Australia’s Border Force could do with some lessons in cultural sensitivity


By Grant Hall. Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

I have fond memories of the customs arrival procedures of some years ago at the Darwin airport in my home country of Australia. A friendly customs official wearing an Akubra hat and looking more like Crocodile Dundee than a law enforcement officer greeted new arrivals and returnees with an ear-to-ear smile and a warm “g’day, welcome to Australia” or “welcome home”.

Last March, however, I arrived in Adelaide on an Air Malaysia flight from Singapore and while undergoing the lengthy customs clearance procedures, I witnessed the abhorrent welcome that staff of Australia’s Border Force dishes out to new arrivals to Australia these days.

In Adelaide I saw staff yelling at new arrivals to get into one of a complex array of queues and demonstrate zero patience with people who couldn’t speak English. I didn’t see any evidence of foreign language abilities within the staff on duty which would’ve allowed them to speak to new arrivals in their own languages. It appears that customs staff have become less polite since getting their new uniforms and guns (in some cases).

To be fair to the staff, who were obviously under-resourced and working under highly stressful conditions, much of the yelling and voice raising was not necessarily with any ill-intent, and often it was done with an attempted friendliness. However, in many cultures having a voice raised in your direction is an affront, and I witnessed many new arrivals in obvious discomfort at the yelling, when words spoken at a reduced volume would have sufficed. Also, staff members engaged in a whole lot of finger pointing to guide arrivals to the right queue – but finger pointing in many cultures is considered very rude. There are ways that the staff could effectively and appropriately gesture without using finger pointing.

In my next blog post I will write about the Stephen Fry video that welcomes passengers descending into Heathrow Airport; no such thing was evident on this flight, merely instructions that you are likely to be breaking the law if you bring in certain materials from overseas.

Some halfwit might say “why should Australians adjust their ways to meet the needs of foreigners?” Well, if you took an economic viewpoint alone, whether tourists, foreign business visitors or migrants, each arrival is bringing much needed money into the Australian economy and will report back to their friends at home their experiences of Australia. Even a halfwit could reason that a good first impression will aid increases in visitor numbers and bad impressions will contribute to declining arrival numbers, reducing the money flow into the Australian economy.

The non-economic argument for extending a warm and culturally acceptable welcome to new arrivals is that it’s simply good manners and the right thing to do.

Walking down a lonely street after a few beers, wearing an “I love Holland” t-shirt, carrying a camera and reading a map, I surprisingly found myself a mugging victim in Amsterdam, and because of this and despite return visits I’ve never quite felt the love for the city that many others have. The first time I touched down in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a scammy taxi-driver relieved me of way too much cash leaving me a negative feeling about the country that took some time to subside.

First impressions are vitally important. It wouldn’t take much for Australia to give new arrivals a great first impression of Australia and here’s a handful of suggestions:

  • Provide cultural sensitivity training to front line staff and if this is already occurring, find a better training provider!
  • In addition to the current videos being played on airlines and in waiting areas (that tend to indicate that Australians think that all arrivals are smugglers intend on destroying our farming and natural environments) include some ‘welcome to Australia’ type of videos
  • Provide uniforms to Border Force staff that humanise them and allow them to feel more human themselves
  • Improve the foreign language capabilities of staff, either by training, or by hiring more people with foreign language abilities, or by implementing work schedules that take into account the need to have people with certain language abilities to be rostered on at certain times
  • Improve the non-verbal capabilities of staff. A great deal can be effectively and appropriately communicated by body language or by having printed materials in languages other than English
  • Get rid of this stupid “Border Force” name which is a destructive remnant of Australia’s Idiot Child, Tony Abbott (also known as the Former Prime Minister of Australia)

I once visited an Asian supermarket in Australia where I took a box of strong Vietnamese coffee and another box full of Chinese herbal sleep remedy pills to the counter. The shopkeeper looked at me like I was an idiot and said “why’d you come here?”. That’s a bit how I feel about Australia’s foreign relations; the economic and social benefits that we bring with one hand we take away with the other. We spend millions of dollars each year on cultural diplomacy activities all around the world but then offer extend no cultural diplomacy to new arrivals, who provide a money-for-jam opportunity to garner some much needed soft power for Australia. Cultural diplomacy begins at home yeah?

Unfortunately, it’s not just at the customs queue that the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection does Australia a great disservice by hampering economic growth and diminishing the nation’s international reputation abroad. Their poorly considered and delivered student visa policies and processes deny Australia millions (billions?) worth of income from foreign students each year and the Department’s horrendous treatment and demonisation of people legally seeking asylum in Australia also greatly reduces our international standing as a decent bunch of people. They have some good programs of course, such as the Adult Migrant English Program, but even this is administered atrociously. I’ve had a bit to do with the Department over the years, and I will go into further details about these concerns in later posts.

Anyone who is aware of the benefits that cultural competency brings to individuals and workplaces, and who has ever watched any of the myriad of TV programs that show the day-to-day dramas of airports and customs halls, will know that Australian airports and immigration staff are not alone in their inadequacies to deal in culturally appropriate ways with a diverse range of customers. Airports, airlines and immigration departments that have superior cultural competency capacities will both reduce costs through greater efficiencies and, through providing increased comfort for customers, increase the willingness of customers to pay.  Reduced costs and increased willingness to pay is the definition of competitive advantage, and all organisations can benefit from delivering culturally appropriate services.

If you want to develop the cultural competency of your workforce please contact me, or if you want to stay up-to-date with my upcoming training sessions sign up here to League Cultural Diplomacy’s E-news.

photo credit: 柵欄與落日 via photopin (license)

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