Over the past 15 years, Australia’s immigration debate has focused on whether “illegal” boat arrivals can be prevented by policies in the home country, or whether they are determined primarily by refugee flows in the countries of origin. This is broadly referred to as the debate about “push” versus “pull” factors in immigration. On the one hand, commentators (generally “conservative”) suggest that Australia’s “lax” immigration policies, and generous policies towards refugees, encourage people to try to come here. These “lax” policies seem to be primarily represented by the visa system, and so the Howard (“conservative”) government introduced Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) which offer no guarantee of a long-term home – theoretically the holder of a TPV will be required to return home when their national situation stabilizes. This seems hardly likely to be a deterrent given that the national situation in nations like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka doesn’t stabilize over periods of less than a decade, but a deterrent it is believed to be. Other policies are often seen as part of this process of reducing “pull” factors – offshore processing, reduction of benefits (a big issue in the UK, where asylum seekers cannot get any benefits or access the NHS), restrictions on family reunions, etc. Of course, all of these policies are predicated on the idea that in amongst this flood of refugees is a certain non-trivial proportion of people who are not “genuine” refugees, and that for some reason these people need to be weeded out and prevented from “taking advantage” of our “generous” systems.

On the other hand, some commentators (generally “left wing”) suggest that immigration flows are primarily driven by the situation in the countries where people come from, and desperate people are largely unconcerned about the policies of the countries they are fleeing to. Under this “push” philosophy, people flood out of their home country when everything goes to shit, and the policies of the countries they’re heading to don’t amount to more than a temporary impediment. Basically under this model a bunch of people from Syria, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Myanmar have been heading away, and some of them have got trapped in Malaysia and Indonesia. From there they dribble out on boats to Australia, and Australia’s specific processing and visa policies aren’t relevant because people will do remarkable things when the alternative is either dying in their homeland or rotting in a transit camp in intermediary countries.

Unfortunately, the truth of this battle – which to Australians is important, because we’re the 8th richest country in the world, so it would be a disaster to us if a couple of thousand people took advantage of our hospitality – is difficult to resolve in the Australian context. National visa and asylum seeker management policy has changed frequently, but drivers of refugee flow have changed separately in a complex way: the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq has ebbed and flowed, wars have sprung up in Syria and Libya, the war in Sri Lanka flared up and came to an end, and the situation in Myanmar and Pakistan is complex and unknowable. Furthermore, at various times the Australian government’s policies of direct intervention against boats – turning them back, or leaving them to drift against international maritime law, or sending the SAS to raid boats that rescued refugees – has changed. Currently the government refuses to report numbers of arrivals or boats turned back, so it’s impossible to assess the success of the current policy. So the debate in Australia – and let’s face it, knowing whether these people are trying to take advantage is far more important than helping them – has been difficult to resolve.

This week the Guardian had an article describing how refugee flows have changed in Europe, and this article – if true – gives some further information about the relative importance of push vs. pull factors. The situation in Europe is dire, and dwarfs Australia’s refugee “problem”, and the level of human catastrophe also dwarfs the situation that the Australian Prime Minister was crying crocodile tears about while in opposition – hundreds of people drown at a time on a regular basis in the Mediterranean. From the clinical standpoint of trying to answer the oh-so-important question of whether they’re all grafters, Europe is a much more useful experimental setting, because it involves multiple countries with multiple different policies on asylum and refugee management. The refugees are targeting France, Italy and Greece, and they have been coming overland and by sea. Since Greece built a wall more have been coming by sea, and the numbers have exploded since the war in Syria – 350 in 2012 compared to 7000 in 2013 – and these refugees are targeting several countries that, as far as I can tell, haven’t changed their migration and asylum-seeker handling policies at all. It’s also worth noting that the mediterranean doesn’t have any interim processing centres – people flee straight to the reception countries – whereas Australia is the target of people spilling over from processing centres in Indonesia and Malaysia. So presumably Europe’s experience measures actual changes in flow, rather than changes in interim processing centres. The UN is proposing processing centres to handle the huge numbers and reduce the appalling fatalities at sea, but no one appears to be proposing changes in European policy that would “discourage” asylum seekers – neither is anyone proposing resettling them all on a malaria-ridden remote island where they can riot at their leisure without being filmed. Uncivilized brutes, those Europeans. But this lack of “deterrent” measures is not new, yet the flow has changed – at just the time that the west is also receiving reports of new brutalities in Syria, and the collapse of the rebel efforts there.

