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Australia Closes the Door to Africans

I'd like to thank the Australian Government for choosing this week to be racist against Africans*. I'm not nearly as conscientious about following African issues as Lynn/Sappho, but since Australia is getting embroiled in an Africa-related controversy, I can do a little Africa-related blogging.

The issue is Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews' revised explanation for why Australia will be cutting the number of African refugees it will accept, from 70% of its refugee intake to 30%. The original explanation was an unremarkable (albeit debatable) assertion that the need for refugee resettlement had shifted due to changes in the situation in different countries. But for reasons that are unclear, Andrews decided this week to tell us that the real rationale for the policy change is that Africans are troublemakers. Specifically,

"Concerns about the establishment of race-based gangs, reports of altercations between African groups in nightclubs and at community functions, disagreements among prominent African community organisations over accusations that some are receiving favoured treatment in accessing community services," he said, listing the points in his dossier.

"Tensions have arisen between some African families involving conflict and assault, concern among some community leaders as to the increase in crime among some African youths, and reports of a developing trend of young African males congregating in parks at night, often to consume alcohol."

I'll pause a moment to let that sink in. They're decreasing the number of refugees they accept because, among other things, some African community leaders think there's favoritism in the distribution of resources between African organizations. Needless to say, actual members of Australia's African communities don't think that leaving people in refugee camps in Sudan and Somalia is the answer to whatever internal problems their communities are having, or that their problems are worse than any other group's.

John Howard wants to have it both ways, clinging to the old explanation as a shield against critics:

"The critics who shout 'racism' are bereft of real arguments," he said. "Having a more equal focus across Africa, the Middle East and Asia hardly constitutes 'racism'. Australia has the right to ensure that those who come here are integrating into a socially cohesive community."

Pauline Hanson*, meanwhile, likes what she's hearing:

Ms Hanson, who is standing for the Senate in Queensland, said yesterday the cut to the intake was vital to protect the Australian way of life. "If we want to do things for the Sudanese people, then let us send medical supplies, food, whatever they need over there - but let them stay in their own country," she said. "You can't bring people into the country who are incompatible with our way of life and culture."

What's hilarious is the Assistant Minister's attempt at damage control. She says Andrews should have nuanced his statements a little more, and basically said the opposite of what he did say:

Ms [Teresa] Gambaro, the Assistant Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, said African migrants were keen to integrate and Mr Andrews could have emphasised their successes in adapting. "He could have put it differently," she told the Herald. "It is something I would have been mindful about. We have to support our humanitarian settlement program. They are no different to migrants of the past. They want a job, a future for their children and their children to be educated."

Ms Gambaro, who oversees the settlement program, said she believed Mr Andrews was only trying to state the difficulties in assisting African refugees, who come from war-torn countries and are often young and illiterate. "They need an enormous amount of assistance," she said. "The settlement has not been smooth across the board, but we have had some successes as well. It all takes time. There are pockets of concern and we need to provide opportunities for those people, but the Africans and Sudanese are making a good contribution."

Gambaro's statements are all nice to hear. The problem is, "Africans are making good progress in adjusting to life in Australia" is not a rationale for reducing the intake of African refugees. Then again, neither is "Africans fight with each other." Hanson's take on the issue at least has the virtue of making sense, since we can understand how xenophobia works. Andrews tries to frame the rationale in terms of the problems Africans have with Australia and each other, rather than the problems Australiams have with Africans. The bottom line is that refugee policy should be based on the refugees' need, not on whether the reciever country stereotypes them as good or bad assimilators.

As an aside, I find it interesting that in condemning Andrews, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh drew an analogy with the 1950s American south -- despite the fact that Australia's own history contains an even more apt metaphor in the form of the White Australia policy, under which the Chinese were banned based on accusations much like those Andrews is making against Africans. I hesitate to read too much into this one instance. But I bet there's something interesting to be said about the way the narrative of Jim Crow and the US civil rights movement has entered the lexicons of other countries as a "safe" reference point in talking about race.

*Obviously it would be better if they weren't racist at all, but if they're going to do it anyway, they might as well time it for my guest-blogging convenience.

**The Tom Tancredo of Australia, except that the Liberal Party had the good sense to kick her out.


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