The beginning of 2011 will be remembered as a particular low-point in Australia's history of cultural diversity. The (initially) appalling treatment of orphan Seena, whose parents died in the Christmas Island boat disaster on 15 December 2010 was just one display of disrespect to both the survivors and victims of the tragedy. Coupled with the political squabbling on both sides of politics about the treatment of refugees in general, this disrespect sends a dangerous message to our young people.
One danger is that the messages they send about what constitutes decent humane treatment may affirm or even exacerbate attitudes and experiences of exclusion and racism amongst many young people in Australia, which is more pervasive than many people think.
The Foundation for Young Australians published a national study investigating racist attitudes and behaviours among young Australians. The study by Deakin University's Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, which involved 823 students aged 15 to 18, found that more than 70 per cent of young people experience some form of racism.
Young migrants who have been in Australia less than five years are particularly subject to racism. They are six times more likely to report a racist incident. Second or third generation migrants do not fare much better, being four times more likely to report a racist experience than other young people. Young women from migrant backgrounds are particularly vulnerable. This affirms other research commissioned by The Foundation for Young Australians which found that amongst young aged 18 to 24, those not born in Australia are almost twice as likely to experience discrimination as those born in Australia.
But the experience of racism is not confined to any particular group. Over 50 per cent of Anglo-Australian young people, for example, experienced some form of racism.
The policy positions and language of our political leaders of both major parties have done little to address racism in a concerted way. At a federal policy level, we have seen a decline in attention to the benefits and challenges of cultural diversity. This decline has been prominent since the Howard Government, and continued through the Rudd and Gillard Governments (although there are hopeful signs of change). Notions of social inclusion, for example, have been hollowed out and reduced to vaguely nebulous references to the economic wellbeing of "working families". Economic matters have far surpassed basic humanitarian concerns and the importance of nurturing cultural diversity as a core part of Australian life. (In my view, it is no coincidence that amidst the heartbreak of the funerals for the victims of the Christmas Island tragedy, the economic costs of flying refugee survivors to Sydney was, sickeningly, a major issue.)
But cultural diversity, and the challenges and benefits associated with it, remains central to our very identity and strengths as a nation. From the rich heritage of first Australians through colonisation to the contemporary flows of people, information, goods and services, Australia is comprised of a rich diversity of cultures. Young Australians embody this culturally and linguistically diverse make-up. Indigenous young people account for 3.6 per cent of people aged 15 to 19 and just under three per cent of all people aged 20 to 24. At least one in five Young Australians are born overseas and one in five speaks a language other than English at home.
In light of the mistreatment of refugees so visible in the media, and the pervasive racism suggested by this research, policy responses are sending the wrong message to young people and are at odds with the very fabric of Australian life.
Rather than promoting the benefits of cultural diversity, mainstream media representations and political debates concerning immigration in Australia reveal the volatile and divisive path that Australia has ventured down in recent years.
While both major Parties promote non-discriminatory approaches, the lack of a clear and fierce rejection of human rights abuses associated with the treatment and detention of refugees sends mixed, if not explicit, messages to our young people about what is acceptable behavior towards newly arrived Australians and each other. The consequences of this strike at the very heart of what it is to be Australian and to live in a culturally diverse democratic society.
We need to change the way we talk about the challenges of refugees and remind ourselves of where we as a nation have come from and what kind of society we want to be. Joe Hockey's call for basic humanity is a good start. Additionally, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen's defence of Australian multiculturalism may signal a shift in policy discourse and behavior but much more needs to be done to honour and foster the benefits of cultural diversity in Australia. Let's hope that the rest of 2011 is remembered for something better.
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