Friday, December 15, 2006

Australian city rejects Sudanese refugees over fears of race riots

Rob Taylor:

A group of Sudanese refugees has been refused residence in Australia's most "Friendly Town" because of fears they could spark a repeat of the race riots that gripped Sydney a year ago.

City officials in the regional city of Tamworth said on Friday they had rejected residency for five Sudanese families because they could stir racial unrest in the city, 260 km (163 miles) northwest of Sydney.

"We need to change the (refugee) programme significantly because of the cultural difference of African people, things such as their respect of women in their community," Mayor James Treloar told Reuters, dismissing fears of a divisive race row.

Tamworth in January hosts Australia's largest country music festival and recently won a tourism award naming the busy rural hub as the country's premier "Friendly Town".

But Treloar said local people and some "redneck elements" had aired concerns at a council meeting about 12 other Sudanese already living in the city, saying most had come before local courts for crimes ranging from dangerous driving to rape.

"They will not take a direction from authorities, so we've got a fairly significant cultural problem," he said, adding that health services for Tamworth's 40,000 population were already stretched.

Local churches said they would launch a petition calling on the council to reverse its decision, which was a response to an immigration department programme to resettle refugees in regional areas to help reverse a drift of Australians to major cities.

Several councillors and business leaders said they would try to overturn the decision, arguing that the arrival of the refugees would not fuel the kind of tensions that led to last December's Sydney beach riots where mainly-white surfers battled Lebanese-Australians.

"It will reflect on Tamworth and I feel it will be somewhat of a negative effect. To say that we can't provide for another five families is I think a bit ridiculous," Tamworth Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Max Cathcart told ABC radio.

Australia is a nation of immigrants, with nearly one in four of the country's 20 million people born overseas. Almost six million people have settled in the country since 1945 and Australia plans to accept about 144,000 new immigrants in 2006-07.

But the government is concerned the rapid transformation could fuel tensions and recently announced new citizenship tests to force new citizens to pass an English-language test and questions on Australian values such as "mateship".

You're not welcome, town tells refugees

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