'Friendly' town votes to reject African refugees

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 December, 2006, 12:00am

Residents fear Sudanese will harass women and bring disease

A country town recently voted one of the friendliest in Australia has been accused of racism after refusing to accept a group of African refugees for resettlement.

Tamworth, in New South Wales, promotes itself as the capital of country music and is, according to its website, 'one of the most progressive places in inland Australia'.

But it has been plunged into a bitter debate after the town council told the immigration department the five Sudanese refugees will have to find homes elsewhere.

The town's nine councillors voted six to three against the plan at a meeting last week. The three who voted in favour of accepting the refugees said they were dismayed by the decision.

One, Warren Woodley, will today present a motion to rescind the vote, even though he has been told he stands little chance of success.

Those voting against feared Tamworth would be branded racist, but cited a survey of 500 locals showing that only a quarter would welcome the refugees.

They said they were concerned Sudanese men would sexually harass women, fail to find jobs and could bring with them diseases such as polio and tuberculosis.

Twelve Sudanese are already living in Tamworth and between them they have accounted for eight criminal offences, said the mayor, James Treloar.

'They range from minor offences like traffic infringements and petty theft to more serious things,' Mr Treloar said. He rejected suggestions Tamworth was a racist town.

'We don't have the trauma and torture counselling facilities that these people need. Plus there are big cultural differences - Sudanese men find it hard to take orders from women.'

There were also fears among Tamworth's 40,000 residents that an influx of refugees could cause the sort of racial tension that last December led to riots in the Sydney beachside suburb of Cronulla.

'I think the views of the community were affected by events such as Cronulla,' said Mr Treloar.

He pointed to the Queensland town of Toowoomba, where the settlement of Sudanese refugees sparked a backlash by far-right white supremacist groups railing against an 'African invasion'.

A stunned Mr Woodley said: 'It's racist and discriminatory, but I believe the council does not represent the majority of Tamworth people, who think we should give these refugees a fair go.

'A few weeks ago we were voted the friendliest town in New South Wales. I feel like sending back the award and pulling down the big Christmas tree in town.'

Councillor Robert Schofield, who voted for the resettlement, said he was sickened by the lack of compassion shown to people who had escaped their war-torn homeland.

Reverend John Cox, the minister of a local church which had raised A$10,000 (HK$61,000) to help settle the Sudanese, said he was deeply saddened by the council's veto.