After a recent exercise class, I had coffee with some fellow exercisers whom I have known for some time through this class but with whom, for obvious reasons, I had not had many long conversations.  They are friendly, caring, kind and concerned people in almost every area. 

I was appalled, however, both to hear the views they espoused on other races and religions and Australia’s position on refugees, and surprised at their ignorance.  Although they were all in the older age group and most were retirees, only one in the whole group had any memory of our “White Australia Policy” of the past and she knew very little about it. The most amazing thing was that they were genuinely convinced that Australia was at the cutting edge of the world in terms of treatment of minority groups and acceptance of refugees.

I have been lucky in that I have worked overseas and in Australia, and although not directly with refugees, occasionally with matters concerning some of the refugee children.  I have also been fortunate in attending conferences on the rights of children that were held overseas or in Australia with international delegates. I am embarrassingly conscious of the comparative weaknesses Australia has revealed over many, many years in the ability to accept those that are different into our community. 

(At this stage I do not wish to address the vexed question of our treatment of indigenous Australians. My focus is on the treatment of new arrivals.) 

My first experience of this was as a twelve year old moving to the new Snowy Mountains Scheme and commencing school there.  I was astounded that the overseas children in my class were taken out of class by the Headmaster each morning to be caned.  I am very dismayed, in retrospect, that it took me some weeks to question my parents about this unusual practice. They, however, did not delay.  These children’s parents (who had been brought to Australia to assist in this scheme) were contacted and the Headmaster was quickly replaced. We children never knew the details. It was a lifetime lesson to me about how hard it is for children to bring themselves to speak out against authority figures and abuse. 

Then “Reffos” arrived on the Snowy.  That revolting term was usually applied in a friendly fashion but sometimes in a deliberately derogatory way. I grew up learning how the experiences of being in a multicultural environment cannot be overvalued. A German “reffo” friend who lost (presumed dead) his wife and baby daughter in the war and who worked on the Snowy as a chainman until his expertise was discovered and his extensive qualifications put to use, once showed me a book.  It was a book of photographs sent to him by a German relative.  On each page was a Berlin building before the war, on the opposite page the wreckage of the same building after the allied bombing of Berlin.  Then at the end were magnificently hopeful photographs showing vines and spring flowers bursting forth amidst the debris of these buildings.  I can still visualise the yellow buttercups against the grey stone ruins as I contemplate the tragedy of wars and his personal tragedy. 

The distress of being a refugee and the fact that most pine for their country and their language seem rarely appreciated here. I heard and still hear “They should be grateful to be here.  If they are here they should follow our practices and use our language”.  They are dispossessed people!  I sincerely hope that the children of refugees can maintain some of their cultural heritage!  Many come from areas that are regarded as the cradles of our civilization. 

After the Vietnam war we were pushed by other nations into accepting some of the refugees. We had a duty to take many as we were part of that war. Some of the stories were horrific and I still remember a little five year old child who had been bayoneted several times in the stomach and who came to the school where I then worked very frightened of strangers.  But at least we accepted a few people of a different colour and found the sky did not fall in! 

That aspect of Australian life has improved somewhat in that the racial mix now is better. 

The particular resentment towards the “boat people” is hard to understand as compared with those who come in by other means.  Perhaps it is because they are visible.  Most people, I would think, should realize that our beloved country is usually a destination of last resort!  So many hundreds PER MONTH pour into closer places such as Italy that they have had to ask for financial help from the EC.  For at least 10 years Belgium, which is home to a large number of Muslim refugees from North Africa, has been struggling with the concept of how to deal with the recognition of the children of polygamous marriages.  When I last heard they recognised the children and allowed them into the country (as that was a clear human rights issue) but could not recognise other than the first wife, as polygamy is illegal in Belgium.  This means that some children, if they were to come, would be separated from their mothers and that, many Belgians felt, was also a breach of children’s human rights.  At least these countries, whether we agree or disagree with decisions, are squarely facing the issues and the fact they have a humanitarian role to play.  

Unaccompanied children are another question.  Either their parents are dead, separated from the children or have made a heartbreaking decision to try to give them a better life.  All of these possibilities make them a vulnerable group and our hearts must surely go out to them. 

I worked in England in the early nineties and they had a considerable number of unaccompanied children being brought into the country by quite duplicitous means and left at Heathrow Airport.  When I heard that our current number of unaccompanied children was nine, I was astounded as on a regular basis they were coping with much more than that in the area of London I worked!  They fed them, housed them, educated them and gave them as much comfort in the community as they could. 

A lot of Australians chant that we should take people from refugee camps instead of allowing “queue jumpers” in. I agree we should take people from refugee camps. I worked with a family from an African country where the parents of the children concerned had been in a refugee camp since they were children.  They met and married there and had their own children in the camp.  One of the parents had not been able to cope at all with what had been endured both in the camp and in trying to settle in a new environment that was so strange and became very mentally ill.  I was told by workers from that country that this is very common in long term refugee situations and I can understand why. However “boat people” are not travelling for a summer holiday either, they are desperate people! 

Refugees may well not make very good migrants. They have suffered. They did not want to leave their homes but they had to. They have seen war, death and devastation and know unhappiness.  But we owe them shelter and compassion.  Their intrepid children or their children, will almost undoubtedly make wonderful multicultural citizens for our country. 

But mostly, let us not kid ourselves we do enough.  We do much less than European countries and the USA has always had a good record on refugee matters. We do not have a good multicultural attitude. 

But aside from that, when there are homeless children, all alone, we must look after them. They are more important than our economy, our interest rates or our share prices. We have a duty to treat them as we would hope that another country would treat our own children should they ever find themselves alone in a bad situation.



About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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