Sunday, November 22, 2009

How Australians love Bangladeshi conjoined twins, hate Tamil refugees, and bash Indians

There have been 2 stories that have dominated Australian news reports in the last week or so, and one that flew under the radar. But together they demonstrate a complex picture of how Australians relate to South Asian people.

First, the one you probably didn't hear about. It got absolutely no coverage in any Australian media, yet was all over the Indian media. From the Hindustani Times:

An Indian couple living in a Melbourne suburb on Wednesday claimed that a group of three people, including two women, beat them up with an iron rod and a steel chair in an apparent racist attack. Rodney Raj and his wife Rathna said they were attacked on November 14 in their home in Bundoora, 19 km northeast from the Melbourne central business district.

Describing the ordeal to an Indian television channel, Rodney said at around 10.30 pm, he heard his dog barking and opened the door to find two girls and a boy on his porch. He told them to go away.

But after some time, he heard a sound in his garage and went there to see that a chair has been put atop his car and they were "scanning my letter-box". When he asked them what was happening, the man "started running towards me and grabbed me. I grabbed him back," Rodney said.

"One of the women grabbed the chair, the other woman had an iron post. One woman started bashing me with the chair and the other woman started bashing me with the iron post. I took 3-4 blows before I fell to the ground. The guy sat on me and started punching me. He landed about 6-7 blows on my face and kept saying he would kill me," Rodney said. When his wife rushed in, the girls "started teasing her and tried to get her clothes off," he claimed. He went to protect her and took more blows, he said.

Whether this was a racist attack or not is hard to glean, but given the nature of recent "curry-bashing" attacks in Melbourne it would not be surprising. I'm not sure why no local media saw fit to report the story.

It is incidents like this which have led many overseas to accuse Australia to be a racist nation, and particularly towards Indians and the like. A supposition that would be reinforced by the general reaction to the boatload of Sri Lankan Tamils who have been intercepted in Indonesia while trying to make their way to Australia to claim asylum.

Here are a few comments on an article relating to the issue. These comments, while not representative of every Australian by any means, seem to capture the general zeitgeist.

Ken of Melbourne Posted at 9:28 AM November 09, 2009
Australian people are law binding, peace loving. These tamils are potential terrorists. Send them back to where they come from use force if necessary.

(Love Ken's definition of "peace loving" there - using force to send asylum seekers back to a country where their lives may be in danger. Although not in as much danger as Australians, according to the following comment:)

Janice Williams Posted at 12:06 PM November 07, 2009
We do not want any more people from foreign countries in australia, we do not have the infrastructure, water, or work, and we are over populated now, imagine what it will be like in l0 years, no more refugees or foreiners into australia, our life is in danger.

Tibor Jeno Posted at 10:02 AM November 07, 2009
My family including me came to Australia as refugees after WW2 but legally and most of these people coming on boats are not true refugees but economic ones at best. If this mob will not get off the Oceanic Viking then disembark them by force and stop letting them dictate terms to us or else throw them over the side to swim for shore where the Indonesians can round them up. Stop treating them with kid gloves. Then publicise worldwide how they were handled and maybe it will act as a deterrent to others.After all they are only queue jumpers.

Now, I'm not going to argue for whether or not we should give these Tamils asylum here or not - I don't know all the facts. Neither do most people commenting on these articles either, of course. I do know a few things though:

* The Sri Lankan government may claim that the asylum seekers are not genuine and that there is nothing to be afraid of in Sri Lanka; but then, they would, wouldn't they?

* Despite the claims of many Sinhalese people, Sri Lanka is not a safe place for Tamils - at least not everywhere in the country. Despite Government attempts to prevent media access to the camps in which so many displaced Tamils live, reports continue to emerge of persecution, murder, rape and discrimination.

* Arguments that we should just leave Indonesia to deal with the asylum seeker problem are also stupid. Indonesia is a crowded country with 10 times Australia's population, and is far, far poorer. The main reason asylum seekers are in Indonesia in the first place is because they are heading for Australia. And recent reports that Indonesian police fired upon a boatload of refugees, injuring 2 Afghanis, because they refused to pay a bribe, is a clear example of why that country cannot deal with the refugee issue on its own.

* Claims that the Tamils cannot be genuine refugees because some of them have money, or have spent large amounts to buy their passage, are irrelevant. White farmers in Zimbabwe are probably the richest group in that country, yet undeniably face violent persecution.

Were the refugees white Zimbabwean farmers of course, there would be none of the xenophobia currently being whipped up about the Tamils.

But if you are convinced by those two stories of the irrevocably racist nature of Australian people, you'd best check the other big story in Australian news this week. It concerns two conjoined twins from an orphanage in Bangladesh, Krishna and Trishna, who would surely have died if not for the miracle operation performed by surgeons in Melbourne. $250,000 was donated by an unknown philanthropist for the operation.

Anyone watching TV or listening to the radio in the last week could not have missed this story - there were updates every news break. Clearly it touched the heart of a nation, and we have embraced these children as if they were our own.

So I wonder what this says about us as a nation. Does the warmth felt towards the twins show that we are not a racist people? Does the hostility towards asylum seekers, or the bashings of Indians, show that we are? Neither, clearly.

If only those Tamils were as cute as Krishna and Trishna.

See also: Are Australians really racist towards Indians?


  1. I think people tend to dislike change and fear the unknown, and I think this is just normal. John Howard brought in his Pacific Solution and its hard stance towards boat people -- and his administration was characterized by record immigration levels.

    In other words, provided that people's fears are calmed, provided that they feel that they are in control, immigration levels can be quite high. Boat people represent "uncontrolled immigration". Uni students staying on as permanent residents after finishing their courses represent "controlled immigration".

    "Uncontrolled immigration" represents all the unrequested change and unknown that Australians fear. I think a major fear is that of ultimately having a huge underclass developing, I suppose as can be seen in the internal migration in Brazil that brings poor Northeasterners to large cities like Rio or Sao Paulo who end up in the favelas, swelling their size and number. Sure, Australian women would no longer have to do the housework (a great relief for professional women), but the universal high standard of living would be lost.

    "Controlled immigration" represents what Australians can be "relaxed and comfortable" about, something that they view as a gain to Australia. This is why immigrants like well qualified uni students who stay on as permanent residents, or other skilled immigrants, tend to be much more preferred. They represent less risk in the eyes of most Australians, and therefore cause much less fear. There's no prospect of them becoming a poor underclass, creating shanty towns and so forth. So probably for this reason, Australians have historically been much more comfortable with "skilled immigration" than with other sorts, especially boat peoples.

    There'd be little fear of "white" Zimbabwean farmers as refugees, but that's because they'd represent little risk in the eyes of most Australians. People would feel that they are already quite culturally similar to Australians and will assimilate with alacrity and ease. Kosovars were "white", but I think there would have been a lot of fear had the government decided to settle many of them. Judging from what I heard from the Army people who worked with them and helped them while they were housed in Army bases in the late 90s, they were disliked. This is in contrast to the East Timorese, who were thought of very positively around the time Australian forces helped enforce their claim to independence. So given the choice, I think Australians would generally prefer an intake of fleeing East Timorese over fleeing Kosovars, even though the latter are "white", because Timorese are a lot less "scary" to them.

  2. PS!

    Oops! I forgot to add, having said all the above, Australia is still a signatory to the United Nations convention regarding refugees and is duty bound to accept such refugees. If the Australian people really don't like this, then they should agitate for their representatives to remove them from the obligations of this convention. I was just explaining why ordinary Australians are scared of boat people, not justifying their reluctance to be bound by the obligations of the refugee convention.