Anouk Ride dives through the muddy logic of Australia's swamps
and uncovers misers, migrants and what really matters.
THEIR slimy, brown, rotund bodies are covered in ugly knobs. Their googly protruding eyes have a distant, arrogant stare while their large mouths emit annoying croaks that disturb everybody's sleep.
They are the cane toads that live in tropical Australia. They are so large that they can spill over the sides of a grown man's hand. But unwise is the person who picks one up - they are immediately covered in urine or sticky poison. This toxic excretion has been known to kill cats, dogs and small wildlife.
Imported to Queensland to eat bugs found in cane sugar crops, these greedy cane toads soon took advantage of their new environment. They bred rapidly and ventured out from the sugar fields, across to the Northern Territory and down into New South Wales. In their ravenous onslaught, they consumed resources and took over wildlife habitats. They became a nuisance on the roads, leaving a foul stink and slippery patches when squashed flat. The toads forgot their place, as humble bug-eating servants, and invaded swimming pools and ponds in the poshest suburbs.
To outsiders the cane toads are something that makes Queensland unique. To Queenslanders they are pests.
From the same state that hosted the cane toad came right-wing politician Pauline Hanson. 'Australia is being swamped by Asians,' she said. She believes that migrants are like the cane toads, taking jobs, houses, university places and social services from the locals. Like the cane toad, migrants got out of control and started making unreasonable demands such as equal opportunities and language training. They spread their impact from the bigger cities of Melbourne and Sydney to the country towns.
This argument gave Pauline Hanson 23 per cent of the vote in Queensland and led to the creation of the One Nation Party campaigning against both migrant and Aboriginal rights. Rural and conservative voters seemed to be easily led into blaming minorities for the majority's political and economic mistakes.
Some people were surprised by Hanson's popularity - given that 40 per cent of Australians are migrants or the children of migrants. On the contrary, others felt that considering the country's transformation from an insulated colony of 7 million in 1945 to a nation of 18 million people drawn from 150 nations, what was most astounding was that this kind of rhetoric had not occurred before.
The rationale of Hanson and her counterparts is becoming a global phenomenon, partly as a response to one of the greatest migrations in history - today, one in 100 people live outside the country of their birth. 1 Most of these are not refugees, who flee persecution, but migrants who move for a variety of reasons.
Some people leave home to join families who have already left, or just to experience new places. But the shift to a globalized economy - where every person must have something to sell - means more people have to sell their labour, often by migrating to areas where it is needed. Worldwide, 80 million people cannot make a living in rural areas and have moved to cities. 2 In places such as India, rural communities become indebted and have to send workers away to earn a living.
Other people move because economic expansion has destroyed local livelihoods - 30 million people worldwide have had to relocate within their own countries to make way for economic development. 2 And, as an area the size of Belgium becomes desert each year, by the end of the decade an estimated 60 million will no longer be able to live on their degraded land. 2 Most people migrate within the Majority World, and yet migration is often a consequence of the undemocratic, unsustainable development which the rich world continues to peddle across the globe. At the same time it is the West that is slamming its borders closed with a giant bang.
But people want to move so much that they scale fences, swim rivers, hide in ships, lorries and planes. Chinese migrants who stowed away on ships to the north of Australia then walked - barefoot on hot sand - for days to the nearest settlement 'made Superman look like a wimp,' in the words of a local police officer. 3
But people don't move for a taste of a real-life action movie. Most go because they see it as the best or only way to improve their life. People run from poverty and hopelessness, only to face the biggest hurdle of all - the myth that migrants are a 'problem' rather than a symptom of the world's ills.
Even if the world had equality of opportunity, there would still be migrants. But if choices were not constrained by the need to make a living, or simply to survive, migration would be more voluntary.
Rather than working towards this goal, Western governments are lamenting their 'immigration crisis'. It is a subject which naturally promotes passionate debate; an issue that cuts to the heart of some of the most central issues of a nation - its population, workforce, money and ethnic make-up.
