Vinoth Ramachandra

Robbing the Poor?

Posted on: October 10, 2013

Australia is a strange country. Vast in size, small in population; and yet its recent elections were dominated by the theme of preventing refugees and asylum-seekers (the so-called “boat people”) from entering the country. The two major political parties vied with each other as to who would be “toughest” on these people, variously dubbed “economic migrants” or “criminals” (indeed, the two terms are often used inter-changeably).

Australia is not only a new country, its politicians seem to have short memories. All their ancestors, unless they sprang from the indigenous aborigines, were immigrants from Europe or Asia. Many of them were also criminals from Britain sent to the Australian outback to serve their penal servitude.

The Australian government openly recruits professionals from nations like Sri Lanka. There is a vast number of Sri Lankan doctors, engineers, accountants, and others who have been encouraged to migrate by Australian governments over the past thirty years or so. Many of them were educated in local state universities which do not charge tuition. The Australian government does not compensate Sri Lankan taxpayers for this “brain drain”, nor do other Western countries. Our universities have become training schools for foreign employment. The trickle of “aid” that flows the other way is wholly disproportionate to what the country loses in terms of skilled human resources.

Such economic migrants are deemed acceptable. So are the thousands of Australians who emigrate to the US in search of higher-paid jobs. The poor are told that they must follow “proper channels” in applying for travel visas. But the application procedures are so complex and expensive, that few middle-class people can navigate their way around them, leave alone the poor. Even well-traveled people like myself feel humiliated at Western embassies by the meaningless questions we have to answer every time we have to travel. What makes it worse is that many Western countries, including Britain and Australia, now outsource the visa application process to local companies whose employees are little bureaucrats who cannot think “outside the box” when it comes to dealing with individuals. All this is about reducing costs. So what chance do the poor have in climbing these bureaucratic hurdles? So much less cumbersome to borrow money from loan sharks and be smuggled across borders.

I observe that it is the recent middle-class migrants to Australia and Britain (from places like India or Sri Lanka) who tend to become most fiercely “anti-immigration”. It is as if they have to guard their privileged positions. One rarely reads in the British or Australian media stories of poor refugees or economic migrants – who were once dubbed “criminals” or “welfare cheats”- now contributing massively to their new nations. It is the negative image that is routinely displayed in the tabloids. (Is Mohammed Farah, Britain’s most famous athlete, called “Mo” in the media to downplay his Somali Muslim origins?).

During a recent visit to the south of Sri Lanka I talked with a neurologist who serves in the Outpatients Department of a major government hospital. She told me she sees about 40 patients an hour and has to decide which of them are the most serious cases vis a vis treatment and admission. A nightmare scenario, but one that is common in most parts of the Majority World. It provides excellent training for doctors, but the patients obviously get a raw deal. The rich, of course, can go to private hospitals.

There are probably more Sri Lankan neurology specialists in Australia than there are in Sri Lanka. That will also be the case with most other medical specialities. And you will not find many of them serving in poor communities or volunteering to help refugees and asylum-seekers. (I would love to hear stories of exceptions to this).

The situation in the US is not very different. Did you know that two-fifths of all foreign-trained medical doctors in the US come from three poor Asian countries- India, Pakistan and the Philippines? Rarely do we find anyone from relatively affluent Asian minorities in the US speaking out for the abused and marginalized, or exposing the blatant hypocrisies in debates about “undocumented workers”. The latter contribute hugely to the American economy, and are even among the janitorial staff of American government agencies and the World Bank; yet they are often vilified as mere spongers on social benefits.

An American friend of mine working in Indonesia wrote recently in his newsletter: “If Indonesian bureaucracy is corrupted by money and poverty, US bureaucracy is corrupted by fear of the ‘other’. My wife and I waited in line as we applied for her visa in the bunker-like US Embassy in Jakarta. Ten wealthy, well educated, English-speaking Indonesians ahead of us, were all rejected (after paying hefty application fees). The poor could not even get in the door. As my own anxiety simmered, the words on the Statue of Liberty kept running through my mind like a bad joke:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shores.
Send these, the homeless,
Tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

That was just a dream some of us had, a long time ago.”

