For Senior Research Fellow at UniSA’s Hawke Research Institute, Dr David Radford, understanding the complexities of migrant integration in regional Australia is a bit like peeling back an onion.

Dr David Radford

What happens to a traditional country town when strangers move in? The very use of a word like strangers tells part of the story – the strange, the different, the new – all require some adjustment, some accommodation fora community to survive and thrive.

“Every community develops from a nub of people and then there are layers formed, many will simply represent new generations of the same sorts of people. But when people from different socioeconomic, religious or cultural backgrounds join the community it can challenge a sense of harmony and tradition,” Dr Radford says.

Focused on the South Australian town of Naracoorte more than 300km south east of Adelaide, Dr Radford’s research is looking at how the arrival of a large Afghan Hazara community in the regional town is playing out.

“Naracoorte has had waves of migrants – there was Maori settlement mainly to work in the local meatworks and more recently Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, English and Afghans,” he says.

“By far the biggest group from a completely different cultural background have been the Hazaras, a particular ethnic group from Afghanistan who have suffered severe oppression and systematic pogroms under the rule of the Taliban and their tribal allies.”

Today Naracoorte is home to more than 300 Afghan people representing about 24 families and individuals and making up about 2.1 per cent of the population. About a third of the group are single men.

They have contributed to the stabilisation of the town’s population – which more than 10 years ago had been in decline – and they are already buying homes and establishing small businesses in the community.

And there is strong support for their presence from groups such as Rotary, local church groups, the Migrant Resource Centre, schools and the kindergarten. 

While there can be a great deal of goodwill to ensure migrant resettlement in a community works, Dr Radford says successful settlement doesn’t happen through goodwill alone.

“You can’t assume the ride will be easy for both the existing community and the new arrivals,” he says. 

“What I am hoping to identify are the things that positively contribute to successful integration.”

Given that 6.4 million people living in Australia were born overseas, according to the Federal Government’s Australia’s Migration Trends 2012–13 report, identifying what positive factors influence successful integration in a community is of critical importance. 

For Muslim Hazaras, there are already some big stumbling blocks.

Dr Radford says the impact of global news about extremists, who also purport to be Muslim, plays into the hands of people who already hold prejudices.

“Those reports give racists some sort of perceived vindication, and for people who are unsure or ill-informed, the reports raise fears and heighten mistrust,” he says.

“I’ve found that lack of knowledge about geo-politics and cultural histories means that locals fail to recognise that the terrorist philosophies espoused by the Islamic State movement are what drove the persecution of the Hazara people in Afghanistan. Extremism forced their flight from their homes.

“These are the historical details that many people don’t hear about in the news. Sensationalist or simplistic reporting and political sloganising fails to inform people of the complexities. They are therefore less capable of making an emotional distinction between the terrorist extremist and the faithful, peaceful Muslim.”

But it is not only distorted external portrayals of Muslim people that build barriers. Dr Radford says it is also the ‘everyday otherness’ that people need to struggle through to find common ground.

“It is Haram or against religious practice for Muslim men to drink alcohol, so having a drink in the pub after a hard day at work is not something they are going to do,” he says.

“In just about any rural or regional town in Australia – men who don’t drink in the pub are considered unusual, outside the norm or simply unfriendly.  It is perhaps a trivial thing, but it is the little things that sometimes undermine trust.”

Dr Radford says language can also be a barrier.

“A local woman I spoke to said she had smiled at a Hazara woman but was upset that the woman lowered her eyes and kept walking,” he says.

“The local thought that it was standoffish or an act of rudeness but for many of the Hazara women – who are less likely to be out in the community and learning English – reluctance to engage could be motivated by lack of language proficiency. To return the smile is perhaps to invite a conversation that they feel unable to carry on.”

Dr Radford says these tiny, somewhat superficial cultural and social differences need to be handled delicately or there is a danger that small things become a stumbling block to community harmony and cohesion.

“Finding differences difficult to deal with is not always a sign of prejudice or racism, but if we are quick to label it as such, it can reinforce a negative divide and some people within both communities, who already feel disempowered or threatened by change, may embrace the tag,” he says.

According to Dr Radford, the Hazara community is quite positive about how life is unfolding in Naracoorte.

“There is work, education for the children, opportunities to set up small businesses and a chance for peace and a happy life, but their informal leaders have a common sense approach to integration,” he says.

“They understand not everybody is good or kind in any community, both here in Australia and back home in Afghanistan.

“While community leaders are hopeful of a successful integration, there is probably not yet enough shared social and cultural capital to be sure of success.

“The real challenge is for the local and migrant communities to imagine a future they can reach for that is inclusive. Once they have decided how they want Naracoorte to be and what they must change or embrace to make that happen, then they will be on the path to building a diverse, successful community.”

Find out more at the UniSA Hawke Research Institute website.