All governments seek to regulate their population. And immigration is one of the few levers they can successfully use. In Australia, which has a land area of 7.7 million square kilometres but the same population as Los Angeles, governments have used migrants to increase their population. In Denmark immigration was a big issue in the last elections despite adding only 0.2 per cent to the population annually. 4 And all over Europe immigration laws are being tightened, while immigration has become controversial in other developed countries such as Canada, the US, Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand and Japan.
In the US, a nation of 260 million, the conservative environmental lobby pushes for cuts to immigration. This group reasons that further immigration will strain resources already under pressure and lead to social and environmental decay. 4 'Look at what has happened to Cairo,' they say, 'overcrowding, pollution, without a bit of green in sight. Unless you want that to happen here, keep migrants off our turf.'
Their false logic once again provides a convenient alternative to facing the real causes of resource strain - overconsumption and corporate activity. The truth is that economies could not survive without migration. Even the most highly skilled industries are dependent on migrant labour. A study of high-tech industries in San Diego in the US, and Hamamatsu in Japan, found that employment of unskilled cheap migrant workers meant that manufacturing stayed in those countries rather than going elsewhere. Wayne Cornelius, political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, says: 'You have to ask yourself, would the United States as a country be better off if these jobs were being performed in the Caribbean or in Indonesia, where there was no multiplier effect in terms of consumer spending, taxes being paid and so forth?' 4
In some of the richest non-Western countries - Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - migrants are more than half the workforce. As the European average age increases, further migration will be needed there to keep the economies running. 1
This is not something which is recognized by the likes of Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the National Front in France, who advocates job preference for French citizens, no social security or national health care for migrants and forced repatriation of unemployed migrants. At the same time migrants support his lavish lifestyle: 'Le Pen lives with his three daughters and their four children. He also has two black Doberman Pinschers and a Vietnamese servant. The home is adorned, bizarrely, with life-size carvings of black men serving as lamps.' 5
Holding up the rich economies provides badly needed income for the poor ones. Remittances from Turks working overseas financed two-thirds of the country's trade deficit in the 1990s. The 19 per cent of Lesotho's male labour force who are working in South African mines supply 37 per cent of household incomes in their home country. These incomes are threatened now more than ever before as a growing xenophobia develops with claims that migrants are competing for jobs. 6
In fact migrants make rather than take jobs. The Australian Government estimates that from 1994 to 1995 on average each wealthy businessperson who immigrated created 15 jobs. Another report suggests that if Australia took in 24,000 more migrants than currently planned between now and 2007 national GDP per capita would rise by $A95 ($55). 4
And migrants are not a huge strain on national resources. Lack of education and language skills - a problem also faced by the poor - do place costs on the state but these can be recouped. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in the US each migrant and their children contributes around $80,000 directly to the Government. 7
But economic narrow-mindedness has captured government policy. Skills and education are all very well, but what many countries want from migrants is instant money. A new Thai policy allows the wealthy to immigrate in exchange for a $250,000 investment which can be made by buying stocks or government bonds or purchasing a condominium. 4
The rich can move freely around the world. But the poor cannot. And here is the problem with economic rationalism. It ignores some of society's most important issues - its harmony, unity and diversity.
Migration has so changed the racial mix of many cities and countries that our great grandparents would scarcely recognize them. Following the Second World War, millions of Europeans sought to immigrate to Canada, Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. Jamaican poet Louise Bennet describes the change in Britain and its former colonies:
Life on the margins - migrants shoulder
the cost of environmental destruction.
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES
'Wat a joyful news, Miss Mattie
I feel like me heart gwine burs'
Jamaican people colonizin'
England in reverse...
Wat a devilment a Englan'!
Dem face war an' brave de worse
But I'm wondering how dem gwine stan'
Colonizin' in reverse.' 4
Many countries have reacted to an influx of migrants by blaming the newcomers for unemployment and recession, and spreading racism and anti-immigration propaganda. As the former Soviet republics faced economic collapse and uncertainty in the early 1990s, politicians began curtailing the rights of migrants; the Ukrainian Government outlawed the use of Russian, which had once been a majority language but was now spoken by a minority of people. 3 And, in the US, part of the opposition to immigration focuses on the rise of political 'Latino power' as minorities are set to become the majority in states such as California.