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14 Responses to "Robbing the Poor?"

You speak rightly of our shameful country. In fact – it is worse than you say. Asylum seekers (many of whom are Sri Lankan) who have mysteriously failed security clearance are held in indefinite without explanation of the reasons for their so called ‘security risk’, without trial, without representation, without recourse to appeal, without information about their release, or return to Sri Lanka or options to move anywhere else. Further to our shame, children are born, and held in detention.

This makes the hypocrisy of soliciting ready trained professionals from our ‘neighbours’ all the more stark.

I applaud you on being 100% accurate about the arrogance, ignorance and racism of Australia’s politicians. I believe the newly elected idiot bragged, upon being elected recently, that he intended to create “a selfish Australia” this time round (in reference to his ‘boat people’ label). Apparently he doesn’t think Australia’s been selfish enough.

Thanks for this very thoughtful piece.

Very true Vinoth. I am angered by the way some of our bright students here in Switzerland are rejected from medicine. Selection is done at the end of the first year of studies, and the selection process is so stringent that passing or failing can come down to luck, or moral conviction (like refusing to pay to get hold of exam questions that are circulating). All this because there is only space for 10 % of applicants, even although there is a shortage of doctors. It makes economic sense; it costs $150000 to train a doctor in Switzerland, it is far cheaper to import doctors trained elsewhere.

The moral cost of depriving countries where the doctor density is a fraction of what we have here for our “so called” shortage is far less justifiable, yet it is this type of immigration that is seen as acceptable.

A month ago the number of Syrian refugees was said to have passed the 2 million mark. The Swiss government announced that it was going to accept 500 more. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.

From the second verse of the Australian National Anthem:

For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.

Thanks Vinoth, as always, for your penetrating and incisive comments.

As you may or may not know Britain has just published the outline of its ‘Immigration and Asylum Bill’, designed in the words of our Home Secretary to: ‘create a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants’. The bill, amongst a whole raft of measures, will require ‘immigrants’ to pay a levy for healthcare when they apply for a visa, require landlords to check the immigration status of people applying for private rental accomidation, (it was even proposed, but since quietly dropped, that schoolteachers would be required to check the immigration status of their pupils!). It is depressing and atrocious, and weakens the ethos of British post war society, as in healtcare it breaks the committment that all who are legally resident in Britain have the right to free healthcare, and secondly with landlord checks, weakens or breaks the links that people are allowed a private life, without the ‘papers please’ request other countries have.

I despair along with many others!

Duncan, don’t despair. Collect signatures and write to all newspapers and protest to your MPs!

Thanks Vinoth. Sadly I have to agree with every word. Of course all the poor in Asia have to do is first make a lot of money, and then they will have no problems entering Australia as “legitimate” immigrants. Our government will gratefully receive the rich and the prosperous.

