see as their slice of paradise.

They want the drawbridge raised - and the door firmly locked.

As the father explained, they had left Britain to "escape the blacks" and didn't want to have to move again.

Such attitudes are not uncommon here.

Fierce competition

The government is committed to a multicultural Australia. Immigration is carefully managed and is non-discriminatory.

Baxter detention centre
The detention of asylum seekers is mandatory
The policies work in similar ways to any big corporation - Australia recruits people it needs through skilled migration programmes.

Competition can be fierce and many more people are rejected than accepted.

It wasn't always like this.

In the 1820s Australia, a convict colony, was competing for new migrants with other New World countries, notably the United States and Canada.

Incentives, such as free travel and land grants, were introduced.

In the 1920s and 1930s the Empire Settlement Scheme saw thousands of "Ten Pound Poms" arrive from Britain. It was one of the largest organised migrations ever seen.

Family reunions are the other major part of an immigration policy, which allows more than 100,000 settlers to come to Australia every year, along with 12,000 refugees.

Election issue

The government continues to weather a storm of criticism over its treatment of asylum seekers.

Migration has always been a sensitive issue here
Any unauthorised arrivals - such as boat people travelling from Indonesia - are locked away until their claims are processed.

Mandatory detention is defended on the grounds of health and security.

If the results of the last federal election in 2001 are any indication, the majority of Australians support this uncompromising stance.

Border protection is likely to be in the frontline of this year's federal election.

Migration has always been a sensitive issue here.

The controversial and racist "White Australia" policy was finally abandoned in the early 1970s.

For generations, this discriminatory migration programme attempted to sustain the country's European origins in the face of a perceived threat of a mass influx from Asia.

Immigration will cause Australia problems in the years ahead, including more pressure on race relations and overcrowding in the bigger cities, especially Sydney.

It'll also present great opportunities as the country pursues a modern, multicultural future.

Your comments:

Fear and xenophobia are potent tools in the hands of politicians. Ask anyone who has lived in a country racked by war divided by language/religion. John Howard and his government have used these elements for electoral gain, with liberal doses of lies and deceit. Many Aussies who have met the people imprisoned have realised how the government in trying to dehumanise a mainly victimised and helpless group, has succeeded in dehumanising Australia itself. The extremely expensive prison camps run by private companies for profit, where men, women and children are incarcerated for years on end, will be a blot on Australia's history.
Ranjan Abayasekara, Whyalla, South Australia

It saddens me to hear of views such as those of the English family mentioned
Alex Twose, Manchester

It saddens me to hear of views such as those of the English family mentioned. Do they not see the irony in their argument? Presumably their reasons for immigrating to Australia, whether primarily to live in the sun or to escape the blacks, were to experience a better quality of life. Why do they think people from the world's poorer nations migrate to the richer economies? This family don't have any more right to move to Australia because they are white, or because Australia used to be a British colony.

Britain is better off without people who hold such views. The rest of us can get on with building and enjoying a diverse, harmonious society, instead of blaming migrants and asylum seekers for myriad social problems. The dangers of such an approach are obvious: is that Asian-looking guy down the road/ahead of me on the NHS waiting list an asylum seeker, a (health) tourist, or someone who's been paying British taxes their whole life?
Alex Twose, Manchester, UK

I find this article typical of the British view of Australia. We (my fellow Aussies) are criticised for being harsh on immigrants by the same people who condemn their own government for being the opposite.
Sean, London

They were the first illegal boat people, so who gives them the right to judge other boat people
Stuart, Melbourne

A very poignant comment was made by an Aboriginal woman during an immigration debate over boat people, screened on Channel 9 TV in Australia about 12 months ago. She wanted to remind all Australians, White, Asian, European, etc... That they were the first illegal boat people, so who gives them the right to judge other boat people and immigrants from arriving in Australia!
Stuart, Melbourne, Australia

It may be difficult to stomach, but it seems to me that many people in developed worlds do not want to co-habit with migrants from those that are still developing. Although many people find it difficult to express in terms other than racism, I think that this sadly just a focal term born of ignorance.

The real problems are many hundreds of thousands of people who have worked hard all their lives are finding that migrants are straining the systems in place in the UK to breaking point - and when they need things they 'paid' for they get put to the back of a long queue. This is real life for many people - and it makes them angry. Very angry. The British tend to be extremely tolerant people on the whole (take a look at the strength of Far Right politics elsewhere) and it will be folly not to take notice when complaints are growing this loud.
Darren, London

I can understand that many Australians want to protect their own national culture and traditions. However, the white Australians are descendents of British and Irish immigrants themselves and the family from the North of England are hypocritical with their extreme anti-immigration views. There was also no need for them to move for racial reasons because most of the North of England is white anyway and they were already well off so there was no need to migrate. It also makes no sense to allow rich white migrants to come to Australia but to prevent poor non-white Asian migrants who clearly need to come to Australia in order to escape the unacceptable poverty they face in Vietnam and other Asian countries. Too much migration into Australia could be bad because it may deprive poorer Asian countries of their skilled professionals, causing a ''brain drain''.
Ian, London, UK

It is sad how some families moved away because of racism. The people of Australia should not be grouped together when saying that they are all against immigration. It is up to the government and the people to decide who comes to their country and who does not. Not the immigrants or some international organization. I am 16 and pro limited immigration.
Sean, Tennessee, USA

It is ridiculous for your reporter to say Australians have a fear of outsiders. All we ask is that our immigrations laws are obeyed. Immigration is something that needs to be handled carefully for social cohesion.
Barbara, Australia

Unfortunately, the views expressed by the British family living in Perth are consistent with views I encountered in New Zealand recently. I was totally shocked by the racist and anti-immigrant views held by first and second generation Brits who moved to New Zealand for exactly the same reasons others are now trying to. What shocked me most, was that it wasn't the older generations who felt like this, but people my own age (24). I remember in particular one girl who, thanks to parents from Liverpool, was lucky enough to have both a NZ and a British passport. She enjoyed all the advantages of this, but was aggressively against the NZ government allowing any more immigrants (asylum seekers or otherwise) and also believed the Maori should be denied any financial help whatsoever.
Catriona, Edinburgh, Scotland


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