When the East Asian currency crisis hit this year governments began blaming, then expelling, migrants. An alarming example is Indonesia where Chinese migrants were killed or raped and had homes and offices looted. The eight million Chinese in the country, some of whom had settled centuries ago, control about two-thirds of the Indonesian economy but most run small businesses. Comments from immigration officials in nearby nations reveal that Chinese are suddenly applying in large numbers to emigrate. 8
Migrants everywhere live a tenuous existence - rarely gaining the same rights as non-migrants, their hosts always aloof. Blamed for a range of ills - from unemployment to crime, strained social services to lack of national unity - migrants are aware of just how easily their rights can be swept away by the majority. Ironically, Hanson says the same about Aboriginals as migrants do about non-migrants: 'I am fed up with being told, "This is our land." Well, where the hell do I go?' 4
If individuals trace their ancestry back far enough, it is clear that we are all migrants, with a mix of blood running in our veins. Human relationships are not defined by lines on a map. This personal realization snaps the brittle links between people and national or racial superiority. It breaks the idea of a rigid homogenous nation completely, leaving space to mould new forms of society where migrants are accepted as 'us' not 'them'.
We can start by urging rich world governments to provide the Majority World with aid and fair trade to create the local livelihoods that make mass migration unnecessary. At the same time they must accept migrants themselves. This two-pronged approach is complementary - it ensures that movement is voluntary. The rich world cannot continue to push its notion of 'development' onto the Majority World while shutting out the human cost - millions of migrants.
Receiving governments also need to support migrants' rights - including equal rights to work, housing and political freedom. For example, the US has recently declared an amnesty for certain illegal migrants; a move that is far more sensible and less expensive than repatriation or lengthy appeals.
All countries should have progressive policies - formulated in conjunction with what is being done to prevent unwanted migration - rather than knee-jerk reactions. In addition, governments should actively encourage global equality: not use migrants as scapegoats for social divisions within their borders.
Unlike the cane toad, human migration has changed societies for the better. For many people in the West, migrants are their only contact with the Majority World. Acceptance of migrants begins on a personal level. My grandmother, working with migrant families in and around the Bonegilla migrant camp in Victoria, Australia, around 60 years ago, found that people were prejudiced against anything southern Mediterranean. Two generations later, few people notice whose parents are Italian or Greek. Melbourne now has more Greeks than any other city except Athens. People long to take trips to Italy and the Greek Isles. They live in Mediterranean-style homes and are addicted to risotto and baklava.
This mixing of cultures and races now begins early in life - in our families and at school. The curriculum is more diverse as students now come from a variety of backgrounds. In countries like Canada and Britain, education now teaches about all religions and cultures. In Australia one out of every 100 university students studies Japanese and all school pupils have some exposure to an Asian language.
And people learn about different cultures through friendships and relationships. A poll found that 57 per cent of US teenagers have dated someone of another race or ethnic group, compared to just 17 per cent in 1980. 4 In Australia only a quarter of all second-generation women and 27.5 per cent of all second-generation men choose partners from their own ethnic group. Bill O'Chee, of Chinese descent and from the same state as Hanson, says the Australian tan may not be a result of ultraviolet rays but of genes: 'I joke that eventually everyone will look like me.' 9
Without migration my own life would be unimaginable - there would not be friends, lovers, family, mentors and colleagues. I feel comfortable in a place bursting with the vitality of migrants. Not the static scenario advocated by anti-immigrant politicians which produces the very thing it fears - a group of greedy people who refuse to associate with anyone different. Like colourless slimy toads, these isolationists sit alone in their ponds. With their cold eyes half-open to the world, they croak away, unintelligible to anyone but themselves. In the words of Nuc Le, a 79-year old Vietnamese migrant: 'I cannot believe Australians could turn themselves that ugly.' 4
1 Peter Stalker, The Work of Strangers (International Labour Organization 1994).
2 International Organization for Migration website http://www.iom.ch/ .
3 The Weekend Australian 3-4 May 1997.
4 CISNEWS (Center for Immigration Studies, 1998).
5 World Press Review May 1997.
6 Migration and Sustainable Development Conference (University of Sussex, 1998).
7 The Economist 29 November 1997.
8 The Australian April and May issues 1998.
9 Far Eastern Economic Review 23 October 1997.