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Fitting refugees into the normative narrative of Australian multiculturalism

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Australia publicly espouses its multiculturalism as a key component of its national identity. In this paper, I argue that despite the importance of multiculturalism to Australia’s identity, political decisions and discourse has muddied its remit with respect to humanitarian migrant intake programs and outcomes. Australia’s history of selective migrant intake and restrictive refugee policy continues the Othering of past policies into contemporary settings. Refugee policy has become a political football. During the most recent national election campaign (May 2019), the plight of sick and ill refugees, currently housed offshore in detention centers, was used as a political pawn. Lost amid this political rhetoric were the traumatic narratives of forced migrants resettling in Australia’s cities. Without possibility for a loud voice in public discourse, there is little opportunity for more Australians to understand how refugees experience detention centers, struggle to attain residency visas, and make “home” in multicultural Australia. I draw on research with Sri Lankan refugees in Sydney to give voice to these micro-level, place-based experiences of vulnerable arrivals. These stories, I think, can (re)shape and enrich Australia’s multicultural identity because they challenge us to not only accept difference but recognize the circumstances through which Australia’s diversity seeds its narrative.
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Keywords: Othering; Sydney; multiculturalism; refugees; settlement

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: School of Humanities and Languages, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Kensington, Australia

Publication date: September 14, 2019

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