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Refugees Unwelcome in Australia: Reading the Signs of a Humanitarian Crisis

The Australian government should learn the language of empathy.

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Australia has a problem with the refugees coming to its shores. These migrants, who have journeyed by boat hoping for safe passage through the guarded coastal border, might be fleeing war or persecution, but some officials worry about letting in the “wrong” kind of people. According to Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton, this island of republican democracy — founded long ago on occupied Aboriginal land as a penal colony to contain criminal exiles of the British empire — finds these refugees unfit for admission. Many of them, Dutton recently contended, wouldn’t be “numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English,” and meanwhile:

“These people would be taking Australian jobs, there’s no question about that. For many of them that would be unemployed, they would languish in unemployment queues and on Medicare…so there would be huge cost and there’s no sense in sugar-coating that.”

That unvarnished critique has since ricocheted around the global media, provoking disgust and ridicule. But who are these refugees, and does it even make sense to debate the supposed “costs” they would pose?

In fact, refugees tend to be a fairly educated bunch — one needs some smarts to traverse hell and high water to resettle in a new country. Moreover, many refugees might be fleeing situations in which they were targeted precisely for their educational and social status. Perhaps they had applied their critical thinking skills to challenge authoritarianism and champion democracy, or were talented artists who defended free expression against state censorship. In fact, Australia, which received in 2014 less than 1 percent of the global transnational refugee flow, tends to receive a self-selecting demographic of relatively well-credentialed people, whose human capital is exactly what made them vulnerable in their home countries.

“Refugees are generally not the poorest of the poor in their country of origin and tend to have higher skill levels than the general population in origin countries,” states a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The same report shows high reported education levels in the recent wave of refugees reaching the European Union. Germany, for example, reported that on average among surveyed migrants who arrived in 2014, “15% of the asylum seekers had a tertiary degree, 16% had upper secondary education … and 11% had not attended school at all.”

In Australia, a 2011 survey of refugee entrants found that three-quarters had at least a high school education and the proportion with a technical or college degree was roughly comparable to that of the Australian population as a whole. A separate 2015 survey of refugees’ social needs did find an illiteracy rate of about 20 percent.

“Every refugee story represents a testament to human struggle.”

But despite such adverse factors, the Guardian notes, refugees brought mutual benefit by taking advantage of Australia’s education system, with one in four going on to “obtain a technical or university qualification after arriving.” This was historically aided by integration programs encouraging community cohesion and English-language learning, though the current conservative regime seems to view resettlement as something to fear rather than to foster.

While Dutton suggested that supposedly “unskilled” refugees would somehow rob the native-born workers of jobs, the new arrivals may be more likely to eventually hire them. A 2011 government-commissioned study on the refugee population suggests significant net social contributions. Humanitarian entrants are generally known for “a higher than average proportion engaging in small and medium business enterprises,” even compared to other migrant groups, and for promoting economic advancement “through developing and maintaining economic linkages with their origin countries” and, like all diaspora groups, making “significant contributions through volunteering” in their communities’ social service networks.

But why make an economic case for refugees? Australian authorities are posing the wrong question by speculating on the material “costs and benefits” of taking these people in, because granting humanitarian relief does not ultimately involve whom the host society desires, but whom it has a responsibility to protect. It’s an ethical calculus premised on an honest reckoning with good fortune — or rather, with the fortune produced by entrenched power structures: the circumstance of being the bomber rather than the bombed, the country that invests in sweatshops abroad rather than the one that is colonized by global capitalism. Acceptance of refugees is a matter of collective social obligation, not a business decision.

Anti-immigrant factions might insist that Australia didn’t directly produce these refugees, and the “burden” of acceptance should not fall to the government that isn’t directly responsible for, say, the war in Afghanistan or the various forms of persecution suffered by the ethnic and religious minorities seeking sanctuary.

“The fact that governments seem primarily interested in these cold legal facts, rather than the deeper truth of their responsibility toward these refugees, reflects the poverty of our own language.”

But by virtue of its overall privilege and connections with the United States and Western Europe, Australia certainly benefits from and is complicit in the patterns of global inequality that hold back the development of democracy in many impoverished countries and breed the corruption and chronic social frustration that give rise to unrest. (Australian citizens too recognize this responsibility, as shown by the latest Amnesty International study showing public willingness to aid refugees.)

It’s hard for such a privileged nation to argue that it has no responsibility to accept the consequences of this global inequity, particularly when Australia is a known purveyor of Western economic and military might in the Pacific Rim and a major producer of carbon emissions.

There’s a cultural aspect to the trope of the illiterate migrant that bears scrutiny. For generations, xenophobic nativism has been fueled by myths about the mental inferiority of the other. Immigration policies have long been fraught with eugenicist racial taxonomies, sorting humanity according to criminality, moral “defect” or intellectual “unfitness.” The charge of illiteracy fits into this broader pattern of painting new arrivals as social pollutants. Despite Australia’s vibrant diversity and massive migrant population, racial fault lines persist, from the longstanding colonial oppression and segregation of indigenous peoples, to the arbitrary detention of asylum seekers in offshore encampments widely denounced as a scourge on human rights.

The linguistic ability of refugees presents a cultural conundrum. The stereotype of the uneducated refugee contrasts sharply with that of the prized “highly skilled” or “professional” migrant, who is invited in by business visa instead of dumped via smuggling vessel. The tiers by which migrant human capital is ranked reflects a morally distorted structure of globalization, in which wealth and traded commodities easily transcend borders, but walls and maritime patrols act to constrain humanity’s right to free movement.

What are we saying when we dismiss the potential social potential of migrants and refugees, regardless of their formal education or background? What is denied when they’re detained and excluded? Every refugee story represents a testament to human struggle; many of these exiled survivors have borne witness to social movements, conflicts and ideas of resistance that might otherwise be ignored by the wider public. The histories elucidated by their stories, their literature and their collective memory are part of a human story, often articulated as either lessons of the past or insights into the human impacts of ongoing social injustice. Stories that streamed out of the last great refugee wave to reach Australian shores, the mass exodus of Vietnamese “boat people” beginning in the 1970s, have been inscribed in the country’s diaspora literary tradition. Every refugee brings a story we need to hear, and more importantly, their communities seed new traditions of storytelling and elucidate truths about the human condition.

Meanwhile, humanitarian migrants are forced to learn a language that was constructed specifically to alienate and silence them — the opaque legalese of asylum courts and immigration bureaucracies, the brutal grammar of evidence and affidavits — to justify their presence in the place of refuge. The fact that governments seem primarily interested in these cold legal facts, rather than the deeper truth of their responsibility toward these refugees, reflects the poverty of our own language and the illiteracy of the state’s legal apparatus when confronted by humanitarian crisis.

So refugees may not pose the social burden that many fear, and beyond the myths of social “cost,” they have much to teach us. Not only is admitting humanitarian migrants a measure of at least symbolic solidarity, it also marks a collective duty to sustain common human bonds in a world where mass suffering can be easily erased or dismissed as someone else’s problem. When we say they’re illiterate, we only reveal how we’ve lost the language of empathy.

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