My grandparents met in a displaced persons camp (what we now know as a refugee camp) in Germany. Their papers state ‘Fallingbostel Regional Processing Centre, Germany’. My grandad is named VIDINS, Arvids, born 21/5/1914. He is married. He is 34. He speaks no English, some German, no Russian and is fluent in German. His educational level is a primary grade to year 6, with no secondary education and four years of technical training. He is classed as ‘not Jewish’. He has no relatives or friends listed in Australia. He has no funds to avail himself of when arriving in Australia. He is travelling with is wife, Olga Vidins who is 26 and his newborn son Vidvuds. He has been in Germany since 19/9/1944. His reason for being in Germany states ‘forced evacuation’. He is accepted for resettlement to Australia on the 15th June 1948, some years after the war ended.
My grandmother tells me that when in Fallingbostel, they could have stayed in Europe, gone to the United Kingdom, Canada or Australia. They wanted to escape Europe as they were scared to death of the spread of communism. Canada was not an option (although many Latvians did choose Canada) as my grandad would have had to go there for a year before he could be reunited with his wife and son. So they decided to come to Australia.
From what I understand, they were required to do some type of indentured work, regardless of the persons skill or capability. My grandparents first arrived in Perth, then were settled in Bathurst, NSW. Going from continental Europe to Bathurst would have been a terrible culture shock for anyone I guess. They would have been encamped with people all over Europe who had resettled after the war. Bathurst sounded like a hot, inhospitable, foreign place. The work was arduous. My grandparents spoke little to no English. They had no friends or family.
From Bathurst, they settled in the Southern Highlands where they started to integrate into Australian life. After that, they made Wollongong their home, where they have called their home since.
In the early days, they were called all sorts of names. Balts (a derogatory name for people of the Baltic states), Nazis, Communists, Fascists.
In recent years, war, famine, genocide and persecution has seen a huge increase in the number of refugees worldwide. The situation for the refugee in a camp would seem hopeless.
I think you would be hard pressed to find an Australian who does not have a soft spot for the refugee, stuck in a camp. For the family devastated by war. For the widow, the orphan. The father who can’t put a meal on the table for his family. The mother who has lost her children. The child who will grow up never knowing his parents. I truly believe that Australian’s love standing up for the underdog.
Australia has a set number of people it accepts as refugees every year. The ‘usual’ process, as I understand, is that a person registers as a refugee with the UNHCR and usually settles in a refugee camp. By all accounts, this is a long, unpleasant and often dangerous process. A country will then, hopefully, select the person or family to come as part of their humanitarian intake. In Australia, once a person is settled, they may have options for their family who is ‘back home’ or still in a refugee to come here as part of a family reunification program.
We have, however, an unprecedented number of people who are bypassing this process. Flying from their own country, through a raft of other countries, then paying a people smuggler to board some unworthy vessel to make an unsafe journey across the ocean to Australian territorial waters. The trend seems to be to get rid of any formal form of identification on their way.
Not for one minute do I want to say these people are not genuine refugees. I’m not saying that they may not have a genuine claim to asylum here in Australia. I’m not for one minute saying or suggesting that their life ‘back home’ has been marred by war, violence or persecution. But for me, honestly, it seems these people are hell-bent and, based on some reports, even feel entitled to life in Australia. If news reports are to be believed, the average ‘irregular maritime entry’ via a people smuggler costs the asylum seeker anywhere between $7000 – $10000 a pop. That’s after making their way, usually via air travel, using passports and papers, though a number of other countries, to Indonesia.
To me, this seems unfair.
Unfair to the people who are stuck in those God-awful camps. Stuck fearing for their lives as militia raid them, bombs drop overhead, food is scavenged from weekly UN food drops.
Unfair to people, like my grandparents, who waited years in a cold refugee camp in Germany, away from their family, their friends, their homeland.
That is why I personally find it hard to accept people that pay people smugglers, (after flying through a number of countries with passports and papers) to board a rickety boat, destroy their identities, riot and burn down Australian Government buildings and holiday back in their homeland after getting permanent residency or citizenship here in Australia.
Does that mean I don’t accept refugees? Not at all. I’m the proud grandson of refugees. It would be fantastic if, as Australians, we had the capacity (in all senses of the word) to support those less fortunate. I thank the Lord daily for being born in this magnificent country. However, Australia owes its responsibility to its people and its sovereign territory. The Australian Government has a responsibility to look after its own.
What are the solutions? I have a few ideas myself, all of which are probably politically and practically ‘red buttons’. Really though, why can’t newly arrived refugees engage in nation building? The Snowy Hydro scheme was built mostly by immigrant workers. There is a multitude of nation building projects that our newly welcomed refugees could be involved in. Roads. Rail. Construction. The NBN. Ports. Airports. Mines. Honest, hardworking project designed to give real skills, an education, English language skills, cultural appropriation could all be involved. I’m certainly no expert, but I’d rather my tax dollars be spent both giving skills and nation building, then repairing burned down immigration camps or welfare payments years after resettlement.
There is no doubt that there are pockets of racism in Australia. From Australians, from newly arrived Australians. From second generation immigrants. From conflicts from the ‘old countries’. What ever way you put it, racism is not on. For me, racism is not confronting ugly parts of someone’s culture. Racism isn’t police targeting a group of people with strong links to the criminal underworld. Racism isn’t preventing people coming to Australia with proven links to anti-Australian groups. Racism isn’t confronting things like female genital mutilation, honour killings or cultural misogyny. These are things that Australian’s need to discuss and confront. This is not racism.
What is racism? Racism is calling the Sikh a ‘towel head’. It’s pulling of the Muslim woman’s headscarf. It’s calling the African a nigger. It’s not employing the man with the foreign sounding surname, even though his skills and experience are greater then the more western applicant. In my book, being a racist is being a prick to someone because they don’t look like you. That goes both ways.
I love Australia. I love our multicultural heritage. In my family, I have British, Welsh, Latvian, Croatian and Scottish descendants. My neighbours are from Lebanon, the Philippians, India, Pakistan, all though Africa, Korea, China and the Middle East. There are a few Aussies there, too 😉 . I love I can enjoy pasta on Mondays, curry on Tuesdays, meat & veg on Wednesdays, tacos on Thursdays, BBQ on Fridays, kebabs on Saturday and a roast on Sunday. I love that I can learn about the stories of those around me. I love that my country is young and free, that I can worship without persecution, that I know my free speech is protected, that we have a generous program of aid and humanity. Could we do better? Of course, but that’s not to denigrate the great work we already do.
I hope and pray our new Australians value this country and values the same way I do. I hope they bring new cuisine, a spirit of openness and a desire to give back to this great country. I hope too that I can see past the superficial and see the person, the individual, the story of those coming here.