Australia's most-famous musical town, Tamworth, is beset by a dispute over the city council's decision to reject refugees from Sudan. City councilors have voted down a request by the Department of Immigration to resettle five Sudanese families as part of a pilot program, for fear it could lead to racial unrest. The city is already divided over the presence of about 25 Sudanese men resettled there under a separate program. From Tamworth in northern New South Wales, Phil Mercer reports.
Tamworth, 595 kilometers north of Sydney, is the heart and soul of Australian country music. This dispute over refugees from Sudan threatens to overshadow the annual festival that starts here later this week.
The city council insists that it can not cope with any more Sudanese migrants. Refugees already here, like 23-year-old Henry Tombek, say they have suffered racial abuse in Tamworth.
Tombek says he rarely ventures into the city center, after he was assaulted in what he says was an unprovoked racist attack.
"Like last time I went to the club - that was the pub in the town - I was just walking, and then he just came and punched me in the face, and then I thought 'Man, you're drunk. Just go.' Then he came again," said Tombek. "From that day I didn't even go to the town, even just go do shopping."
The council's decision to reject more Sudanese is supported by many of Tamworth's residents. A recent survey has suggested that three out of four of the city's 45,000 citizens agree that the refugee resettlement program should be blocked.
There are strongly held views among some of those living on the same street as Henry Tombek and his Sudanese compatriots.
"I just don't like them mate, that's all I'm going to say," said one male resident. "I don't like the noise for a start. The way they're going every night. They go 'til five, three and four o'clock in the bloody morning. We've been here for bloody many years, mate. We don't want them things here."
"If they don't know what our laws and what our culture is like and they are just plonked here, they are going to react as they would in their own country, which is totally different to the Australian way of life," said another male resident.
Tamworth's mayor said recently that the Sudanese were responsible for a mini-crime wave, even though the police have disputed that claim.
The refugees also deny allegations that they are troublemakers.
"Some people say like here in Tamworth we causing trouble. How? How are we going to do that? From work to home, home to work. How are we going to cause trouble to people?" he asked. "Some people look at us because we are black they know - the main reason because we are black. You know, we got many people from different backgrounds, you know. We got Muslim people, we got Lebanese, Iraqi. Why they pick on us? Why?"
Not everyone in Tamworth objects to the refugees, and the issue has become extremely contentious here. After much negative publicity, the city council is now in damage-control mode.
Officials are saying it is not a question of criminality or race, but simply one of resources.
They argue that new migrants would need expert trauma counseling, legal assistance and translators - services that Tamworth either does not have or can not afford.
The city's deputy mayor is Phil Betts, who says criticism of the council is not justified.
"A lot of it has been ill-founded. It really has," said Betts. "It's about looking after community at large, not just [the] Tamworth community, to make sure that these programs are identified as being workable and sustainable."
Betts continute that Tamworth is "not a racist town at all. It's a multicultural town."
Tamworth is gearing up for the carnival that has made it Australia's most famous musical city.
One of the festival's founding fathers is Max Ellis, who believes the refugee debate is damaging the city's reputation.
"We're very much about Australian country music, and Australian country music has always been about mateships and helping other people," he said. "For one group to be singled out - I think most Tamworth people are really offended by what's happened, and don't believe that it's indicative of what we're like as a community."
And there are those like Anglican minister Ken Fenton, who believes this part of the Australian outback will be enriched if more refugees are encouraged to come.
"We don't know how incredibly immersed in things we are - in material things. We're absolutely swamped by it. You get someone from another culture where they don't have anything and that can really change your perspective," he said. "And I don't know what Sudanese food is like. I don't know whether we're going to have great cafes, you know. "Eat here at the Sudanese cafeteria!' But there's no question that interaction between across different value systems can be very productive."
Australia is resettling more refugees from Sudan under official humanitarian programs than from any other country, including Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 3,700 Sudanese arrived last year out of a total refugee intake of 14,000.
Allowing them to make new lives in Australia is one thing. Encouraging a conservative and sometimes hostile population to accept them is apparently something far more challenging.