Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for October 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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