The myth of ethnic ghettos in Australia

Some of the most vivid anti-migrant sentiment comes from stories of ‘ethnic ghettos’. Large groups of non-citizens, clustered together, supposedly highlights how these people are not like everyone else. Descriptions typically centre on the ascetics of the locality: poor, dark, hopeless. Ghettos are used as evidence to show why migration may not be such a good idea as poor integration tugs away at the social fabric. When attempting to counter these arguments, many make tacit acknowledgement of ghettos. From there the game is up, as restricting migrants instead of addressing problems is an easier policy solution.

In some parts of Europe, these concerns are very real. The early 21st century may come to be remembered as a period where the politics of ethnicity is the defining theme. One hopes this is not the case, however recent elections and government policies show a stark trend. Two of Europe’s most prominent nations, the United Kingdom and France, are currently undertaking public conversations on race, migration and ethnicity which are driven by political parties of the far-right.  Areas with large concentrations of non-British, non-French migrants act as evidence in the prosecution of this populist battle.

In Australia, the charge of ethnic ghettos is raised occasionally by anti-migrant groups and populists. The lunatic fringe of the internet is littered with references (which I will not link to). However more prominent media outlets imply the ghetto mentality such as the Daily Telegraph equating Bankstown to Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. Crime, unemployment and terrorism are the most common frames for descriptions of high migrant areas.

This is not an easy argument to counter. It requires nuance, which is too readily lost when discussing migration. Thankfully, new research from the 2011 Census may assist and continue to redirect the focus away from migration and towards the underlying issues such as the lack of education and unemployment.

Barbara Edgar’s article in the Journal of Ethnic and Migrant Studies shows how where people live in Sydney and Melbourne is consistent with ‘human capital theory’. Highlighting previous research, she shows that the Sydney housing market is open to those with sufficient capital. Whatever initial migrant clustering does occur, it reduces over time ensuring that ethnic segmentation – the permanent separation of ethnic groups from society – does not occur in these cities. Lets repeat that again, there is no ethnic segmentation in Melbourne or Sydney.

Please look elsewhere. No ethnic ghettos here.

What ethnic clustering does occur is explained by:

Australian nativity, duration of residence for the foreign-born, English proficiency, educational qualifications and unemployment. These factors, which broadly reflect immigrant cultural and socio-economic adjustment to Australian life, account for 63% of the variance in ethnic concentration.

Over time, and from the transition from the initial generation to second generation, these factors change, leading to a rapidly integrated society.

Almost paradoxically, this is assisted by the “enormous ethnic diversity among immigrants to Australia”. The more diverse migrants are to countries, the more socially cohesive migration can be. This is at least the lesson from Australian urban migration. This is an important policy consideration for governments, which should look to maintain a large number of origin countries who seek to come to Australia.  A common example:

Over time, there has been population succession in which an incoming migrant group has replaced a more established group that chooses to move out into better housing. For example, in Maribyrnong, Sunshine and Keilor in Melbourne’s outer west, refugee-origin groups arriving from South-East Asia in the 1980s moved into housing formerly occupied by Greeks and Italians, who themselves had replaced earlier post-war refugee groups from eastern Europe (Burnley 2001, 246, 247). The overall result has been to increase cultural diversity in these localities, as some members of the earlier communities have remained there.

While there are definitely areas in Melbourne and Sydney with large population shares of migrants, who may not all have perfect English, there is no evidence that ghettos form over time in these cities. Where there is ethnic clustering, it is explained not by the forces of ghettos, but by education and income.

The next time someone insinuates Blacktown or Dandenong is simply a ghetto for whatever ethnic minority they have decided to taunt that day, at least you will know its nothing more than uncomfortable racism. The response, education and income are the actual causes of ethnic clustering, may not win the battle of ideas on the op-ed pages, however it is grounded in fact.

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