Posted on February 11, 2008

Voluntary Work Foreign to Migrants

Stephen Lunn, The Australian (Sydney), February 11, 208

MIGRANTS from non-English-speaking countries are far less likely to do volunteer work than people born in Australia.

And Australian-born residents of multicultural suburbs are less likely to be volunteers than those living in less ethnically diverse regions.

Sociologist Ernest Healy has crunched 2006 census data on volunteering, a well-recognised marker of social cohesion, and fears his findings reveal those living in multicultural areas, whether born overseas or not, may be quietly withdrawing from their communities.

His study, to be published in Monash University’s Centre for Population and Urban Research’s journal People and Place this week, finds 18.8 per cent of those adults born in Australia engaged in volunteer work within the past 12 months compared with 10.4 per cent for migrants from non-English speaking countries.

However, migrants from Britain, the US, South Africa and New Zealand recorded similar results to those born in Australia.

“The research shows increased ethnic diversity is likely to be related to social withdrawal, with those living in highly diverse ethnic settings tending to be less engaged in the types of community involvement mediated through organisations and social groups,” Dr Healy told The Australian.

He said that at a time when there was a push for greater numbers of immigrants to help redress the skills shortage, state and federal governments tended to the simplistic view that social cohesion in a more multicultural society would “look after itself”. “The idealistic notion that multiculturalism is a source of cultural enrichment for Australian society really needs to be moderated a little and have a greater element of realism.

“This naive view of multiculturalism among some policy-makers has led us to believe that immigration programs creating diverse communities will allow a kind of social tolerance to emerge spontaneously. Rather, we have to start being proactive to facilitate a sense of community.”

Using suburban Melbourne as a template, Dr Healy found the length of time a migrant of non-English-speaking background had lived in Australia made little difference to the low levels of volunteering, meaning cultural factors in their country of origin might be at play.

His paper Ethnic Diversity and Social Cohesion in Melbourne found while there was a correlation between higher incomes and greater levels of volunteering for all people living in Australia, the significant gap between richer Australian-born and richer migrants from non-English-speaking countries remained.

Of those who earned $2000 a week or more, 27.5 per cent of those born in Australia had done volunteer work in the past year, compared with 19.1 per cent of migrants from non-English-speaking countries.

Dr Healy said a key finding was that Australian-born people were less likely to volunteer if they were living in areas of high ethnic diversity. He said a lack of proficiency in English might play some role in the findings, but it failed to account for why migrants from non-English-speaking countries were not volunteering even within their own ethnic groupings.

Federation of Ethnic Community Councils of Australia chair Vula Messimeri disputed that migrants were disengaged from their own communities.

“A lot of the voluntary work they do is to set up support networks in their own . . . communities,” she said. If you’re coming to Australia as a refugee or a migrant with little money, your first endeavours will be trying to get employment, a roof over your head and education for your children. After that they slowly start building connections into their community.”