Great Beauty, Great Barriers: an Eastern European migrant in Australia’s north

Lilla Proics, a teacher and journalist in Hungary, arrived in Cairns, Australia last summer with her son and daughter. The town is a regional centre and attractive tourist spot in Australia’s north. With a fabulous coral reef in close proximity and rainforests all around, it seemed to be the perfect choice for a potential immigrant. The population of around 150,000 is made up of generations of immigrants and Indigenous Australians who, according to Lilla’s experiences, remain almost unseen in this highly diverse but relatively unmixed population. These days, migrants arrive here mostly from China, South-Korea, Papua New Guinea and the surrounding islands. There is not a very high rate of recent European migration. Lilla talked with me about her experiences there.

You were a cultural journalist in Hungary – writing on theatre, literature and cultural phenomena – why did you decide to move to Australia, and try to settle down there?

It’s mostly an adventurous spirit that brought me here; I was rather hesitating about settling down or not. One personal option was to move to a place with a warmer climate, and my two children provided me with the other argument: it should be an English-speaking country.

It is obvious that a journalist would not find a job immediately after moving to another country with a totally different cultural context and language. Did you have any contingency plan to make a living there?

Physical work – which I had actually never done for a living. Besides all the rejections and frustrations it really turned out to be a rich experience: not only is it very hard work but also there is the fact that the bottom view always offers a great approach towards a society. And this is vital for a journalist to go through.

For a Hungarian citizen it is not easy to arrange any longer term stay in Australia – how did you manage to get all the official papers done and arrive with two children there?

Student visas are mostly available for anyone arriving to this country, and the easiest way to get acquainted with this society and maybe try to settle down for a longer term. It seemed to be the best choice. My daughter attends a public international high school locally – that is free for locals while highly expensive for us who have no permanent residency here. I attend a business school that provides extremely useful and practical information and experience, by the way. This is also very expensive for us – these fees are unimaginably high for the average Hungarian citizen.

How much of your wages earned in Hungary would add up for you three to meet all the requirements to set up in Australia?

For one person: the costs to get an Australian student visa (first I attended a language course and then a business school) the flight ticket to get here, rent for a not too expensive flat and living expenses for three months added up to two years’ wages that I earned in Hungary as a teacher and journalist.

Do these all guarantee for you to stay for a longer time?

Definitely not.

Lilla and her son and daughter. Photo courtesy of Lilla.

Lilla and her son and daughter. Photo courtesy of Lilla.

Did you get any assistance to understand all your rights, responsibilities and opportunities here as a visitor and maybe an immigrant?

A Hungarian agent who resides here helped me with all paperwork. First of all, my English was not strong when I started the whole journey, but soon I just started to realise that migration laws and regulations change so often that everyone needs help to update their knowledge on them. So there is an agent-business built on explaining laws and rules and their application and informing migrants about them. The constant changes in these are due to the fierce fights that relentlessly go on in the political discourse here.

What are the debates and fights about?

A considerable majority of the political power advocates for severe regulations regarding migration – basically they claim that at least for a while an embargo would be helpful as the economy of the country is steady at the moment especially compared to worldwide trends, and this should be preserved for a while to strengthen economic stability. On the other hand, there is a huge part of the population whose emotional approach might overcome the economic reasoning.

What makes the Australian politicians, authorities or population step back from accepting immigrants? An increase of unemployment? Misuse of social aid?

The unemployment rates have soared in the last couple of years. At the moment they show a constant value above 10%, and the formerly, indeed very generous aid funds are shrinking dramatically. As usual, the middle-class feels the immediate effects of these changes.

And what do you mean by emotional involvement in migration matters?

Obviously, the majority of current population of Australia is immigrant – regardless of how many decades, generations or centuries ago they arrived here – and this inevitably creates a supportive attitude. Most of them still remember – or heard of from family stories – what was it like to arrive in an utterly new society. So, one can sense the waves of empathy when arriving here, but on the other hand most of the immigrants have recently arrived from the Far East, and they are undoubtedly the most competitive workforce on all possible markets. When it comes to immigration matters, most recently, the higher political circles seem to be open towards China.

This means that they welcome the migrants arriving from China?

Especially the wealthy immigrants are welcomed. But generally, it is true that those who arrive with serious capital to the country will not encounter as many obstacles as those who are ‘only’ potential contributors to Australia’s workforce. I have never experienced such ruthless capitalism before. Maybe this is especially true about Queensland.

You mean by this that capital and competition exclusively move the whole market and society and the politics as well?

Exclusively. You’re worth as much as the money you have. And here I need to add that on the other hand I could not identify any cultural life

The theatre in Cairns. Photo courtesy of Lilla.