I take the events in Europe as strong evidence for the “push” theory of refugee flows. That isn’t to say that changing “pull” factors wouldn’t affect these flows, but given there is literally nowhere else for these people to go (except Australia?) it seems unlikely they’d make a difference. The European experience confirms my suspicion that refugee flows are primarily determined by what is happening in the origin country, not by the policies of the destination countries. Which, unless we can find a way to stop the chaos happening in the middle east[1], is going to mean accepting that we need to start accepting more refugees, and preparing for bigger flows in the future. An unlikely political outcome, at best …


fn1: I wonder if not supporting insurgencies might be a good start?

Not someone you want to go bowling with...

Twenty-five years ago today the Grim Reaper appeared on Australian television to warn us about the dangers of HIV. You can see the ad through this article about the anniversary. I was 14 at the time, and it was truly terrifying. I think it did its job, and scared Australians into sexual responsibility, though now that we have treatments and testing and the like, people may be beginning to become complacent again. Although it now seems a bit hammy, I think it also compares favourably with British health and safety adverts – it’s not as tacky, and makes its point much more succinctly and believably. I particularly like the nod to the holocaust when the narrator says it could kill more people than world war 2 – a nice touch, very understated but very effective.

There was some controversy at the time, because some people interpreted it as likening gay men to the Grim Reaper (at that time it was largely a disease of gay men), but unlike in the USA there was a much better relationship between government, health workers and gay activists, and the controversy didn’t damage the ad’s effectiveness. Of course now people think that the kinds of things being said in this advert were hyperbolic or alarmist, because Australia has largely escaped the problem of HIV – another complaint made at the time was that this ad was overdoing it, and would contribute to that general suspicion people have that government health messages are just intended to scare us. But take one look at the situation in Africa and it’s clear that Australia dodged a very, very scary epidemic, and with our large drug-using population it was possible that HIV could have crossed to the heterosexual population by the early 1990s. It didn’t, and we can thank Australia’s early and very impressive response for our very lucky escape. Part of that response was this cute guy with his scythe and his slightly tatty cape, and we Australians should all be thankful for whatever small part he played in keeping us safe. So, thanks and … happy birthday Grim Reaper! If you get laid at your party, remember that prevention is the only cure we’ve got!

I have a colleague – let’s call her Miss P – who lived in Australia for a few years, in Melbourne and Perth, and has a bank account there (with ANZ). She had some questions today about her account, and has tried calling a few times but is daunted by the English required, so today I called on her behalf. What followed is a classic example of the excellence of Australian service.

Stage 1: The General Line

We called the general help line, and a middle-aged-sounding woman answered the phone.

  • Me: explains situation, asks first question
  • Her: Gives slightly confusing answer, then says “But actually, it’s probably just easier for Miss P if she calls the overseas line, because they’ll be able to find her an interpreter.” Gives me number.
  • Me: Perfect! Thank you. We’ll try that.

This is cool! So off we go…

Stage 2: The Overseas Line

We call the overseas line. A youngish-sounding chap answers, and after my explanation he transfers me to some other department in customer service. Here I’m greeted by another middle-aged-sounding woman with a very strong Australian accent.

  • Me: explains situation and asks for interpreter
  • Her: Oh yes, we can definitely do that. What you need to do is call Miss P’s bank branch, and they’ll find her one [what is this, every ANZ branch has a UN office inside it?]
  • Me: Okay, could you tell me the number
  • Her: tells me the number, then says “How about I transfer you? Just a moment.”

