MELBOURNE, Feb 26 (IPS) – With new figures showing that 44 percent of Australians were either born overseas or have at least one parent who was, community organisations have welcomed a stepped-up government programme to tackle racial, cultural and religious intolerance.

The Diverse Australia Programme (DAP), as the initiative is called, was launched earlier this year by Laurie Ferguson, federal parliamentary secretary for multicultural affairs and settlement services.

The DAP will seek to address problems at a local level by providing funding support to organisations that deal directly with issues of intolerance and prejudice, with small one-off grants available in addition to year-round financial assistance.

‘The activities funded are aimed at bringing Australians from all backgrounds together in a positive and productive way,’ said Ferguson on Jan.28.

Around 4.4 million people born across more than 200 countries now call Australia home.

Data from the 2006 census, the country’s latest, shows that Asian-born people accounted for 44 percent of all arrivals between 2002 and 2006, yet make up only 24 percent of longer-standing migrants.

China, Vietnam and the Philippines are all in the top ten countries of origin for migrants who arrived in Australia before 2002. Likewise for more recent arrivals, China, India, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea are among the top ten.

Under the country’s refugee and humanitarian program, some 13,000 Sudanese have also arrived here since 2002, along with 9,000 Iraqis, 8,000 Zimbabweans and 6,000 people from Afghanistan.

The current government is keen for the increasing diversity to be viewed as a positive for all. However, racism has long-been a factor in Australian life.

Indigenous Australians continue to suffer from racial prejudice, while the ‘White Australia’ policy was the dominant immigration policy of Australian governments until the 1970s. Local media outlets also continue to report on brawls, bashings and assaults that are alleged to be racially motivated.

Essentially a replacement for the Living in Harmony programme established under the previous conservative government in 1998 – a recent review of Living in Harmony by the immigration department recommended that although the program promoted the benefits of cultural diversity as well as Australia’s ‘democratic values’, local groups required strategies to better deal with issues of intolerance – the DAP has received initial support from community organisations.

‘I think it’s a great initiative and I think the way that they’ve developed it, with it being longer-term and with money being given to communities, is fine,’ says Carmel Guerra, director of the Centre for Multicultural Youth (CMY), an organisation advocating on behalf of young people from migrant and refugee backgrounds across metropolitan Melbourne.

The new program has also been backed by the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA), the nation’s peak body representing Australians from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

The DAP ‘shows that the government recognises that it needs to deal with racism and its causes. To retain its status as one of the world’s leading multicultural democracies, Australia needs to continue to drive policies and programmes that support cultural diversity, social inclusion and non-discrimination,’ said acting FECCA Chair Beryl Mulder.

That racism does appear to exist in Australia is backed up by preliminary findings from a project by researchers at two Australian universities.

Data provided to IPS by the Anti-Racism Research Project – researchers at the University of Western Sydney and Macquarie University are looking at whether racism is more prevalent in some Australian locations than it is in others – shows that in each state and territory at least 82 percent of respondents believe that there is racial prejudice in Australia.

An average of 11.9 percent of respondents believe that they are prejudiced against cultures other than their own, with the Northern Territory having the highest figure at 16.7 percent and the Australian Capital Territory, with 8.1 percent admitting that they are prejudiced, the lowest.

While a majority of people in all states and territories – from a low of 73.6 percent in Queensland to a high of 88.1 percent in Tasmania – report feeling ‘secure’ with different ethnic groups, more than a third, on average, say that some cultures and ethnic groups do not fit into Australian society.

Carmel Guerra told IPS that while Australia is ‘a highly tolerant society on many levels’, the people that the CMY works with do experience prejudice.

‘Young people and families tell us all the time that they will often be called names, or people feel they’ve been treated differently because they have darker skin or speak with an accent,’ she says.

Although Guerra says that incidents of physical attack do take place but verbal abuse and innuendo are apparently more common.

‘It seems to be young people who look quite different, particularly if they’ve got darker skin or are young women who wear the hijab, who say that often they will get comments made about them,’ says the CMY director.

The experiences of African-Australian youth in the outer-Melbourne area of Dandenong – where a large proportion of Victorians with African origins live – was the subject of a report released in December by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.

The Rights of Passage report found that the young people experienced racism in both overt and indirect ways from a range of sectors in the community, despite efforts by government, police and community organisations – as well as by the youth themselves – to aid their participation in their new home.

In Sydney, Se Gun Song from the Canterbury-Bankstown Migrant Resource Centre (CBMRC), which provides support to newly-arrived migrants, refugees and humanitarian entrants to Australia, says that he also sees evidence of racial intolerance on a daily basis.

Song told IPS that racial prejudice is particularly evident in areas of housing and employment for the people that the CBMRC works with, who are mainly from Africa and South-east Asia.

‘Over the years we have seen a large number of cases where African refugee families cannot find accommodation in the private rental market or people with an accent or Muslim last name cannot find jobs,’ he says.