Boundless Plains to Share

“For those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share…” LOL JOKES.

In 2014 we watched the Australian Government roll out a campaign to deter refugees, inciting a moral panic over “boat people”.  The campaign and its accompanying rhetoric was loaded with trigger words like “illegals” and “criminals”. Election periods in Australia have historically been fertile ground for tapping into resonant fears about threats to the ‘Australian way of life.’

The past five years have seen a dramatic increase in far-right activist groups sporting picket signs painted with slogans like “Stop the Boat People!” and “Ban the Burqa!” and “I have a Southern-Cross tattoo!”

People lost their freaking minds when Vegemite became Halal certified. How dare our national spread fund terrorism! Hit Islamic State where it hurts! Boycott your Vita-Wheat +Vegemite + butter worms!

CLEARLY Australia’s track record with refugees/foreign cultures pulls up VERY short of that aspirational lyric in our national anthem.

FYI…‘Boat People’ or people who come without visas, are not ‘illegals’. They break ZERO laws by coming here and asking for protection. In fact, they have a right to do so, protected by Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But amongst all the racist hyperbole, some communities are sharing their boundless plains, and success stories are rife. Take the small town in north-west Victoria, Nhill. 160 Karen refugees have settled there since 2010. For those who do not have a compassionate bone in their body, the statistics alone speak for themselves.

Nhill was facing significant population decline, combined with a very-low unemployment rate. The local economy reaching a standstill was on the cards.

But since the refugees’ arrival 70.5 full time equivalent positions have been created, representing 3% of total employment in the Hindmarsh Shire Council area. $41.5 million has been added to the regional economy.  This supported the expansion of the town’s most prominent commercial business, Luv-a-Duck.

But the effects of these new arrivals surpass statistics: Nhill has been revitalised.

Hindmarsh Shire Council CEO had this to say:

“The social impact of the Karen settlement is extraordinary. Nhill, a very conservative community, has embraced and opened their minds and hearts to the Karen. This has made Nhill a better place to live.”

Settling refugees in rural Australia is a mutually beneficial exercise, as demonstrated by the story of Rockhampton sweet potato farmer, Eric Coleman, and Jean Ntakarutimana. Eric was struggling to find dependable workers that could hack it on his farm. He was churning through backpackers and school-leavers (damn lazy millennials!)

Then along came Tanzanian Jean, affectionately Australian-ised as “Johnno”. Johnno thrived; he worked hard and brought a wonderful energy to the operation. Before long, Eric had employed Johnno’s dad too.

“I think the best thing about Johnno and his dad is they come from an agricultural background, so it’s not actually foreign to them but I think the employment agencies are probably running them into places like Brisbane and trying to get them jobs in an environment that’s totally foreign.”

Eric was thrilled to find Johnno, he even helped him buy a car. And Johnno was thrilled to find Eric. “He has been there for me. We are like a family”, says Johnno.

Julian Burnside QC, a human rights and refugee advocate, epitomises why Australia is currently missing the boat, so to speak, by not embracing refugees.

“By definition, refugees are survivors. They have survived because they have the courage and initiative to do so. These are exactly the qualities we value.”

A UNICEF Report found that the Australian Government has spent 6.9 billion over four years on deterring and detaining refugees. Our off-shore processing system has been condemned time and time again by the UN. Widespread self-harm and suicide attempts are occurring in those facilities. These are people who have survived a treacherous journey in shitty, leaky, poor excuses for boats, after leaving war-torn countries.  Does that not speak volumes to how they are being treated, that they are now deciding they do not want to live?

Detaining a SINGLE refugee on Manus or Nauru costs $570,000 per year. Allowing refugees to live in the community while they are being processed costs only $12,000. The cost is even lower if they are granted the right to work.

But it’s clowns like Peter Dutton, throwing scare tactics around like confetti, who perpetuate the needless suffering. His go-to claims revolve around “stealing Aussie jobs” or “sitting on Medicare and welfare”, or equating refugees with terrorists. Make up your mind Pete, are they stealing our jobs, lazy free-loaders, or terrorists? I feel like by virtue of said laziness they can’t be all three.

It’s time we redirect our resources to affect positive change. Let’s incentivise rural employers taking on newly-settled refugees. Eric spoke about the need for more funding providing English lessons, driver’s licences and tickets.

Refugee advocate Ataus Samad firmly believes that this initiative is a win/win:

“If we give incentives to employers to take on migrants who are already permanent residents it will benefit everyone, because that money will be spent in the local community and it will be a much better dividend for everyone.”

Looking to the future communities like Nhill, and people like Eric should be our role models. TBH, Vegemite should be our role model.

When we don’t limit settlement options to the major cities, we LITERALLY have boundless plains to share. We have the world’s 14th largest economy, yet 20 industrialised countries have accepted more refugees per capita than Australia.

Come on Australia, “with courage, let us all combine.”

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