Most Australians support immigration but negativity towards some minorities persists

A general shot of people in Sydney's CBD in December 2020. Source: AAP

Despite international border closures and job losses in the past year, the Scanlon Foundation's latest survey of community harmony has found strong support for a multicultural Australia - but not from everyone.

Australians remain strongly supportive of immigration and multiculturalism, but a high level of negative opinion towards Australians of Asian, African and Middle Eastern backgrounds persists.

The Scanlon Foundation's 2020 Social Cohesion Report provides an insight into the attitudes of Australians, and in a year when faced with a major crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Two surveys - carried out in July and November last year - included more than 140 questions intended to gauge public opinion on population issues and community harmony.

“The surveys point to a resilient, resourceful, adaptive society - perhaps a result that will surprise many,” said the report's author, Emeritus Professor Andrew Markus.

Emeritus Professor Andrew says Australia is a resilient, resourceful, adaptive society.
Emeritus Professor Andrew Markus says Australia is a resilient, resourceful, adaptive society.

The foundation's surveys of Australian attitudes have been conducted every year since 2007 and a large majority of the recent 5,000-plus respondents continued to back open trade and a diverse immigration intake.

Eighty-four per cent of respondents agreed multiculturalism has been good for Australia - up from 80 per cent the year before. 

A new question, asking if someone who is born outside of Australia is just as likely to be a good citizen as someone born in Australia also found 90 per cent in agreement. 

"Overall, things are gradually trending in the right direction,” said Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan.

Chin Tan
Chin Tan, Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner.
Facebook/Chin Tan

"It is good to see consistently high support over the past three years for immigration, diversity and multiculturalism.”

But Australians consistently looked for integration, with two-thirds of respondents rejecting the idea that governments should fund cultural maintenance for minorities.

Negative attitudes towards certain groups

Despite the COVID-19 lockdowns, border closures and lay-offs that could have weakened community unity, the surveys did not find evidence of heightened xenophobia in Australia.

But a high level of negative opinion towards Australians of Asian, African and Middle Eastern backgrounds was found to persist.

Forty-nine per cent of respondents said they held 'very negative' or 'somewhat negative' feelings towards people of Iraqi and Sudanese backgrounds in Australia, while 47 per cent had negative feelings towards Chinese Australians.

Members of the muslim community at Lakemba Mosque in Sydney.
Members of the Muslim community at a Sydney mosque.

As in previous years, many respondents also indicated a negative view towards Muslim Australians.

In 2020, 37 per cent of respondents held a negative attitude to Muslims, down from 41 per cent the year before.

Asian Australian respondents expressed high levels of concern about discrimination.

Fifty-nine per cent of respondents born in an Asian country thought racism was 'a very big problem' or 'fairly big problem' in Australia, and 39 per cent said they had experienced discrimination, marginally down from an averaged 41 per cent in 2018-19.

Chinese Australians face discrimination

A special in-language survey of Chinese Australians also found a high number declined to answer if they had suffered negative experiences.

"This could be a result explained in terms of culture, that Chinese Australians do not want to cause waves, they do not want to draw attention to themselves," Professor Markus said.

Twenty-two per cent of Chinese Australian respondents reported they had experienced discrimination more often since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It is shocking, but it is not surprising," said Molina Asthana, lead convener of the Asian Australian Alliance in Victoria.

Lead convener of the Asian Australian Alliance in Victoria, Molina Asthana, says discrimination is not always direct.
Molina Asthana says discrimination is not always direct.

Last April, the Asian Australian Alliance launched an online site where Asian Australians can log reports of racist incidents associated with COVID-19.

"We have received, so far, 500 reports of racism against Asians in Australia. Over 60 per cent of the incidents were racial slurs, or verbal abuse, or being spat upon," she said. 

Most of the incidents occurred on the street, some in supermarkets.


"The shocking part is 90 per cent of them were not reported to any authorities," Ms Asthana said. 

"We are asking, 'what are we doing about this problem?'”

“There [are] things that we want to see changed, and we hope that action is taken."

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