Frustrated Oz locals lash out at backpackers from the wild 'County Bondi'
Not everyone warmly welcomes the increasing number of young Irish flocking to Sydney, reports Daniel McConnell
Published 10/01/2010 | 05:00
SOUTH-EAST of Sydney city centre, the districts of Bondi and Waverley are heaving with thousands of backpackers from western Europe living the high life on their year of discovery away from home.
Seeking refuge from the recession and the lack of jobs back home, masses of backpackers -- including more than 22,000 Irish -- have been lured to the Bondi area by the promise of paradise.
But although they may be enjoying their life experiences, some of the locals are not so happy with their behaviour and concerns are growing over a native backlash against their backpacking visitors.
"They are young, they are out late, they are drinking hard, many are taking drugs, they are away from home and they are often making noise well into the night at 24-hour bars. Trouble is always going to happen," said Billy Cantwell, editor of the Sydney-based Irish Echo magazine.
"There is certainly a backlash against the backpacker, including the Irish, from locals in that area."
According to police statistics, between Bondi Junction, Bondi Beach, Bronte and nearby Coogee, 60,000 backpackers at any one time could be resident, with a sizeable proportion coming from Ireland. Such is the high number of young Irish travellers, often spotted in their GAA county jerseys, that the area has been nicknamed "County Bondi".
Latest figures show that Australia issued 2,501 residence visas to Irish people in the year to the end of June 2009, up from 1,989 in the same period the previous year -- an increase of 25 per cent.
In total, there are now more than 70,000 Irish nationals resident long term in Australia, up from 55,000 in 2006; then there are the 22,000 Irish backpackers over there for the 12 months.
Police sources in the Bondi area have said that several bars in the area are open 24 hours, and that public order incidents involving Irish backpackers are an increasing problem, with violent altercations on the rise.
"Often on a Saturday night in the nearby A&E, you could have an Irish nurse treating an Irish patient," said Mr Cantwell.
Echoing Mr Cantwell's comments, Patricia Murphy, marketing and entertainments manager at the Cock'N'Bull bar at Bondi Junction, a major haunt for Irish backpackers, said that noise and the threat of drunken violence involving backpackers is a constant problem for bars in the area. Given its location in a residential area, the Cock'N'Bull also has a special phone number which residents call when there is noise late at night.
She said: "The vast majority are well behaved, but there is always an ongoing issue with noise late at night. We have a considerable security team who are there to prevent violence but that is not always possible and at times punches are thrown. But we take the issue very seriously and we want to ensure our customers enjoy themselves."
A local police source agreed. "Most weekends there are problems with Irish or British backpackers down around here. Most of it is low- level stuff, but there's a constant disturbance to local residents, which is the source of some anger, and from time to time it does get a bit more serious," the source said.
As a result, some of Irish travellers in the area have said they have experienced a backlash from some locals.
"I've been in Australia for over six months now, and in Sydney for over two. I moved into a place close to Bondi Beach," said Mark Curtin from Dublin, who is travelling with three friends.
"I needed to get a form signed in the police station but was told by the cop that he was tired of having to deal with drunken Irish idiots, as he called them, and refused to sign the form.
"I came back later and dealt with another cop and got the form signed, but it is clear that they [the local Australians] are not so happy with the Irish," he added.
Mr Cantwell said: "I haven't heard of that problem being widespread, but in fairness to them the cops in that area probably deal with their fair share of trouble."
Given how poor things are economically in Ireland, many are now also looking to extend their stay in Australia, where the economy has been shielded from the worst of the recession, adding to the congestion in backpacker hotspots.
"There is no doubt, many have been told by their parents not to come home because there is nothing to come home to," said Mr Cantwell.
"Given that the Australian economy is now talking about booming again, many are seeking to stay on and ride it out."
Usit, which organises working holiday visas for tens of thousands of people every year, is reporting a 700 per cent rise in interest for its volunteer programmes, which enable people to volunteer for work abroad for a year or more.
"So far the level of email, phone and walk-in demand for the year ahead is pretty extraordinary. People seem determined to make the best use of time available to them," said Usit's Seona Mac Reamoinn, who expects this to continue in 2010.
Mr Cantwell said the resentment against the Irish in Sydney must be taken in the context of a wider backlash against backpackers. Despite the mounting tensions and problems with anti-social behaviour, the Irish were still welcome Down Under, he added.
"The working holiday visa is an overwhelming success story for Australia. It is a huge source of revenue for them and it is a significant addition to the economy.
"The Irish are very well regarded by employers and are well paid in comparisons to others."
The problems in Sydney are reminiscent of what happened with J-1 visa students in San Diego in 2004 and 2005, when as many as 8,000 Irish students descended on the town looking for work.
"That summer San Diego was awful, there were far too many Irish there and it was a nightmare trying to get work, trying to get a place to live and eventually getting into bars," said Matthew Magee, who was 22 when he was in San Diego.
"They saw us as too much trouble and blamed us for wrecking their town."