IN THE 1990s I WAS TRAVELLING a bit in Queensland - in Roma, St George and other places. I was told everywhere in these places that they had a problem with declining populations.
The Australian Administration in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea in its day moved thousands of people by creating resettlement schemes at Hoskins, Talasea and Kindeng.
The local people sold their land to the Administration, and it was then subdivided into agricultural blocks, and leased out to applicants from other districts. Everyone granted a lease received a loan from the Development Bank to support them in making their land productive in oil palms and garden produce.
With the development of the land came roads, schools, aid posts, and towns like Kimbe. Most of the original settlers or their descendants are still there today.
Might it not be possible to do something similar for those growth-starved country towns in Australia? Thus, making use of all those asylum seekers?
Fifty years ago Australia provided assisted passage to attract immigrants from Europe. Today’s asylum seekers come without such help and even risk their lives in the hope for a better future. However, these people are not welcomed with open arms, as in the sixties. Instead they are seen as a problem.
They may be poorly educated, or look different from blue-eyed English people. They come from suspicious cultural and religious backgrounds. But with every problem there comes a challenge and a potential! In this case a very big potential.
These people can become Australia’s future, if given the right assistance. To leave them uneducated, means wasting a big chance, and is not in the best interest of the economy, as they will remain low-income earners and low-taxpayers. Offering them courses in such subjects as English as a foreign language on a voluntary basis is largely ineffective.
Many prefer to find a job as soon as possible – instead they should be forced to complete their education, also some tertiary training – compulsory schooling with no age limit; under threat of deportation.
Opening them up to education is not only for economic reasons, but by having migrants complete their education will improve their English and enable them to talk to people of other cultures and religions.
This opens their minds up to new values, thus facilitating integration. If they spend their lives in an ethnic and cultural ghetto, they may develop radical ideas, and become a security risk. We know that putting them through school costs money. But it may be money well spent. Investing in human resources is the most important investment in the long term.
Racism and xenophobia aside, these boat people could be Australia’s rescue. The continent is largely in a population vacuum! Why wait until some Asian power in fifty years’ time takes the country over by force of arms.
Global warming could radically change the rainfall distribution in the country and cause long term droughts in areas of high population density. You can imagine how much more of a disaster this would be if vast areas in the country have been left undeveloped.
Now, asylum seekers linger for weeks or months in processing camps, doing nothing. Instead, they should be put to work, from the first day on, after being fished out of the sea – school and work – five hours formal schooling, five hours gardening and building their own accommodation.
The purpose is not to harass them or to keep them busy or even to make them economic but essentially to enable them to integrate more fully. Now, refugees admitted into the country are let loose to fend for themselves, and after 30 years some of them still cannot speak enough English.
My idea would be to put them on a little block of land less than a hectare, and have them grow their own food. Building their own house is not left up to them. Design and building materials would be provided by the government under the supervision of skilled people.
The houses should be of a quality that allows them to be sold one day if desired. Or the settlers can stay on the lot for the rest of their lives. The main purpose of such a settlement scheme would be that these people complete their education.
Several government departments would have to be involved: Immigration, the Army or Police, Agriculture, Works, and maybe others.
Anyway, details of the idea have to be discussed further, and could vary from one project to another.
I add here that I grew up in a suburb of Berlin, Germany, in exactly such a settlement as has been suggested above. This was on half a hectare of land with a six family house on it, and with intensive gardening going on, growing vegetables, potatoes and fruit trees.
Ralf Stüttgen was born in Berlin in 1939 and educated at a Jesuit High School and a Divine Word Seminary. In 1968 he came to the East Sepik and worked as a missionary until the early seventies; subsequently leaving the priesthood and working in agriculture in PNG. He now lives in Wewak and deals in Sepik art. For many years his abiding interest has been about education and development in the Third World.