'Compassion' and 'inclusiveness' do our most recent immigrants no favours, writes Nick Cater in The Australian.
What did the Labor Party imagine it was doing when it blocked a tougher English test for potential citizens? The government’s modest legislative amendment prompted an outburst of moral vanity unmatched in the immigration debate since Kevin Rudd’s fateful decision to relax border controls a decade ago.
Opposition citizenship spokesman Tony Burke claimed it was reminiscent of the White Australia policy; parliament’s least-missed former senator, Sam Dastyari, said it was driven by “the politics of fear, of division and of disunity, intended to wedge us and to divide us”; CFMEU NSW state president Rita Mallia described it as “an all-out attack on our democratic rights”.
The last people to benefit from this torrent of hyperbole will be non-English-speaking migrants whose chances of building a new life in Australia are demonstrably worse than those from Anglophone countries. One in four migrants who have arrived from non-English-speaking countries since 2007 has yet to secure their first job. Only 65 per cent are presently employed, compared with 81 per cent of migrants from English-speaking countries.
The notions of “compassion” and “inclusiveness” that frame our timid immigration debate are hardly adequate to cope with the challenges of a mature multicultural society. The theory that everything would be delightful if we were just a little nicer to one another is crumbling. The most confronting issue today is the widening gap between the fortunes of skilled migrants and those who arrive unskilled and unprepared under the family and humanitarian programs.
It used to be different. In 1996, four out of five recent male arrivals under what was then called the refugee program were in work. Four out of 10 female refugees had also found jobs. Today, less than half of men in the same cohort are in the workforce. The job prospects for women are considerably lower; the number of female humanitarian arrivals in the workforce is so low that the Australian Bureau of Statistics doubts the accuracy of its figures.
Something has gone badly wrong with our resettlement system when 58 per cent of refugees who have settled here in the past 10 years are living on welfare.
This is not the advertised deal. Australia promises more than mere asylum; it offers the opportunity to forge a new and better life in a free society. It is axiomatic that a successful migration program is one in which migrants succeed.
The energy that drives migrants to come here in the first place has been successfully tapped to the nation’s great advantage since 1788 at least.
Today’s refugees are the first to be offered an alternative to surviving by their wits - and a welfare system is always a disincentive to work. The pernicious effects of long-term welfare are widely known; it breeds isolation, passivity and fatalism. Welfare is bad for your health; it is bad for your children’s health; it is bad for their education; and it reduces their chances of functioning as adults.
Welfare, however, is the Australian way of life for most of the 60,000 or so adult refugees who have settled here since 2007. Two out of three adults granted humanitarian visas between 2007 and last year have been unable to secure a single job. Two out of five have not had the courage to look for one.
We should hardly be surprised when only three out of 10 are proficient in spoken English, five out of 10 speak English badly and two out of 10 do not speak English at all; we can surely dismiss the soft-headed notion that they are excluded from the workforce by prejudice. That would imply that Australians have become more racist across time which, at the very least, would be an indictment of the multicultural industry that is paid handsomely from the public purse to make us more tolerant.
Neither would it be reasonable to attribute low outcomes to peculiar weaknesses of character. Vietnamese asylum-seekers, for example, faced language and cultural challenges no less daunting than those arriving from the Middle East; the civil war that overtook their homeland produced a considerable amount of trauma and was followed by the iron rule of an oppressive government.
A notable change in the past 20 years, however, has been the rise of victimhood and identity politics. Migrants from non-English backgrounds, celebrated in our folk memory for their resourcefulness and resilience, have been infantilised by do-gooders who regard it as unreasonable to expect them to learn English. The tyranny of low expectations, a familiar failing in indigenous education, now applies to asylum-seekers.
One hesitates to single out any particular example of this low-grade, low-expectations thinking, but the Refugee Council of Australia’s attitude is particularly galling. Such a body, if true to its brief, surely would be protesting loudest and longest about the long-term welfare crisis engulfing refugees. It should be demanding that refugees be given a chance, instead of wrapping them in cotton wool and labelling the rest of us racists.
But no. Traumatised refugees who arrive from conflict zones with disrupted educations cannot be expected to cope with the strengthened English requirement, claims the council’s chief executive, Paul Power.
It is the kind of attitude that condemns refugees to failure, parading adversity as an excuse rather than an incentive. It denies today’s refugees the chance to become the next Frank Lowy, for example, who was 13 when his father was beaten to death in Auschwitz and spent the war with a yellow star pinned to his chest while holed up in a Hungarian ghetto.
“The human being is very resourceful,” Lowy told The Australian in 2010. “When you fight for survival, you don’t think much, you just do. If you think too much, you sink.”