As an immigrant Christian consultant surgeon I have and will always live with the knowledge of someone who has left the third world for ‘greener pastures’. However, this is a very one sided reading of history.
Whilst in the third world I took many decisions that set me apart from the ‘herd’ only to be ridiculed by both my biological and spiritual family. In an attempt to redress the social and economic imbalances I proposed many structures which if implemented would have allowed me to live and practice surgery for the most needy. These included Christian families sharing community homes, geographical churches which lived to serve the world around her, Christ centred engagement in political issues, dialogue with the competing world views of Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism, indigenous flavours of Marxism and living the life of a Christ centred individual in very difficult circumstances (some of which cannot be mentioned but well known to those who knew us).. Having served in the third world for 8 years with little support from Christians in the context of attending to casualties of civil war – working day and night, then being unfairly excluded from appointments to the Universities in part probably because the first line on my cv read “World View: Christian” and other centres where I could be most effective and snubbed by the Director General of Health Services on my offer to develop my specialty – what option did I have?
These ‘Push and Pull’ factors have to be considered in any analysis of the ‘brain drain’.
I do not believe being in the third world and joining a global homogenised culture (the middle and upper classes represented in part by tabloids such as Hello in UK, Hi in Sri Lanka or Blur in El Salvador) makes one an effective witness for Christ. The motivations, potential and privileges of the middle and upper classes are not dissimilar in both the UK and Sri Lanka (SL). Most Sri Lankan based professionals belong to these categories or have the right ‘connections’ to experience the ‘good’ educated and well travelled life!
Some of us practice our craft in the midst of structural sin. Yet we strive to give a good deal to the needy in society who seek refuge within the UK’s National Health Service. There are many creative ways of living out incarnational models in any part of the world including the West. Home making in the west in the absence of domestic help is perhaps more challenging than in the middle class third world! A relative (Australian Sri Lankan doctor) recently having visited us, described our life style as minimalist! Our local church needs help with apologetics which I was first introduced by Vinoth in SL. Christian surgeons can waive fees off immigrant patients who are denied ‘free NHS’ resources but could have recourse to private care in the NHS trusts.
Whilst a neurologist assessing forty patients in a hour is ridiculous, it cannot be considered good ongoing experience even for the said doctor. This is a manifestation of structural sin. SL specialists (doctors of medicine) roam the out stations to arrive at the citadels of capital cities after serving in a series of outposts. Not only are they burnt out in their work but also are often separated from their families for long periods. It is hypocritical then for those amongst us who will probably never make such sacrifices to blame those amongst us who have opted to be ‘pro family’ than ‘pro mammon’. Some of course have no such choice!
Whilst the hypocrisies so well represented in the blog are obvious, the ‘poor’ authorities (world and church leaders) in the Majority World have also to be considered in the manner in which we help the Rich to Rob the Poor!

You raise profound issues, which is very important. My question is about how to bring cultural change. How do we help Aussies – whether indigenous, Anglo-Celtic, Asian, or African by family background – to show generosity and welcome those most in need? How do we reclaim the ‘big Australia’ idea that was proposed not so long ago? And how do we encourage educated and capable people in their homelands (whether SL or any other country) to love their people enough stay home and serve the needs there?

“What makes it worse is that many Western countries, including Britain and Australia, now outsource the visa application process to local companies whose employees are little bureaucrats who cannot think “outside the box” when it comes to dealing with individuals.”

Here is an example of this problem (obviously this practice isn’t cost-cutting at all): http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11152906

Actually, China and India do the same thing (outsource the visa application process to local companies). So, I think that may be (rightly or wrongly) more a standard practice than a western thing. Seems like you have to deal with an agent rather than the government.

The difference lies in the sheer weight of questions and documents/evidence one has to present at Western embassies to show that one has no criminal intent. For example bank statements of the past three months. Some embassies don’t know how to handle people like me who voluntarily gave up permanent residence in a Western country, has traveled frequently to Western countries, is married to a Westerner, and doesn’t want to live in the West. There is no bureaucratic “box” into which I can be fitted, so I end up in the same box as all Sri Lankans wanting to migrate.

David, regarding your earlier question: I am more concerned with changing the Church in its thinking and practice than with cultural change. You have both a Prime Minister and a leader of the Opposition who claim to be Christians and yet clearly separate what is a private “faith” from their political lives. Their policies are profoundly anti-Christian. I can’t think of worse “advertisements’ for Christianity than this. It is this kind of thing that makes thoughtful non-Christians turn away from the Church. The latter has to recover an incarnational Gospel, one that challenges Christians to renounce the worship of security, status and “career” and instead use their gifts in the service of the poor, the voiceless and the vulnerable. That is real discipleship.

Not only that, Australia gave “aid” to Indonesia and East Timor, even when it admits to spying on them for political and economic purposes. No wonder the reputation of Australians is very bad overseas – in particular in Asia. As an Asian Australia, I see Australian culture through Asian cultural lens. many immigrants from Asia or children of immigrants initially think that Australians are really nice to them, only to find out that most Anglo-Australians (not all) look down on them and treat them as good contributing, but untrustworthy citizens, because we are not “Australian” (ie. Western/white)

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