Entering this country as a migrant, Ingeborg van Teeseling outlines the disappointment she faced; and what we will if we don’t value immigration.
I couldn’t have been less of an imposition when I arrived in Australia. I was halfway through my ’40s, healthy, well-educated, I spoke English and I had just married an Australian man who had made himself financially responsible for me, just as the Department of Immigration paperwork had demanded.
But there I was, sitting in the Sydney office of that same department, being told that it would be a good idea for me to refrain from doing my job in my new country. Because, “you know, of course, that with terrorism and everything, we don’t need any reason to deport people these days.” It was 2006, the “death cult” had not been invented yet, but writing journalism, the bureaucrat told me, would inevitably book me a one-way ticket to Villawood.
I had always been financially independent and journalism had been my joy and calling since I was 17 years old. But I liked my new husband and a camp did not seem an attractive prospect, so I followed directions and became an academic instead. After a few years, my university asked me to teach Australian Studies to international and Australian students. It seemed an odd fit, the migrant discussing Eureka and Mabo with young people whose heritage this was.
But in the course of those semesters, I taught them the facts and they showed me the lived reality. Because although they accepted me as a teacher, they were also mostly united in their opinion that I would never become a “real Australian.” Yes, I was white, and that made it easier, but still… that accent, that name, the whole, what-do-you-call-it: foreignness, was a tad disconcerting.
Nice, sure, but just not “one of us.”
It made me wonder, at the time. If this was happening to me, who looked like them, almost sounded like them, what would it be like to be a migrant without all those advantages? Looking into Australia’s history, the background of Yellow Peril, White Australia Policy and Dictation Test explained a lot, and made my experience less personal. But the more I learnt, the less I understood. Migration anxiety? Maybe. But surely, after a while the facts would counter that, right? Like George Megalogenis wrote in his book Australia’s Second Chance: history has shown that the nation flourishes economically in periods of strong migration, while busts are distinguished by closing our doors. And more recently the number crunchers at the Australian Bureau of Statistics concluded that humanitarian refugees do not take jobs away from Australians, but create new ones by setting up businesses. Demographically it makes sense too. With most of the baby-boomers now walking the golf courses, somebody has to work and pay tax to fund their healthcare needs. Without migrants coming in to dilute an ageing population, the Government would run out of money in no time.
Australia has told me to be grateful. And I am. This country has given me an even better education than I already had, and great opportunities and friendships. But it would be great if it could return the favour. In 2009/2010, migrants generated $38 billion in income, the ABS figures showed. The UNHCR has told us that a good proportion of the Syrian refugees, for instance, don’t fit our clichéd image of the downtrodden peasant, but are architects, doctors, teachers and car dealers. If you let us, we’ve got a plethora of things to offer. But instead we are seen as a problem. When I had the discussion in Sydney almost ten years ago, it was still called the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs. Apart from the absurdity of conflating this country’s original inhabitants with its most recent ones, the name change is an eye opener. Now new arrivals have to deal with Immigration and Border Protection.
Multiculturalism is out, protecting the border is in.
Poor, scared, forgetful Australia. You don’t know what you’re missing.