Migrant myths and memories


Out of sight out of mind: towards a final solution

St DymphnaMy first Australian grandson will be born in Brisbane as I write. The kind of Australian society he will grow up in, influencing the young man he will become, matters to me. One day he'll learn that both his grandmothers were born in different countries, myself in England and Grandma Jan in Uganda.

In fact, I will show him on the map — everybody started in Africa. My mitrochondrial DNA came from the cradle of agriculture in Syria. It's taken 10,000 years for me to become an Australian!

I'll be his grandmother, one of his teachers, preparing the way for the child to learn and cope with the realities of living in the world. The cooperation, civility and respect for other members of our Australian family will, I hope, transfer to the extended human family and wider body politic.

Scientific researchers are beginning to show how important grandmothers are to the evolutionary survival and thriving of the young. For our young nation of Australia I hope the fascist mentality of controlling borders by human rights violations is a trend we can reverse.

In 20 years the processing of refugees would be made less harmful by allowing us empty-nester baby-boomers to offer a spare room and vegie patch until life moves on for them. Melburnians hosted international visitors in 1956 without any worries.

Australia's obligation to share in alleviating the world's refugee problems won't have ceased. Millions of human beings have been forcibly displaced due to conflicts and persecution. The situation is not going away fast.

It is overwhelming but it is not made easy when many Australians hold a historic fear of invasion, and fear that all our prosperity will be taken from us. If my grandson's mates start expressing complaints about certain races of people taking over all the local shops I hope he will have no fear in informing them that this kind of prejudice against other human beings led to the Nazi genocide of 6 million European Jews, including one million children, during World War II.

While talking about a visit to Europe, I asked my psychiatrist how can Israel do to the Palestinians what the Germans did to them — the persecution, the stealing of houses and land, and the world letting them get away with it? It was perplexing and tragic. She replied it was a fact of life that the victims of abuse often become perpetrators of abuse.

When Grandma Jan was growing up in Uganda, President Idi Amin got it into his head that the 80,000 Ugandans of Asian descent didn't belong there and gave them a deadline to get out. It was 1972. I remember reading about it on the front page of the Daily Mirror in Birmingham.

I was nine years old, reading about murders and mutilation and rapes. On the radio I was listening to the Conservative MP Enoch Powell and leaders of The National Front saying we would have rivers of blood too, if we let more Asians in to the British Isles.

Grandma Jan's family was forced to walk away, take no money out of the country, only food they could carry with them and a bit of clothing. It took five days to walk to a packed United Nations refugee camp, where they waited for a visa to enter the freezing capital of the old British Empire.

Perhaps, by knowing his family history, our grandson will add value to a school essay. I imagine the topic will ask if there is a subtext of Australia's founding White Australia Policy in present day immigration policies.

Prime Minister William McMahon and his cabinet were adamantly opposed to accepting black African-Asian refugees into their homogeneous society, except for hand-picked highly skilled refugees, for example doctors who had been trained in British universities. All efforts by the British Government to persuade them to relax normal immigration criteria came to nothing.

Former ALP Leader, Arthur Calwell warned the Federal Parliament in May 1972 that the overwhelming majority of Australians didn't want to see any Ugandan-Asians brought to Australia, which would result in a 'chocolate coloured' Australia.

Even when Gough Whitlam came to power in December and removed the White Australia Policy, there was a tokenistic gesture to the international community — some money for the UNHCR to run the refugee camps, and a few highly-skilled workers.

The small island of Great Britain opened itself to 30,000 extra people. While anxious refugees shivered at the RAF Airbase in Somerset the Uganda Re-settlement Board, which incorporated local council organisations, assisted with accommodation, clothing, schools and employment.

Refugees were treated with dignity and were free to go into the village; 2437 private homes were available, offering rooms for free.

Grandma Jan would have been denied a home in the Australia of 1972, so it wasn't until she was a married woman with two children and a white husband (with skills) that she managed to find a warm state of grace to see her children grow and her grandchildren born in Brisbane.

I first came across the simple, rehabilitating option of offering a room in my house for asylum seekers — like the Somerset villagers did — at a time when my need for protection and compassion was necessary, recovering as I was from an episode of severe mental illness.

It was while making the first tentative steps outside the enclosed mental health unit that I came across two empty chapels, side by side in the grounds of Wolston Park.

Like Goldilocks I tried sitting on the first pew. I guessed the chapel was of a Protestant vein, being bare and simple of ornamentation. The next chapel was Catholic, with more sacred adornments, and I found myself on the pew longer because the stained glass window got my attention. It was a young woman, medieval in armour with a sword. I mused on it being Joan of Arc.

Checking in with the psych nurse I got raised eyebrows when I asked for a priest. The priest in turn was surprised when I asked who the female figure in his chapel was. He hadn't noticed her! So we were educated on the life of Dymphna, Patron Saint of the Mentally ill (pictured). She was a refugee.

By boat she escaped the incestuous, deranged pagan king who was her father. At only 14 years of age she made this perilous journey to Europe with her priest guardian and people smuggler ...

Even in the 21st century a sixth century story resonates. Ongoing violence against women and children has never ceased. The fact that she was tracked down and murdered engenders compassion.

Not fearful or anxious about the increasing numbers of pilgrims with mental illness venturing into the town, the residents of Gheel opened their doors and continue to be a model therapeutic community. Foster family care has become integrated within the community. We could be given this choice.

The lingering echo of former Prime Minister John Howard at the launch of the 2001 election haunts us still — 'we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come'.

