Why refugees from Myanmar have flocked to a tiny Australian town

Nhill's success in settling new arrivals shows the country can be as welcoming as the city

Ten years ago, the most unusual thing about Nhill — a country town of just over 2,000 people in south-eastern Australia — might have been the Australian Pinball Museum on its one main street. Some 400 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, Nhill doesn’t look much like a hub for new immigrants.

But since early 2010, several hundred refugees from Myanmar’s Karen ethnic minority have moved to the town for work. Their settlement, led by the area’s largest private employer and supported by Nhill community groups, has been a boon to an area with an ageing and declining population.

The Karen have added millions of dollars to the region’s economy, and become eager participants in volunteering and the town’s community life. And Nhill’s experience, those involved say, offers lessons about the importance for successful integration of local leadership and paying attention to refugees’ varied backgrounds.

Big duck, small pond

Karen refugees were brought to Australia as part of the government’s annual resettlement scheme, but they mostly settled in Werribee, a western suburb of Melbourne. It took active steps starting in 2009 from Luv-A-Duck, a poultry company founded in Nhill, to lure them to more regional areas.

Luv-A-Duck were struggling to fill vacancies and were considering relocation of some processing facilities, according to Phil King, from the local Hindmarsh Shire Council. As the largest private employer in the area, any relocation would have been a significant blow to Nhill. “That would have left a lot of other people out of work,” King said.

But the company’s expansion plans were being hampered by a declining population. Hindmarsh Shire’s population fell nearly 10% from 2001 to 2016, and the prime working-age population by more than 21%. “We’re a big fish in a small pond,” said John Millington, who was general manager of Luv-A-Duck at the time.

The solution came when Millington attended a meeting in a larger city south of Nhill, and heard about the community of Karen refugees in Melbourne. In coordination with AMES, a non-profit supporting migrant employment, Millington and his wife Margaret spoke to members of the Karen community in Melbourne about Nhill and the employment opportunities at Luv-A-Duck in November 2009.

“We didn’t go in half-cocked and have people say, ‘What the hell’s Millington done now?’”

A few months later, around 30 Karen migrants made a weekend trip to Nhill to see the town in person. “They went away, and they rang up Monday morning and said, ‘We’re ready to come, can we come this week?’”, Millington said. Five families started work a week later.

More Karen refugees started at Luv-A-Duck over the next year, and after that in other jobs in the area. Around 200 new arrivals now work for 18 employers in the area, including the local hospital and mechanic, and make up almost 10% of Nhill’s population.

Community leadership was vital

It was a significant shift for a small town. “Immigrantion to the local area certainly isn’t something new,” King said. “But not to the extent as what we’ve got with the Karen.” The key to handling that change was the early involvement of the Nhill community.

Discussions in the town — with everyone from the police and schools to sports groups — began even before Luv-A-Duck had committed to hiring any Karen, Millington said. “We didn’t go in half-cocked and have people say, ‘What the hell’s Millington done now?’”

“John and Marg are very much pillars of the community,” King said. Their efforts in Nhill meant that there was “a fairly smooth transition” as the refugees started to arrive. The Millingtons arranged housing for the early arrivals, and made themselves available as a trusted point of contact.

Volunteers with the Nhill Learning Centre helped welcome family members who weren’t working. “They were just marvellous in helping them to settle in,” Millington said. “Take them shopping, take them to the banks, just get them out of the house and have a walk around the town.”

The Learning Centre has since helped to set up Paw Po, a social enterprise selling traditional woven products made by Karen women in Nhill. And the newcomers have had very high volunteering rates, helping to plant trees and repair a boardwalk.

That’s led to them being welcomed by the locals. “There were so many people that were involved” in helping the Karen settle, according to Millington. “It was a community-driven and community-supported thing.”

Research from the University of Amsterdam found that, since the arrival of the Karen, Nhill residents have become more trusting of refugees and more supportive of resettlement than residents of similar country towns. And according to a 2015 report from Deloitte Access Economics, Karen resettlement also boosted the area’s economy. Hindmarsh’s gross regional product was lifted by 4.4% — A$12 million, or US$8.8 million — in 2013-14.

Cities aren’t always best

The other secret to Nhill’s success was simple: unlike Melbourne, it was the kind of place Karen refugees were used to. Most Karen had lived in rural villages, where they were able to grow their own food, according to Margaret Millington.

“The city was quite foreign to them,” she said. “When they came to Nhill and saw what we had to offer, that straight away ignited the hope that they could have a life that resembled something similar to their own back home. The federal government in Australia has tended to settle newly-arrived refugees in major urban areas, where there is a higher concentration of language and employment services. “They omit to think about what the immigrants really need,” said John.

The closer fit with refugees’ experience and preferences has also helped Nhill. Phil King said that many young people leave the area for university. “Then the hardest thing is to attract them back,” he said.

Young people from the Karen community, by contrast, more often return to Nhill. Some have come back to work in the local hospital after training as nurses. “They were happy to come here and create their own community in a rural village,” Margaret said. “That’s why a lot of the young Karen kids come back here, because they’re very community-minded.”

Nhill and the Karen have proved an unlikely but excellent fit. The refugees have thrown themselves into community life, and been welcomed for it. “The Rotary would say, we’re going to work down on the boardwalk, and fifty would turn up,” John Millington recalled. “Straight away, the message goes around that these people are digging in and helping us. You think, well, they must be good people.” — Fergus Peace

(Picture credit: Flickr/denisbin)

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