Last month I interviewed more than 40 international postgraduate students studying in higher education in Malaysia and Singapore. These students discussed their motivations for deciding to study in the new "education hubs" of the Asia Pacific. Many of these students came from countries such as Iran, Iraq, China, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Yemen and Pakistan. They were all intelligent and highly motivated to make something of their lives, with high levels of proficiency in English. They were also anxious and frightened about their futures as most of them came from places that featured continued uncertainty and political instability. Many were clearly seeking a place to live and escape the prospect of civil wars, imprisonment and start new lives.
They told me that their initial destination of choice was the US, the UK and Australia but a combination of costs and visa restrictions made countries such as Malaysia and Singapore a better destination.
On closer questioning it became clear that Australia was seen as a destination where foreign students were not safe and that it was not a welcoming place for foreigners. In particular many of the students from Muslim countries expressed a concern that in the post September 11 climate that they were not welcome in Australia. Women particularly were worried that in Australia they would be subject to harassment and abuse. The recent violence against Indian students and the ambiguous response of the authorities in denying the racial nature of these attacks was well known and mentioned by these students. They were polite and tried to avoid embarrassing me but they were firm in their belief that Australia at a number of levels did not want foreigners as students, migrants and visitors.
On returning to Hong Kong where I now work, I was speaking to a Hong Kong PhD candidate about employment options in the future. A good prospect for any employer, I encouraged her to consider Australia and she told me “but with my colour skin I will not get a job in Australia”. I was stunned and disappointed but not surprised as I had encountered such attitudes many times in Asia. I have been reminded by Asian friends of Pauline Hanson, Cronulla riots and the treatment of Aborigines if I bring up sensitive issues in Asia like human rights.
Many Australians would be shocked that Australia is still seen as a racist nation. Most Australians naively see themselves and their country as a friendly people and as a welcoming environment, but the experiences of those from other parts of the world are often less benign. Most Australians never have to experience the humiliating and demeaning processing of student visas and migration applications that foreigners experience. Some overseas students tell me the processes are not “Aussie friendly” and are authoritarian, bureaucratic and dehumanising and routinely treat people with suspicion and distain.
Further tightening of visa and migration requirements has done little to change this perception that Australians are anti-foreigners. Worse the conflating of overseas students, family reunions, skilled migrants and refugees and the talk of cracking down on fraud, and restoring integrity to the immigration system does not help matters. Concurrently certain groups, including students, have been singled out for harsh criticism by people such as Bob Birrell who has questioned the legitimacy of vocational courses in cooking and the Indian students who attend these courses.
On two levels recently I have experienced “first hand” the dilemmas that the “crackdown” mentality on migration might have in Australia. Paradoxically in a period of global economic crisis Australia has growing demands and skills shortages in many occupations and two of these critical shortages are cooks and aged care workers. I have been on a board which until recently ran a café in central Sydney and at the same time my elderly mother has been admitted to hospital for a long period of time. Needless to say it has been a real challenge to hire a cook for the café and a continuous battle to retain them in a competitive job market.
My mother has observed that the majority of the people who care for her are from China, Indonesia, the Philippines and other Asian nations. From the wartime generation that might normally be hostile to Asians and Asian immigration, she admires them for their hard work and dedication and is grateful that they are there for her. She says in her own pragmatic way that “if they weren’t here who would be wiping our b…s in here”. Cooking meals, caring for the aged as well as other higher level jobs such as medicine, accountancy and engineering are areas where migrants are urgently needed.
My mother has succinctly summed up the implications of long term skills shortage for Australia with an estimated deficit of more than 200,000 jobs and the dilemmas of global mobility. There is an economic and social need for migration and the Australian community needs to recognise these contributions. Outdated views of race and ambiguous attitudes to migration have to change.
It’s a self defeating attitude and government needs to start an education campaign inside and outside Australia. It needs to confront the racial dog whistle politics of cynicism and fear that endures from the Howard years inside Australia and it needs to address the perceptions about Australia overseas.
Robin Williams’ stereotypical views need to be challenged but who will do it? There is no equivalent of the British Council to do it on behalf of Australians. Australia has a massive public relations problem that “fun in the sun” advertising in Asian subways will not cure. It’s not about image management but starting to talk with the region about these issues and engage with the region in ways that are honest about the challenges as well as the opportunities of global mobility.
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