Refugees tarred with brush of prejudice
REFUGEES, barely more than boys, worked on our family farm when I was a child. Not one of them spoke anything approaching "all the English language skills that you might normally expect". They were Italians - and later, a Hungarian. In our remote rural district, they might as well have come from another planet.
The Italians, having watched Italy torn apart by World War II, had been unable to endure it as their nation plunged into postwar economic and political chaos.
The Hungarian, a young man named Lou, had escaped "under the wire" after Stalinist forces had crushed a short-lived anti-Soviet revolution in his country.
They worked on a bush block on our farm, ringbarking trees and clearing the forest.
They were lonely and homesick. My mother couldn't bear to witness their desolation and ensured that they came in from the bush and ate at our table. The lack of shared language never seemed a problem. There was laughter, the business of preparing food, often in unfamiliar ways, and quite a lot of singing and hugging.
My father worried about other such young men employed at other farms strung around the district. There was a farmer not far away known as a mean coot who left his refugees half-starved in primitive huts, working them unmercifully.
They had few rights, these boys, and no insight into how they might exercise the rights that were available. They lived in a half-world without citizenship.
My father approached the only local who spoke Italian, urged him to register as a form of guardian and helped him organise official inspections of the conditions in which the refugees were living. Some young men were removed to kinder employers, and shabbier bosses were threatened with the force of government sanctions if they didn't improve their behaviour.
They were not boat people, of course. They were known as displaced persons. Those Italians, these days, might be sneered at as economic refugees. Lou the Hungarian was officially welcomed because he'd escaped communism, though a few of the locals avoided him, concerned that he might be tainted, and other neighbours whispered that it would be best to keep their daughters away from all those lonesome boys.
Today those young men might be equated with the 12,000 or so asylum seekers currently allowed to live in the Australian community on what are known as bridging visas: the half-world between applying for asylum and official recognition as refugees.
The boys from our farm all those years ago were, however, in a better position than those on today's bridging visas - they could work and lay the foundations for a new life.
It was a different time. Australia's leaders were desperate to populate the nation in the wake of World War II, and were actively seeking refugees.
Almost six decades on, some of those who would presume to be leaders and representatives of Australia just want to be shot of those seeking asylum.
Worse, this being an election year, some of them are pandering to ignorance and prejudice for political gain, and appear perfectly happy to be adding to the pain of people who have fled tyranny, war and chaos in search of better lives in a free country.
The opposition spokesman on immigration, Scott Morrison, a committed Christian who once reportedly called for the Coalition shadow cabinet to capitalise on the electorate's growing concerns about "Muslim immigration", and the "inability" of Muslim migrants to integrate, started it with his call for "behaviour protocols" for asylum seekers on bridging visas.
You and the neighbours should be informed, he suggested, when such people move into your street.
Tasmanian Liberal senator Eric Abetz, born in Germany and thus an immigrant himself, took it up a long notch with his bizarre justification for such protocols.
"If you want a cohesive society I would have thought it would be a good idea to say that somebody's moving next door to you that might not be able to have all the English language skills that you might normally expect, or that they come from a traumatised background," he mouthed. "It would be useful for the local police, for the local health authorities et cetera to be told as well."
So a lack of English or previous trauma is reason for the authorities to warn you about new neighbours.
It got worse when Abetz was challenged in Parliament about whether the idea was to reduce asylum seekers to the equivalent of paedophiles - the only group subject at present to neighbourhood alerts.
"I wouldn't put the two [paedophiles and asylum seekers] in the same category, necessarily," he said.
Not necessarily! Even the good senator knew he'd gone too far. When his office issued a transcript of the comment, the word "necessarily" was missing.
The senator had reason to be ashamed of himself, just as former Labor leader Mark Latham ought to be ashamed of himself for taunting Senator Abetz in the old days about his "uncle Otto". Senator Abetz's great uncle was SS-Brigadeführer Otto Abetz, Nazi German ambassador to Vichy France during World War II.
Just as no one should be required to take the fall for a relative, no group of people should be demonised simply because one of their category might have transgressed.
The subterfuge for the concocted fear and loathing is because one man on a bridging visa is accused of sexually assaulting a young woman.
As my Fairfax colleague Bianca Hall reported this week, about 12,100 asylum seekers have been released into the Australian community on bridging visas since November 2011.
And how many of them had been charged with a crime? Five, Ms Hall discovered from the Department of Immigration.
Members of the general public were 45 times more likely, on a per capita basis, to have been charged with a crime.
Would any politician care to demand that if a member of the general public moved in to your street, you, police and the health authorities ought to be alerted? It would make more sense.
Of course, Abetz would have you believe his real concern is not necessarily about crime, but that his special category of new neighbours - those on bridging visas - might not "have all the English language skills that you might normally expect".
My mother could suggest a solution. Invite the neighbours over for a meal. They're probably lonely and homesick. You may discover they are capable of laughing, possibly hugging and willing to offer unfamiliar cooking methods. A bonus? They'd be 45 times less likely to commit a crime than others in the street.
My father might have suggested a close watch on the mean coots in Parliament.