A Refuge for Refugees – immigrants made Australia

About sixty years ago as a young boy I lived near Sydney airport in a modest home with carefully tended gardens. Every weekend a gardener came – he was a Yugoslav migrant – probably Serbian – called Joe.

He mowed and tended the gardens for weeds. He was friendly and Dad said a good worker. Yet, my mother, a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) called him a ‘Wog’, a derogatory ‘racist’ term used to describe southern Europeans of lower social status. I liked Joe.

My father was an accountant and ‘did the books’ for a range of small businesses, while lining his own pockets. One of the clients in the late 50’s was an Italian migrant who had established a dry cleaning business. He was very friendly and did all our cleaning ‘for free’. When he came to our home, you could smell the fumes on him. A sickly sweet smell from the carbon tetrachloride used in the industry until a few years later. It killed him when still in his forties. He was a kind man who had made a new life for his family.

In 1959, I went on a school excursion by bus to the Snowy Mountains, 2 hours south of Canberra, to visit the ‘Snowy Mountains Scheme’ which is Australia’s greatest ever infrastructure project. It was designed to generate hydroelectricity and control the infeed from the Snowy river to the two main east-west rivers, the Murray and the Murrumbidgee, for irrigation of the Riverina and Murray basin.

There are about 16 major dams and 7 power stations built over the 25 years from 1949. The key statistic is that of the 100,000 workers on the project, about 65,000 were immigrants, mainly from all parts of Europe, and the project met budget, while about 120 of those men perished in the construction. Without the commitment of those immigrants, willing to work in harsh conditions to establish a new life, the project could not have gone ahead.

Australia is after all, a country that, following the aborigines who had been there for about 40,000 years, was totally based on forced or voluntary immigration. Australian immigrants have been arriving for only 225 years. The story of the treatment of the native aborigines is best told elsewhere as it is a lesson in its own right.

By the time of the Snowy Scheme, just after the second world war, Australia welcomed these European migrants with open arms. In parallel Australia had a migration scheme whereby certain racially qualified people (under the White Australia Policy) were granted entry, including transport from Europe, for £10.

I step forward to the late 60’s when at university, one of our technical officers was a highly academically qualified glass artisan from Ukraine. He had arrived in Australia in about 1960, in Perth, and was required to work in the outback for 2 years before being free to pursue his own interests. He worked in the forests of the south west, north of the town of Denmark. During this period he honed his chess mastery and his English. Oleg was eternally grateful for the opportunity given him despite enduring those years in the outback, and his chemistry entrepreneurship created the first sol-gel research in Australia. The chemical tools I used for my PhD research and later in nanotechnology were born from working alongside Oleg.

When, a generation later, in 1990 we moved to a farm near Canberra, I was awakened to the fact that the building industry in the national capital was predominantly controlled by Serbian and Croat builders who had been immigrants as workers on the Snowy Mountains Scheme until the early 70’s.

Interestingly, in some of the ‘backwoods’ east of Canberra, there were illegal military training grounds for fighters for the conflict that had been brewing in ‘Yugoslavia’. Yet this perturbation to national security was eliminated and the police returned to hunting for marijuana plantations, while the second and third generation of the migrants expanded their businesses and our culinary appreciation.

So what went wrong in Australia? Racism knows no limitations and is so easily fed by fear of loss. I once had a friend, a Labor politician in the Federal Parliament. His then electorate of Kalgoorlie was bigger than western Europe. He represented the interests of the aborigines, pastoralists, miners and prostitutes with egalitarian skill. However, in about 1993, he came under the influence of a new force in Australian politics, a racist anti-immigration movement. He explained to me that in his electorate the strongest pressure to reduce migration came from the migrant communities.

True or not, Australia has since the 1990’s become a state in siege welcoming only the rich, a state where those who desperately seek their right to life and freedom are turned away. The glory of egalitarian Australia, built economically and culturally on labour of immigrants, has been forgotten by politicians who realise that to capture the vote of the mediocrity, you need only wave the anti-immigration terrorist and religious banners.

Australia, with less than 25 million persons, a continent that must be capable of supporting over 200 million humans, a refuge for refugees, is now one of the world’s best example of racism. One can only hope that European countries adopt more generosity towards refugees – whatever their reasons for seeking refuge – be a Samaritan.

(This article is published under licence to Energitismo Limited and forms part of the Australian Blog)