‘Social cohesion is always under threat’

By Indira Laisram
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Eddie Micallef

Racism has reared its ugly head during this coronavirus pandemic throughout the world. Victoria too did not lag behind with the Human Rights Commission stating that reports of racism and xenophobia have been a worrying trend throughout this pandemic. On its part, the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria (ECCV) formed a strong coalition of organisations, the All One Together Campaign Ambassadors, from across sectors, who have publicly committed to take action to address racism and promote inclusion through their work and influence. In conversation with ECCV Board Chairperson Eddie Micallef.

The ECCV has identified tackling racism as one of its key current priorities. Apart from the campaigns, what is being done to build a safe and inclusive Victoria?

Over more than five decades, the ECCV has been working to advocate for the rights and needs of ethnic and multicultural communities in the state. We promote inclusive practices and cultural safety in various areas such as aged care, health, disability and employment. We also use campaigns and advocacy to influence policy. Our work in the area of elder abuse prevention in culturally diverse communities, for instance, and self-advocacy for people with disability from culturally diverse backgrounds, are all part of making sure that Victoria is safe and inclusive for all.

ECCV thinks of inclusion in a systemic way, not just diversity in numbers. That’s why our All One Together campaign has engaged various sectors of our society to speak about how an inclusive and safe Victoria for all ethnic communities is the responsibility of everyone, not only the multicultural sector.

ECCV is currently collaborating with organisations to hold a series of forums on the situation of international students, which is not specifically about racism but about social and economic exclusion at present which is a form of discrimination.

“It is common in many places in the world that when the economy suffers, migrants in particular will be the first target singled out as a threat. This is not based on facts, but rather an attempt to blame a group of people for problems that are much more complex”

How can people get involved with the ECCV programs on anti-racism?

ECCV leads the All One Together anti-racism campaign. There are great resources, stories and videos to share that people can access and distribute from the website: allonetogether.org.au. We also have a strong group of 10 organisations that are Campaign Ambassadors, and we encourage businesses to think of how they can make a difference through employment practices, culture within their organisations, sponsorships and leadership mentoring. People can find out more about these organisations on our website and support their work.

Some people are facing a wave of intense racism during the coronavirus pandemic. In the light of this, do ethnic communities need specific support?

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, we have sadly seen a rise in racism against our community members of Asian appearance, but also against the Jewish and Muslims communities. This is unacceptable. We also know that the impact of racism on young people is really harmful and can lead to disengagement and disconnection from society.

Support has to include a public campaign that highlights that there are laws to protect against racism and messaging that it is unlawful, providing simple channels for reporting. It is also important to work with schools and the education system to change behaviours that discriminate early in children and young people.

Another essential area is greater opportunities for meaningful employment. We know that racial discrimination in employment happens, but it is hidden. If people can see themselves in all kinds of jobs and careers, if they can see mentorship happening, they have more hope, but if they cannot see themselves represented anywhere, what does that say about their place in society?

“In the current context of COVID-19 pandemic, racial discrimination has increased, not because of the unfolding economic downturn but rather due to irrational fear of the causes of the coronavirus that has led to discrimination of Chinese Australians, and people of Asian appearance”

It is said that economic downturn has been linked to an increase in racial discrimination and, often, that blame falls on ethnic minorities and immigrants. Do you believe this to be true?

It is common in many places in the world that when the economy suffers, migrants in particular will be the first target singled out as a threat. This is not based on facts, but rather an attempt to blame a group of people for problems that are much more complex. In the current context of COVID-19 pandemic, racial discrimination has increased, not because of the unfolding economic downturn but rather due to irrational fear of the causes of the coronavirus that has led to discrimination of Chinese Australians, and people of Asian appearance. The fear of those who are seen as different and associated consequences that stem from racial discrimination can have serious long-term implications to our social cohesion.

What is the biggest threat to ethnic or racial disharmony in Victoria?

The spread of prejudice and discriminatory behaviour, with people forgetting that we are facing a global problem at present and that Australia and Victoria have been quite successful in controlling the pandemic. Victorians have generally followed public health advice and behaved well. The spread of coronavirus is not a matter of ethnicity or cultural background.

While there have been problems with information distribution during the state of emergency and how accessible that information is for culturally and linguistically diverse communities, we need to be really careful not to make this an issue of diversity. Behaviour change is achieved through people trusting the sources of information they receive, hence families, communities and faith groups need to be part of the solution to infection and transmission of COVID-19. In this way we draw on the inherent strengths and values of our multicultural society and keep those who are most vulnerable to poor health outcomes safe and protected.

Have we made enough progress when it comes to racism?

In Victoria, we have made significant progress in embedding multiculturalism as an integral value in our wider society. We have legislation that protects diversity and that requires governments to develop policies that meet the broad and diverse needs of migrant and refugee communities. We promote multiculturalism as a positive and something that we can be proud of as Victorians. However, challenges remain. As we have seen through the Black Lives Matter movement, the needs of First Nations peoples still need to be addressed. This is the first point to resolving systemic racism for all people. Similarly, it is incumbent on our political leaders to role model behaviours that do not exacerbate community tension, for example, the so called ‘African gangs’ issue in Victoria—those comments and racist public narratives really hurt young African Australians.

While we have progressed in developing a multicultural society that we are proud of, social cohesion is always under threat and we need to commit to it and work on addressing challenges every day.


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