The theatre in Cairns. Photo courtesy of Lilla.

around throughout my nine months of stay. The only professional theatre in town is a venue that invites only commercial shows and the single museum has been closed for years due to reconstruction, while the local amateur theatre group cannot fill in its 100-places auditorium every third month. People somehow do not come together in communities unless they are especially involved in making profit. Many nations present – mostly arriving from Asia – congregate around well-defined business interests. Group members only contact outsiders to the degree of their needs: business or education.

Would we dare to call it segregation? How do these groups form and reform themselves?

These groups need to shape up mostly because of the above said social pressure: business interest above all. In the beginning I did not see this myself as everybody is very nice on the surface. We all smile and have agreeable small talk. And after a while one realises that connections and relationships never go deeper if there is no particular interest – and I unequivocally mean here business, money interest – except from Indigenous people, as far as I experienced. A rough generalization, of course, I am describing here only main tendencies that could be seized within 9-10 months mingling, studying, working, and going down to the beach for a barbecue or volley ball to find some pals.

Why would makes the situation of Indigenous people different and in what ways do they differ from all the rest of these various groups?

There is of course this social obligation to treat each other equally, and there are smiles everywhere on the surface. But I somehow sensed that the so-called ‘white’ – and I am constrained to use this very not PC notions here to be able to describe the phenomenon – would not smile at the Indigenous people. I noticed this immediately on my second day here just wandering along the streets to getting acquainted a bit with the town.

And you, blond, tall, athletic people – were you received well from the very first moment?

Unequivocally. When I was looking for a job, actually I encountered only very friendly people, asking questions, talking to me, so I undeniably felt comfortable.

In what layer of the society are the Indigenous people mostly present? Is seems so metaphoric what you say – as it is usually alleged that unwanted immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers are looked through as they were transparent by the members of the welfare society they arrive to. This is what you mean? That the Indigenous people are treated the same way?

They are considered to represent the lowest possible level of the society – and not only metaphorically; one can see them sitting or lying in the streets. Of course, there are social programmes for education, but those are also segregated. And there are state and local governmental schemes for education and employment, as far as I see, these offer training and work in nursing homes and so – all in all it seems that the Indigenous people have only one option to overcome unemployment, and that is taking the offered path towards some lower ranked positions in the service sector.

This means that the Indigenous people and the less wealthy immigrants would end up at the bottom of the society?

Yes, though I think the Indigenous people are ranked even lower than the poor immigrants. On the other hand, this is a subjective assumption of mine regarding especially this area – and this is a place where many Indigenous people were gathered, or rather forced to gather. A part of them dance around in hula skirts as possible tourist attractions, but I doubt that this business would make too much money. Being genuinely shy and withdrawn people, I find it hard to approach them, but I hear there are some groups that try to get back to a traditional lifestyle in nature, otherwise there are the above mentioned lost townsmen, overwhelmed by alcoholism and despair, or choosing the hardest way by trying to fit into an exclusionist society.

When you arrived to this country you seemed to be rather positive about getting a stable job soon.

Yes, I was informed that if I was willing to take any physical work in the beginning, it would be easy to put my feet on the ground here.

So, was it easy to find some work around?

There is a fierce competition even for part-time cleaning work, so I could barely squeeze in, and when I finally could, that was through some acquaintances. I work together with some young Korean immigrants and Philippines who have started a career at home as intellectuals and for economic reasons they were forced to come here. While cleaning up in big hotels, abandoned houses and flats, offices that might have not been cleaned for years and maybe served as address for who knows what kinds of deals and transactions, I met really nice and highly educated people to work with.

So what did you finally receive here for the sum that rose up to your wages earned for two years?

When I left home I was assured that I would find a job soon, but actually after half a year of struggling and grabbing all possible opportunities I had to admit that this would still not be enough to stay longer. So, I will get on the plane with my daughter on 1 May – my son left a couple of months ago as we would never be able to afford the graduate education he wishes for.

How realistic seem the agent’s promises now?

Not at all – and I encounter really tragic stories here, families who have sold out everything they had and now they are also forced to return back to their homeland. Especially Hungarians are in a difficult situation when it comes to settling down as all these rules are applied according to treaties between the two states and for some reason we do not have beneficial relations with Australia from this point of view.

Where are you staying now?

I needed to rent out one of my agent’s rooms as in Australia one needs recommendation letters to rent out an apartment – something totally impossible to obtain as a foreigner. So at the moment we are staying in one room with my daughter in a sharehouse for the amount that would be enough for a comfortable apartment.

How much is the rental fee?

200 dollars per week.

How much do you earn weekly?

When I can get 12 hours cleaning work, I earn 200 dollars. And there is the tuition fee for my daughters’ school and my business course. Those add up to 400 dollars weekly. Sometimes I am lucky to work more hours weekly, but that is not something I can rely on.

Would you opt for staying if you had the chance?

No, I could never assimilate into this business-led world that lacks so painfully any trace of cultural life. But I have to emphasise that my experiences are confined to this touristic town. Obviously, there are many thrilling cultural opportunities in central cities, but the price for that would be so high that I would never be able to afford it.

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