Unfortunately, the phone cut off (we’re using Skype). So … we call directly.

Stage 3: The Local Branch

So we’re calling a bank branch in Perth. Let’s just get that clear right now. Another middle-aged-sounding woman answers the phone, and has a very broad accent and speaks slowly and clearly. Excellent. I don’t think she’s going to be our interpreter though…

  • Me: explains situation and how we just got cut off. “I was told you could maybe arrange an interpreter?”
  • Her: Ooooh, mmmm, I don’t think we do that here, but just a mo [<- she actually said this], I’ll see if anyone here can help
  • Me: Okay, thank you …
  • …. long period on hold …
  • Her: Hello, um I’m sorry but I’ve called around a couple of departments and they don’t seem to have any service like that in this branch.
  • Me: Oh, we were told you would have
  • Her: Well, I don’t think we do. But I tell you what [<- she actually said this], the Surfer’s Paradise branch might have an interpreter. There’s a lot of Japanese up there! Hold on a mo [<- she actually said this] and I’ll give it a go [<- she actually said this].
  • … short period on hold …
  • Her: Hello! We’ve found someone in Surfers [<- she actually said this]. I’ll just put you through…

Now, just for clarity for my foreign reader(s), Perth is in, well, Perth is in Perth. Surfer’s Paradise is in Queensland. This is the opposite end of the country. This is literally, actually, like someone in London saying “just a moment, I’ve found a Russian speaker in our Moscow branch. I’ll just transfer you.” That’s the distance involved here.

Stage 4: “Surfers”

So we get transferred to “Surfers” and this time we don’t get cut off. A moment later a youngish-sounding woman answers the phone.

  • Her: Hello, this is M [<-Japanese name] speaking, do you need a Japanese speaker?
  • Me: Yes I do, my colleague Miss P needs to ask some questions and it would be much easier for her if she can do it in Japanese. Are you the interpreter.
  • Her: Yes I am, please put her on the line
  • Miss P: もしもし、Mと申します。よろしくお願いします

The conversation proceeds as I write this. Miss M had a Japanese accent mixed with ‘Strayan, a phenomenon that is extremely funny. She must have lived in “Surfers” for quite a while. And so, international communication was able to proceed smoothly …

How good is that service?

On a related note, my ‘Strayan is sometimes hard for my students to understand. The other day, while speaking to my Chinese student, who is doing a dynamic model of HIV epidemiology in China but is concerned she has overestimated the price of needle syringe programs, we had the following exchange:

  • Me: Are you using the retail price of needles?
  • Her: Um…
  • Me: ???
  • Her: What do you mean “retile”?
  • Me: [putting on my international accent] Oh, “retale” means an object sold through a normal shop, not like through a big warehouse
  • Her: Oh, you mean “retail!” Oh yes, I’m using the retail price, but even if I …

If I influence someone’s english long enough, they’ll even pick up the lilt… “I’m goin’ to the hospital to die…”

As a follow-up to recent posts on race in the Lord of the Rings, I think I should have a look at the possible multicultural symbols in the books. This is both a nice counterstory to my recent criticisms of his politics, and provides useful background information on the politics of Tolkien’s fascist admirers. How can fascists appreciate Tolkien if he’s mulitcultural? By what sleight of hand do they overlook the central role of the fellowship in the story? Was the politics of racial interaction in the Lord of the Rings ahead of its time, or not?

The possibility of the Fellowship being seen as a multicultural was raised by commenter Paul as a possible alternative explanation of the racial politics of the story. I confess I hadn’t thought of it.

What is multiculturalism?

