Mohammad Al-Khafaji came to Australia as a refugee when he was 13 after his family fled Iraq seeking political asylum.
He has spent the majority of his life in this country, so was left frustrated and outraged when a complete stranger followed him out of the terminal at Adelaide airport recently, and yelled: “Go back to where you came from.”
“For someone to tell me to go back to where I come from, it’s very insulting but it also puts into question my existence in Australia — it might seem something very basic but it hits hard, it hits to you core.”
The Australia Talks National Survey 2021 found around three in four Australians with non-European ancestry say they have been discriminated against because of their ethnicity.
It has also revealed the majority of us — across all demographics and political persuasions — believe there is a lot of racism these days, with the only exception being One Nation voters.
For Mr Al-Khafaji, who is also the chief executive of the nation’s peak multicultural body, the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, the statistics are consistent with his experience.
“It doesn’t surprise me, it’s really important for us to talk about these issues and talk about what racism looks like, it doesn’t have to be physical violence on the streets, it can be a throwaway comment,” he said.
Racism has also affected Sydney bakery owner Mohammad Makki.
When civil war erupted in Lebanon in the 1970s, his parents escaped to Sydney for a better life.
But being born in Australia has not been enough to shield him from the vilification that comes with being a Muslim man of Middle Eastern descent.
“We grew up in the St George area — if you spend a day in the Shire, people look at you a little different,” he said.
Mr Makki said that experience got worse after September 11.
“It’s nearly 20 years ago, September 11 — Muslims all around the world got persecuted and picked on,” he said.
“Any box of fruit can have one bad apple, doesn’t mean the whole box is bad. “
The Australia Talks survey also found 64 per cent of us believe most Australians are prejudiced against Indigenous peoples, whether or not they realise it.
Munanjahli woman and University of Queensland academic Chelsea Watego said she was surprised to see recognition of racism is prevalent.
But she said recognising racism was only the first move in the journey to equality.
“The next step is to work out what are we going to do about it, and unfortunately there’s a resistance to tending to racism explicitly in this country still.”
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated an already serious racism problem in Australia, according to former race discrimination commissioner and academic Tim Soutphommasane.
He said while members of Australia’s Asian community bore the brunt of the vilification, other groups have also been targeted.
“We know there can be spill-over effects whenever racial hostility is directed at one particular group,” he said.
“When racism and xenophobia are unleashed they can be directed from one group to another very quickly and very easily, because once it’s out there people feel they have the licence and permission to vent hostility and intolerance towards others.”
Professor Soutphommasane wants the federal government to do more to combat racism.
There has not been a national anti-racism strategy since 2015, and he said Australia was lagging behind other countries in adopting one.
The Human Rights Commission put forward a proposal for a new national anti-racism framework in March, which includes improving data collection on racism, and reviewing the country’s laws to ensure they are properly protecting people.
In a statement, the Attorney-General’s department said the government welcomed the proposal and was working closely with the race discrimination commissioner on developing a strategy.
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