Where I grew up in Perth, in Western Australia, the mix of ethnicities was such that it wasn’t until a much older age, perhaps in a history class, or perhaps reading something that I had stumbled upon, that I learned that it hadn’t always been like that. My country in fact, which nowadays prides itself on its multicultural nature (both in terms of cultural and linguistic diversity), had not always been that way. That in fact it only recently that our demographics had diversified to what they are today, and that previous to that, they presented a much less diverse nation. The history of immigration into Australia follows a complicated path that does not inspire much pride in a contemporary Australian such as myself, however, history has its place of importance regardless of whether or not we like to remember it.
The first inhabitants of Australia were the Australian Aboriginals, arriving in Australia upwards of 50,000 years ago at a the most recent estimations. Our country at this point went a very long time without immigration, with only occasional contact with the known world, including the occasional visit from a Dutch ship blown off course. The Dutch however, and likewise the French, must not have liked the look of our sunburnt country as they left as quickly as they arrived. This meant that recent immigration did not begin until, much like America, overpopulated Britain decided to punish criminals by sending them halfway around the world with no hope of ever getting home. Hopeful settlers followed the establishment of Sydney as a penal colony, and immigration has not ceased from that point on.
However, despite a multicultural society of which we are proud today, our history does not reflect this tendency. One of the more obscene policies of Australian immigration came into fruition in 1901, during the Federation of Australia. The ‘White Australia Policy’, not a proud moment of our history, attempted to dispel racial tensions that had arisen by restricting immigration, which they did in the form of a language test, the language of which was chosen by the test administrator from amongst any European language in order to block the admittance of any ‘unwanted’ immigrant. The ‘White Australia Policy’ dates from just after our first early influx of immigrants that were not coming from Britain. The gold-rush, spurred by the discovery of gold in New South Wales, resulted in over 40, 000 Chinese men and women arriving with the dream of striking lucky, along with an influx of hopefuls from many other countries around the world.
This unfortunate policy didn’t reach it’s end until World War II, when the many Australian Aboriginals, Papua New Guineans, Torres Strait Islanders and Timorese, who served alongside those of European descent during the war, brought the racial discrimination to the fore and finally triggered an effect. However, it was not only an overdue awakening to the corrections that needed to be made to policies, but also fear that inspired a change. There was a large degree of fear left in the wake of bombings and the threat of invasion of a very small, and vulnerable population in a very large and unprotected country during the war. “Populate or Perish” was the slogan of the day, and triggered the relaxing of the previously restricting policy. Sadly it wasn’t until the sixties that this policy was dismantled completely, from which point onwards immigration has hugely diversified resulting in the Australia of today, where over a quarter (26%) of Australia’s population was born overseas and a further one fifth (20%) have at least one overseas-born parent. The realisation that my parents were born into a country in many ways much unlike the one that I think as my home still scares me a little.
Despite progress in the right direction however, it would be foolish to think that we, much like many other countries, have arrived upon the ideal policies when there is such a gap between what is ideal, and what is instituted. Problems of today relate more to refugees than to immigrants in general. A few weeks ago, in Jackson Plaza in front of the Willamette Hatfield library, a fence had been set up to display the two sides of the argument for allowing entry into the country for any and all immigrants. These arguments were all too familiar to me, even if the countries involved were different. Many of us like to think that we have grown up to be open minded and socially conscious people, and although there are a large number of us that believe strongly in open immigration policies that would allow countries that have the means to share these with those that do not, the fact remains that we are not yet at a point where this is the case.
But who knows. Maybe one day my children will grow up and when they read about the policies of today, maybe they too will not be able to believe how things were when I was growing up. We can only hope.