WHEN race raises its head just before an election in Australia, the international media pays attention.
News that the Federal Government has frozen the intake of African refugees has gone around the world — and despite government denials that the decision is based on race, that's how the international media is reporting it.
Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews' justification of the freeze, on the grounds that Sudanese refugees where having problems integrating into Australian society, was reported by major international news agencies, including Reuters and the French agency, AFP.
Their reports were reproduced in newspapers and on websites in Africa, Asia and Europe.
International broadcasters with massive global audiences — including the BBC, with an estimated weekly audience of 163 million, and the Voice of America, with an estimated weekly audience of 115 million — ran the story.
All of the reports quoted critics of the Government's action who said it was a pre-election ploy aimed at xenophobic voters.
"Certainly there is a nativistic streak in parts of the Australian electorate," said a BBC reporter in a dispatch filed from Sydney. His report recalled that the government had benefited from immigration concerns in the past.
The issue featured prominently in The International Herald Tribune, with a pointer on page one to a full story on page two of its Asian editions on Friday. The Government's decision had "led to accusations of racism", the Tribune's story said.
It reported Mr Andrews' comments about race-based gangs and other problems with young African men, as well as denials by police of any particular law enforcement issues with African refugees.
"Immigration is a controversial topic here, particularly with a general election expected this year," the Tribune report said.
"The hard line taken on immigration by Prime Minister John Howard has been credited with helping him win the past four elections, and some assume Andrews' comments were aimed at influencing voters by again raising the spectre of Australia being overrun."
Referring to the "children overboard" incident in the 2001 election campaign, the Tribune noted: "This is not the first time the Howard Government has run into trouble over immigration."
A Reuters report from Canberra recalled that "political firebrand" Pauline Hanson had recently called for a halt to Sudanese immigration.
Reuters, the BBC and Voice of America all referred to a controversy in Tamworth last year over opposition to a local Sudanese resettlement program.
In a second report, headlined "Race looms ahead of Australian elections", Reuters quoted political analysts saying Mr Andrews' decision "pointed to a return of race politics" as championed by Ms Hanson a decade ago.
AFP quoted refugee advocates as saying that the Government's move bordered on racism.
Claims that the Government was electioneering also led a report in London's Daily Telegraph. Reuters referred to past comments by Mr Howard, in which he had called for a reduction in Asian immigration. In August 1988, as the then opposition leader, Mr Howard said of Asian immigration: "If it is in the eyes of some in the community too great, it would be in our immediate-term interests and supportive of social cohesion if it were slowed down a little so that the capacity of the community to absorb were greater." He later denied his comments were "wrong, racist of anything".
Last week Mr Andrews made similar points in defending the decision on African refugees.
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