16 October 2011

Distraction of boats allows racism to thrive

While our "leaders" in Canberra accuse each other of backing the people smugglers' business model or encouraging the loading of children onto dangerous boats, in Sydney's western suburbs, and presumably elsewhere in the country, it is all about "the enemy".

The article in the Sydney Morning Herald was headlined "fear and distrust". People interviewed in the Federal electorate of Lindsay, whose local Member actively campaigns against asylum seekers arriving by boat, were not apparently concerned about queue jumpers or dangerous sea voyages. Their comments were the stuff of pure xenophobia. The barber saw no difference between persecuted Hazaras from Afghanistan and the Japanese, North Koreans and Viet Cong whom we fought in wars last century. The service station manager, who thought there had been about 100,000 arrivals this year, was worried about the danger to her grandchildren. It did not seem to matter how they got here, just that they were here.

Xenophobia, racism, intolerance, whatever you want to call it, is endemic in human society. After all, that's what the Hazaras are fleeing back home. Meningococcal bacteria and genital warts are also endemic, but are rarely encouraged by politicians. When Vietnamese boat people started arriving in the 1970s there were virulent racist campaigns, but both sides of politics explicitly rejected them. Both the Liberals under Fraser and Labor under Hawke resisted the temptation to ride the wave of racism. They either condemned or ignored it, and went about the business of welcoming the new arrivals into the multicultural mix of Australia.

For the last two decades, rather than welcoming it has been official government policy to lock up asylum seekers arriving by boat. As I have said before, we usually lock up people who are bad or dangerous, or both. No wonder the service station manager in Penrith is worried for her grandchildren, then.

If government policy is to deter them if you can, and lock them up if you can't, then in the minds of many these people must be a threat. Permission is given for the fear and distrust of strangers to manifest itself as hatred and demonisation. That's how a Hazara becomes a samurai.

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