'White Australia' town split by race row

Click to follow

Children's laughter and the babble of waterfalls are the only sounds that pierce the silence as you stroll through the Chinese Gardens, a tranquil oasis just outside Young, a dusty town in a remote part of New South Wales.

Children's laughter and the babble of waterfalls are the only sounds that pierce the silence as you stroll through the Chinese Gardens, a tranquil oasis just outside Young, a dusty town in a remote part of New South Wales.

The gardens were built to purge the town of a shameful episode in the nation's past, when locals rioted and expelled Chinese goldminers in an act that inspired the racist White Australia policy. Now the past has returned to haunt Young, where a group of Afghan refugees are the target of a hate campaign to hound them out.

The irony is that, until recently, Young was held up as a beacon of racial harmony in a country convulsed by the asylum-seeker debate. The 90 Afghans had found work at the abattoir and – according to heartwarming stories in the local media – were welcomed with open arms by townsfolk, who lobbied the government to give them permanent visas.

But not everybody, it transpires, was happy about their presence. Last week, thousands of leaflets appeared in letterboxes and on car windscreens, calling for the young men to be driven out of town and warning of an imminent epidemic of "rape-gangs, shootings of police officers, drugs, muggings, house-breakings and murder".

The leaflets were attributed to Australia First, a far-right group based in Sydney, but were written by someone with local knowledge. John Walker, the mayor of Young Shire Council, described them last week as "lacking in truth or facts ... the work of bigoted racists". Mr Walker believes they reflect the views of a tiny minority of locals, although he acknowledges that dozens of people have recorded hostile comments in a register opened to gauge community feeling at the council's offices.

Apart from a sprinkling of Lebanese migrants and a few descendants of Chinese miners forced off the goldfields in the 1860s, Young's 8,000-strong population is resolutely white.

The latest arrivals, all members of Afghanistan's Hazara ethnic minority, were recruited by the abattoir, Burrangong Meat Processing, after it had failed to fill the jobs locally. The men, who were living in detention centres, were given temporary visas after being assessed as genuine refugees. They began coming to Young a year ago, and were well established by the time that anti-refugee hysteria overcame Middle Australia following the stand-off over the Tampa, the Norwegian freighter that tried to deposit a boatload of Afghans on Australian shores.

Assad Mehri, 22, emerged smiling from the abattoir, a sprawling modern complex on the outskirts of Young, when his shift ended at 3pm. "There were a few problems when we first arrived," he said. "Some people called us names. Some people liked us, some didn't. Some young men threw paint on one of our old cars."

Mr Mehri, who travelled to Australia from Indonesia on a rickety fishing boat, is surprised by the latest wave of hostility. "We've done nothing wrong, we haven't upset anyone, we've never been in trouble," he said. "We work hard and live very quiet lives."

The leaflets contain the standard racist drivel, but the contact number at the bottom belongs to a notorious figure in Australia's far right. Jim Saleam was jailed for four years in 1991 for organising a shotgun attack on the home of the Sydney representative of the African National Congress. Yesterday he predicted dire law-and-order problems in Young because "foreign youths are deculturated in a multicultural society".

On the sunburnt streets of Young, which is the cherry-producing capital of Australia, many people are reluctant to discuss the Afghans. "We don't care either way," said one lunchtime drinker in the Great Eastern Hotel.

Scratch the surface, though, and hardened views appear. Gay Maxwell, a long-term resident, said: "The media reports that we all welcomed them, but we've never had the chance to put the other side of the story. Only a handful of people want them here. They entered this country illegally, and no amount of whitewash or hogwash is going to alter that fact. We can't just open our borders and let anyone in."

Mrs Maxwell has drawn up a petition calling for the Afghans to leave Young. It has more than 100 signatures, most of them accumulated, she claims, "by just slipping down to the shops one day".

The abattoir has offered to sponsor the Afghans as permanent settlers in Australia. In his office there, Tony Hewson, a senior manager, said: "They are some of the gentlest, kindest, most easygoing people you've ever met, and valued members of the workforce." Mr Walker agreed. "They have blended in nicely and the community has embraced them," he said. "They are teaching them English and organising barbecues for them."

The Chinese Gardens, on the banks of a dam that supplied water to the goldfields, were conceived in 1997 as a reaction to the rise of Pauline Hanson, leader of the extremist One Nation party.

City officials hope to establish an adjoining Australian garden, with a bridge linking the two. They also plan to build a memorial to the end of the White Australia policy, which enshrined anti-immigrant laws adopted after the expulsion of Chinese miners from Young and was abandoned only in the 1970s.

One local artist has proposed a black monolith lying just under water, to suggest that though racism has "drowned", it is not far away. In the present circumstances, the idea seems painfully appropriate.