‘Welcome’ to Oz

 JASMINE KAZLAUSKAS’ grandfather was one of the original “boat people” — a Lithuanian refugee who came to Australia after becoming stateless at the end of World War II. In this week’s SPEAKER’S CORNER, Jasmine examines if Australia has ever really lived up to its self-promoted image of being a welcoming and hospitable country for immigrants.

For those who come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share”.

Despite this idyllic notion that has been instilled into the consciousness of our country, I don’t think that Australia has ever truly been the warm and welcoming wonderland that our jovial national anthem would have you believe.

My grandfather, Petras, was just a teenager living in a rural Lithuanian village when the Second World War ravaged Europe.

He was fortunate enough not to be of Jewish faith and thus ended up in a few relatively benign German labour camps instead of the lethal alternative.

• Petras Kazlauskas in 1945. Photo supplied

After the American liberation in 1945, he was unable to return to his devastated homeland which was now under strict Soviet occupation.

He was officially stateless and became a ‘displaced’ person, a refugee, and thus didn’t belong anywhere.

His dramatic anecdotal recital of his journey to Australia always enchanted me as a child.

“I came to this country with nothing but a pillow,” he would always tell us.

Social fabric

“I had never even heard of Australia but that’s the boat my friends were getting on so I just went with them”.

Migration has played an integral role in crafting the social fabric of our nation.

However, people who have found themselves stateless due to internal conflict, human right abuses or natural disasters are not considered equal to other foreigners.

Politicians are swift to label them simply as “boat people”.

Thus, in an instant, these people are stripped of their status as human and are turned into a national crisis.

Contemporary governments in Australia have been outspoken in their views on immigration.

They’re adamant there is a right way and a wrong way to enter our country. There is no argument here.

• Petras and Lilian Kazlauskas on their wedding day. Photo supplied

There is an unequivocal need to protect our national borders from persons who may be dangerous to our national security. Terrorism and religious extremism is a real threat to the entire world and it would be extremely irresponsible to simply open the floodgates and allow anyone to immigrate to Australia without the proper precautions and background checks.

However, as is the case for immigration, there is a right way and a wrong way to treat asylum seekers

The United Nations has condemned our treatment of refugees and cited that Australia has committed direct human right abuses.

What I am struggling to comprehend in this situation is the disparity between the way our government treats displaced persons now compared to 70 years ago.

Despite the similarity of the situation, i.e. conflict that completely destroyed people’s home countries, we are far less accepting of refugees now than ever before.

I have a theory: (some) Australians have always been inherently fearful of foreigners.

Migrants have continually been met with varying degrees of tensions and hostility. Throughout history, people from faraway lands have been a source of fear and trepidation for our politicians and urban middle-classes.

For such a young nation, there has always remained a certain level of Aussie pride and patriotism that has shaped our national identity.

Whether it was the Chinese during the gold rush era, the Japanese during World War Two or the Vietnamese fleeing war in the 1970s, certain attitudes have meant that Asian minorities have continually faced a harsh reception here, from both everyday Australians and politicians (yes, I’m looking at you, 1990’s Pauline Hanson).

The next groups to be vilified were the Italians, Greeks and Eastern Europeans who made Australia home after the Second World War.

Although my grandfather’s similar skin colour made it easier for him to integrate into the social fabric, he was not immune from being called a “wog” or a “commie” now and again.

Fast-forward to the modern day and national attention has shifted to migrants of Indian and Middle-Eastern background.

A relatively new term has been introduced into the public consciousness during the last few years in light of the global refugee crisis: the phenomena of the Boat People. Let’s think about this for a second. Unless one is an Indigenous Australian, aren’t we all boat people? Or at least descendants of them? I know I am.

The government is so fanatical about protecting “our land” from invaders and boat people that they seem to have forgotten what this nation was built upon: British foreigners arriving by boat to implement the largest invasion in this history of this country.

The theft of sacred land and the execution of a colonial genocide upon an ancient people and their culture: now that is an invasion.

A round of applause for the original boat people.

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