The first thing to note is that multiculturalism is not just a random word meaning “lots of different races” (though maybe semantically it should). It is a specific political philosophy adopted in Australia in 1972, and an accompanying theory of political integration for diverse races. It can be characterized as “a bunch of different racial and cultural groups living together under a single law, while retaining their own unique cultural and linguistic practices.” In Australia the law is Australian, the shared language is English, and everyone is welcome to do whatever they want in their personal lives. In fact, they’re openly and actively encouraged to, because their culture is assumed to be important to them. Multiculturalism was originally envisioned (in 1972) as “a society in which equal
opportunity is accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance” and is now presented in essentially these terms:

Australian multiculturalism recognises, accepts, respects and celebrates cultural diversity. It embraces the heritage of Indigenous Australians, early European settlement, our Australian-grown customs and those of the diverse range of migrants now coming to this country.
The freedom of all Australians to express and share their cultural values is dependent on their abiding by mutual civic obligations. All Australians are expected to have an overriding loyalty to Australia and its people, and to respect the basic structures and principles underwriting our democratic society. These are the Constitution, Parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as the national language, the rule of law, acceptance and equality.

It’s important to note that before Canada adopted this policy, there was really no such thing as a concept of multiculturalism, and if Tolkien had propounded such a theory he would have been well ahead of his time (though not unique – various other peoples across time have advocated this idea, especially anarchists and libertarians).

Multiculturalism is not the same as “cultural diversity” or easy immigration policy. In fact Australia has quite a strict immigration policy, setting specific barriers to entry, though the policy is non-racist (in keeping with its multicultural practice).

Multiculturalism in the era of Tolkien

Contrary to the claims of people who love London a little too much (e.g. the crew from London Timeout), London has not been a multicultural city for long, and it certainly wasn’t in the interwar period. It definitely has always been a famously diverse city, perhaps reaching its pinnacle of diversity in the late Victorian era[1]. But this is not the same as multiculturalism, and in fact London is generally quite intolerant of foreigners, and compared to Australia has quite a strong culture of guest workers – a kind of “come here while we need you and then fuck off home please” attitude. At the time that Tolkien was writing it was likely that London was at a low point in its diversity (I don’t know) but pretty certainly areas outside of London were not diverse at all. And we know that Tolkien’s country of origin, South Africa, has a pretty poor history of handling cultural diversity. So, Tolkien could be excused in the context of his time for writing a book in which any form of cultural mixing was seen as bad.

The Fellowship of the Ring

The central organisation of the first book is of course the Fellowship, which consists of the peoples of 4 races, joining together on a desperate quest. They overcome some fairly serious obstacles by working together, and they fall apart ultimately because a human turns on a hobbit in the interests of his nation. But is this a multicultural fellowship? From the background material on the Lord of the Rings we know that it doesn’t represent the natural social structure of any of the societies from which the Fellowship’s members hale. There are no elves or Dwarves or humans in Hobbiton, no humans in the Grey Mountains, and very little evidence of racial diversity in Gondor, the capital of the age. There is one and precisely one foreigner in Rivendell. In the scene where the Fellowship is formed (in the council chamber at Rivendell) the formation is clearly described as a unique event – as races putting aside their differences to fight a common foe. This is no natural extension of the social order of the time in the way that, say, a New Zealand rugby team represents 3 races working for the glory of the Fern, or a lesbian with Chinese parents represents Australia in international climate change talks. This is a special moment in Middle Earth history, just as the gathering of humans and elves at Mount Doom 2000 years earlier was also special.

This is not a multicultural phenomenon; it’s a political alliance. And like most political alliances, it falls apart when one of its members decides to privilege the interests of his own nation over the rest.

Tolkien of course had experience with political alliances, in World War 1, when people from all over the Commonwealth (and Frenchies) joined together to kill Germans. And Turks[2]. And this model is pretty congruent with the structure of the Fellowship.

