In 2013, on a train from Hanoi to Sapa, I got my first indication about how the rest of the world might perceive Australia. My friend and I were sharing our overnight carriage with a young Spanish couple who asked us about Australia’s refugee policy.
“Aren’t Australians racist? They aren’t very good to immigrants and refugees, are they?”
That was the first time I realised that my own shame over the Australian government’s policies permeated beyond our borders.
Over the years Australians have been welcomed in every country of the globe. We are a country of travellers; you’ll find us in hostels, in bars and on the beaches of any South East Asia country.
I never had to have a hard conversation with my parents or family about setting off on a 15 month trip; as a young person in Australia travel is expected, it’s a rite of passage.
During that time the rest of the world’s perception of us has been largely positive. When I was travelling in Europe in 2009 whenever I mentioned I was Australian people responded with smiles and ‘I love Australians’.
But unfortunately, whilst the rest of the world embraces us with open arms, I can’t say that we do the same. Most recently, the New York Times published a scathing article on Australia’s Refugee Policy. From speaking to couchsurfers I’ve hosted, and from having conversations with random travellers, it seems that the world is starting to realise just how racist Australia can be.
So is Australia as racist as everyone seems to think we are?
The answer is yes, and no.
Australians aren’t all the same. We have different political views; some of us are conservative and some of us are more liberal. The truth is that there are strong levels of racism in Australia but there are also thousands of Australians calling this racism out.
Racism in Australian History
Australia has a long history of xenophobia. It began when we stole the land from the traditional owners of the land; the Indigenous people of Australia. What occurred after that was an effective genocide where for the next 50 years Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders were killed, Indigenous women were raped, children were stolen from families to be raised by the church and the state exercised control over every facet of their lives.
Whilst we have since included Indigenous Australians in our constitution and apologised to the stolen generation of children, Indigenous Australians still face widespread discrimination. They are overrepresented in our prison system and on average their live expectancy is 10 years less than non-Indigenous Australians.
Racism in Numbers
According to ‘All Together Now: Erasing Racism’, 1 in 5 people living in Australia have experienced racial abuse.
1 in 3 people experience racism in the workplace and 3 in 4 Indigenous Australians regularly experience racism.
One in seven people living in Australia are against the concept of multiculturalism, three in ten do not believe immigrants make Australia strong and one in three believe there are some cultural groups that do not belong in Australia.
Whilst we might look to deny it, Australia does have a racism problem, which is pretty ironic considering we are a country of migrants.
Racism in Policies
One of the platforms that our current government was able to get elected on was ‘Stop the Boats’. A slogan used to describe the need to stop refugees and asylum seeks arriving on our shores.
It seems to be politically popular to tow boats full of desperate people back to Indonesia. Or to lock them and their children up indefinitely in refugee centres operating in islander countries like Nauru.
People try to justify their stance by saying that they just want people to stop drowning at sea by making the perilous journey or that they are queue jumpers. But our last Prime Minister, Tony Abbot, cut our humanitarian intake in response to the xenophobic public.
Also, if this is the price we have to pay to stop people escaping from conflict zone, I’m not ready to pay it.
Our government seems ok to leave them in conditions where they are often physical and sexually abused. In fact, they recently passed the Australian Border Force Act which effectively makes it illegal to report abuse and child abuse on Nauru.
In our most recent shame, our immigration minister Peter Dutton, due to widespread public outrage, finally allowed a Somalian woman, allegedly raped on Nauru, to come to Australia in order to get an abortion.
But when she asked to see a counsellor and a medical doctor to reassure her on the procedure and her decision, she was secretly sent back to Nauru before her lawyers could seek a court hearing to stop her deportation.
But it’s not all of us…
Whilst xenophobia is strong in Australia and whilst our government continues to have support for atrocious policies against asylum seekers, please realise that not all of us feel that way.
According to ‘All Together Now’ 1 in 3 Australians take a stand against racism.
There is still a large portion of Australian society that welcomes refugees that understand, as a migrant nation, our future is immigration. They acknowledge that we are a prosperous country that has the ability to help those escaping conflict through humanitarian immigration.
This is evidenced by the tens of thousands of people that show up at rallies opposing Australian refugee policy, such as the most recent Light the Dark rally in Melbourne. It’s shown by the thousands of people that donate to and volunteer for organisations like the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.
Most recently, it’s the staff of the Royal Children Hospital refusing to send refugee children back to Nauru.
I’m a left wing university student with lots of left wing friends, so I can say that most of the people I know thankfully fall into the ‘welcome refugees’ category. I’m sure if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be my friend.
In fact, at this very moment, my Facebook is saturated with posts from my friends; disgusted and horrified by the deportation of a pregnant rape victim.
What should you do if you meet an Australian on the road?
I’d make the assumption that the majority of Australians you’ll be meeting whilst backpacking don’t fall into the racist category for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, the majority of Australian backpackers on the road are from a younger generation of Australians that are far more likely to be tolerant.
Secondly, I live by the idea that if you have seen the world, you love the world and with that love come the support for those that live in it, regardless of their race, religion or sex.
But feel free to ask; in fact I want you to.
Australians need to know that the world is watching. They need to know that what is going on right now and what has happened in the past is blight on their history.
Cover Photo Attribution