Continuing hostility towards asylum seekers is not due only to a dislike for Afghans or Iraqis, said sociologist and social commentator Eva Cox on ABC's Q&A. She'd heard all the vitriol about boat people before. In 1948 as a five-year-old Jewish girl, she had fled Nazi Germany with her family. They wound up on a boat crossing from Indonesia towards Australia.

Both major political parties claim they are tough on border protection. Philip Ruddock was the immigration minister who helped install the Pacific Solution, which incarcerated asylum seekers on islands sometimes for up to five years.

He visited the island of Nauru in 2002. The mostly Afghani men, women and children who greeted him with their traditional hospitality still remember his harsh words as he told them to go back to their country because they had come through the window instead of the door. Many have since become proud Australian citizens.

Negative, hysterical publicity often attends those who arrive by boat. This contrasts with the response to those who arrive by plane on holiday or study visas then claim for asylum. They are discreetly processed and integrated into the community while they wait for the paperwork to be done. Refugees who don't have an airport or Australian embassy near their place of terror don't get a fair go.

While Cox and her family were settling into their new country in 1950 my nine-year-old mother was a different kind of boat arrival. She was greeted by fanfare and had a group photo in the local paper. She was one of 135,000 white Christian 'child migrants', who weren't aware they'd be staying.

Then-Immigration Minister Calwell's 'Populate or Perish' policy adhered to a white European influx. It didn't matter that there was brutality inflicted or neglect when these child migrants arrived. Government conveniently trusted the various agencies to look after them and then forgot them.

It is hard not to be cynical and worry about the asylum seekers coming to Australia now being told they are being sent to Malaysia, which has a horrific record of human rights abuse to refugees.

So easily the government ministers can say we have an agreement with the Malaysians, that these asylum seekers will be treated with respect and dignity. Understaffed United Nations workers are expected to monitor treatment and conditions. They will be tagged so they are not caned. They will be in a holding centre and then free to go into the community.

In the eight years that my mother was at the orphanage a representative for her guardian, the State of New South Wales, showed their duty of care by turning up once a year and asking the child, with a nun on either side, if they were being looked after well.

James Hathaway, a leading authority on international refugee law at the University of Michigan, said the Australian Government shows an 'extraordinary callous disregard' for human rights by pushing asylum seekers into countries like Malaysia that have not signed to the very conventions they helped write. Malaysia has no legal obligation to share the responsibility with Australia; 'It's an illegal deal'.

The natural law of cause and effect seems not to worry us. The long-term generational effects of the Child Migrant scheme with mental and physical illness, poverty and substance abuse is now widely known. Kevin Rudd's government apologised and recompense will be made.

Our obligation to pay for the damage we have caused to refugees is something Australia should bear in mind. It's up to us.

What a relief to hear former Prime Minister Bob Hawke say Tony Abbott's 'Stop the Boats' slogan was ridiculous, and remind us that we were all 'boat people' once. 'The boat people who are fleeing their homelands to stay alive are people this country needs — people with initiative and courage,' he said.

The White Australia Policy was struck off years ago, but I reckon if white, African farmers were expelled by Robert Mugabe and came to our shores on boats, we would open our doors and windows.

I read the local newspapers and am shocked at the public animosity towards asylum seekers. I set the record straight to counteract the fear of showing compassion, the refusal to step into another human's thongs ... choosing open hearts, minds and spare rooms.

Julie McNeillJulie McNeill is a Queensland based writer and ALP member. She is detailing her working-class pedigree on her blog. This essay was Highly Commended by the judges of the 2011 Eureka Street/Reader's Feast Award: Australia 2031

Topic tags: Julie McNeill, Malaysia Solution, Reader's Feast, White Australia, Child Migrants



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Existing comments

wonderful piece, Julie. thank you for bringing the humanity out of the hysteria and reminding us of what i always come back to: apart from Indigenous australians, we are ALL boat people, and do ourselves and others no favours by protecting what "is ours" with brutality and human rights abuses.

louise | 24 August 2011  

Julie: whatever the other merits of your article, the analogy you seem to draw between the Nazi Holocaust and Israeli policies towards the Palestinians is both hopelessly wrong historically and politicall, and highly offensive to those of us who lost family in the Nazi genocide.

Such analogies seem deliberately intended to diminish the extent of Jewish suffering, collectively demonise Israeli Jews, and do nothing to effect a practical resolution of the complex Israeli-Palestinian dispute based on statehood and dignity for both peoples.

Philip Mendes

philip mendes | 24 August 2011  

The comments relating to Eva Cox are curious. Nazi Germany had fallen in 1945 and by 1948 Australia was taking numerous people from war torn countries as migrants.I do not believe that Eva's skin colour, she is white, or Jewish faith had anything to do with her entry into Australia.Why on earth would she want to come to Australia as a boat refugee through Indonesia when Australia was taking refugees from Europe by the thousands, boatloads full. Was she jumping the queue, or anxious to get here ahead of a scheduled time? Eva's situation is not relevant to today's migration or refugee problems.To attempt to make it so is less than a reasonable comparison.

George | 24 August 2011  

Much appreciated comments. Yes, a couple of clarifications needed after the essay deadline!

from Eva Cox:
Good essay! But unfortunately it is a misquote. Maybe you confused me with
Evie Pikler who did come via Indonesia. The point was correct, I did flee as
refugee to England in 1939, and migrated to Australia (by plane) in 1948
despite polls on public opinion being against Jewish displaced people. I
told the story on Q&A to show Calwell was prepared to ignore populist
prejudice then.

Son-in-laws father: Asian-Ugandan expulsion 1972, Jan's family had British passports because her father had served in East Africa Rifles in two world wars. He was 73 when evacuated by plane to London where he died in 1980.

Good to keep revising and correcting the record. cheers.

author | 29 August 2011  


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