The races of the Fellowship as “white”

It seems pretty likely from Tolkien’s stories that the only races in the Fellowship that can interbreed are elves and humans. There is no evidence of Dwarves breeding with anyone, and who would shag a halfling? Women with hairy feet are so 80s. This is a pretty strong qualification for “different races.” But in their analyses of Tolkien’s racial politics, Nazis tend to overlook this. I think this is because the races of the West, even though incapable of interbreeding, are established in Tolkien’s world as roughly equivalent to those of Western Europe. They share so much in cultural familiarity that their profound racial differences are overlooked. This occurs in the books and in Nazi ideology, where Nazis from all across Europe see each other as allies even though they’ve spent the last 200 years fighting. The atmosphere of old conflicts set aside in the late third age is also the atmosphere of the modern fascist movement. They look for their true enemies to the East and the South, and see Europe as a single entity under threat from enemies without. This is exactly how the people of the Fellowship see their world. This commonality is sufficient for the races of the Fellowship to be seen as a common unit. After all, they united against a common threat. Isn’t that sufficient definition by which to assert a common political interest?

Additionally, Tolkien presents a set of conservative tropes – hereditary kings, absent and virtuous women, colonialism rewarded, the downfall of races through interbreeding – to enable sympathetic readers to see a model of Europe in the peoples of the West. Even the geography bears a resemblance. So it’s no surprise that the Fellowship’s genetic incompatibility is overlooked in favour of its cultural similarity, even as its enemies’ cultural differences are ignored in favour of their racial similarity (corrupted by Morgoth, dark-skinned, foreign).

Other examples of racial mixing in Tolkien

The general model of racial mixing in Tolkien is that they don’t. There is precisely one foreigner in Rivendell, that being Bilbo; and he is only welcome because branded by a powerful magical item and so rendered culturally closer, if not racially radically different. We spend much of two books reading about Gondor, but see little or no evidence of any foreign races. There are no foreigners in Rohan. Rohan was gifted to the Rohirrim by the Gondorian king, and rather than sharing it with the Dunlendings, they drove them out (along with the Woses, whose eventual extinction is presented as a sad inevitability). This is no multicultural model, but one of races staying firmly separate. The only model of racial mixing is Arthedain and Gondor, which used to be occupied by a race of pure common men. When the Numenorians arrived they took over the land, despite being tiny in number, and formed a hereditary ruling class. This class slowly degraded with contact with the locals, but retained their hereditary power. Essentially, the only long-lasting racial mixing model in Tolkien is a caste-based system – it’s a fairly pleasant one, but it’s still a caste system. It’s rather like England after 1066, where a new power has taken over the country and maintain their own language (Dunadan) and hereditary line, but occasionally interbreed with some of the pre-existing local aristrocracy. But unlike that model, the invading power is seen as a separate race that slowly declines in time (but still lives 4 times as long as the locals after 2000 years, and retains special magical powers).

The only common racial mixing in Tolkien is between Orcs and Goblins, about whom its dubious to maintain that they’re even separate races. Sure, the evil armies are made up of (roughly) 5 races, but they aren’t drawn together as part of a multicultural society – they too are a political alliance. There is no model in Lord of the Rings for the natural interaction of races.


The model of racial mixing in Lord of the Rings is one of political alliances built out of expediency, either through mutual defense or desire for power. This is consistent with the real-world great power politics of the time, but does not reflect the politics of multiculturalism. The fellowship is not a natural outgrowth of multicultural societies, but an alliance of disparate interests thrown together out of desperation and destroyed when one of its members chooses base national interest over common defense – it is formed and collapses along the model of a treaty. The only political model based on racial mixing is a caste system in which a powerful race rules over a weaker one. Although there is a temptation to describe the Fellowship of the Ring as a multicultural model, such a comparison relies on a misreading of the politics of multiculturalism, and a false interpretation of the causes and political meaning of the alliance that the Fellowship represents.

fn1: I get this idea from A.N Lee’s The Victorians, and also from an article in London Timeout about how modern fears about Eastern Europeans very much resemble Victorian fears about the same people

fn2: Though from the perspective of the Australians involved, it was the Turks who did most of the killing