Declining populations is a problem facing rural and remote Australian communities. While capital cities and regional centres are experiencing unprecedented population growth problems of a different kind plague the bush.
This was the case for one small town in Tenterfield Shire, northern New South Wales. Nestled against the Queensland border the town of Mingoola, population 150, has relied on backpackers to provide the seasonal workforce required to keep the farming community afloat, and they have proved to be a less than reliable commodity.
The final straw came when several years ago it was announced that if there were no new enrolments, the local primary school would have to close.
The solution appeared in the form of a refugee family with eight children who found their first resettlement in a large coastal city was not their idea of arriving in ‘the lucky country’. Coming from a remote agricultural community in Rwanda they longed for a garden and to connect with the land.
And so the match was made. Since the first family move to Mingoola two others have been resettled in the area. The population has swelled by 29.
The tiny town is already at saturation point, with no more housing available. The school will remain open, local farms have a supply of seasonal workers on hand, and the new Mingoolans have a chance at the new life they dreamed of when they left Africa.
Meanwhile the waiting list for refugee families asking for rural resettlement has quickly grown into the hundreds.
Skilled labour shortage
Further south the town of Walla Walla has a vibrant but static population of 900. This close knit community shares a proud heritage dating back to their ancestors own migration story. One hundred and fifty years ago six families of German Lutherans set out from the Barossa Valley and travelled overland by wagon in search of farmland. These bold pioneers found Walla Walla where their descendants remain to this day.
Now boasting industrial and agricultural enterprises the envy of much larger towns, Walla Walla has thrived.
Their problem is attracting skilled labour to the tiny town just 39 km north of Albury-Wodonga.
In true pioneering spirit, the people of Walla Walla have put forward a proposal to the Council of Greater Hume for in principle support for a refugee resettlement program inviting appropriately skilled migrants, mostly in the field of engineering, with a desire for a rural lifestyle, to resettle in the town.
Mayor of Greater Hume, Heather Wilton, said of the community driven project, “The people of Walla Walla are very compassionate people, towards refugees in particular. They have some idea of how they can offer assistance.
“This is a rural area with several substantial businesses in it, not far out of Albury but having difficulty attracting skilled workers. They need a high level of skills so they thought ‘this is an opportunity staring us in the face, why don’t we have a look at it?’”
The people driving the idea are business people but they are compassionate people the Mayor emphasised.
“They want to expose their children to other cultures and ethnicities to broaden their aspect of life and what goes on in life. They are looking to attract cultural diversity, they think that has a lot of merit,” Mayor Wilton said.
A richer social fabric
Northward, 130km up the Olympic Highway lies the City of Wagga Wagga, population 63,000 which, according to Deputy Mayor Dallas Tout is growing at a faster rate than Sydney.
The People of Wagga Wagga have been welcoming refugees since the 1970s, Cr Tout said, so in 2016, when Australia agreed to resettle an extra 12,000 asylum seekers from Syria and Iraq on top of the annual quota under the Humanitarian Program of 13,750 places the City put its hand up for a share.
The largest ethnic group resettled in 2016-2017 was 267 individuals from 45 Yazidi families from Iraq. Another 14 families came from Burma, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Rwanda. Three or four years ago between three and four hundred Burmese refugees arrived in Wagga Wagga.
Cr Tout brushed off the size of the City’s contribution saying, “We’re doing something that’s really good for the country, for the city, and for these people who really need assisting.
“It’s the unseen things that we get, not the economic benefits – that’s not the reason to do this. We’ve been a Refugee Welcome Zone since 2012, we were doing it for decades before that. We have the facilities and the people who care enough to want to be involved in it and the City supports them.
“The one big benefit is it broadens the tapestry or the fabric of the community by giving us a broader range of people with [different] cultural backgrounds.”
Cr Tout said that the Fusion Festival is one of the most amazing benefits to come from welcoming refugees. It is the City’s celebration of it own multiculturalism, and it is growing every year with 12,000 people attending this year’s event and attracting national and international artists.
Food handling skills along with English lessons are among the most important skillsets taught in the first year of resettlement. The festival provides a vehicle for practising both and some participants have gone on to start up catering businesses as a result.
Employment is a complex topic, as overseas qualifications are not always recognised.
The City is holding a Mayoral breakfast this month, bringing stakeholders together for discussions on developing employment opportunities, recognition of qualifications and training.
When asked if Wagga Wagga’s capacity to accommodate refugee migrants was endless Cr Tout said that capping numbers was not a consideration.
“If our refugee intake progresses at the same rate we can more than manage to accommodate them. The idea makes me cranky,” he said.
“I’m proud and I think all Wagga people are proud to be part of a community that’s so accepting of refugees and we’re a better community for it.
“I’d encourage all communities to have a look at it, investigate it, because there really is no downside. It’s an amazing thing to be involved in and everyone should investigate it.”