Menu Close

Report marks Australia’s shift from settler to temporary migrant nation

Australia has the second-highest number of immigrants – in relative terms – among OECD countries, according to a new report. AAP/Dan Peled

Immigration is a political hot potato. On the day the OECD published its latest annual survey of global migration, Swiss voters rejected a referendum to reduce annual migration numbers.

A few days earlier, yet another UN committee criticised Australia’s asylum seeker policies. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to reduce annual immigration from 260,000 to below 100,000 per year in response to the UK Independence Party (UKIP) securing its second parliamentary seat. And on November 20, US President Barack Obama announced his intention to permit millions of resident undocumented migrants’ access to permanent residence.

The 2014 International Migration Outlook report reveals that there are 115 million first-generation migrants in OECD countries today, accounting for 10% of the OECD population. Another 5% of people in OECD countries are second-generation migrants.

Both permanent and temporary migration numbers are down on the pre-global financial crisis record levels of 2007-08. This is in line with the trend of international migration to synchronise with the economic rhythms of globalisation.

The report revealed that highly educated immigrants accounted for 45% of the increase in the foreign-born population of OECD countries in the last decade. Political conflict also drives international mobility: the report noted that flows of migrants seeking asylum increased by 20% in 2013.

The OECD report presents data that confirms Australia’s place as one of the highest western immigration nations in per capita terms: 27.3% of all Australians today are born overseas. That is higher than countries in North America (Canada 19.8%, US 13%), Europe (UK 11.9%) or neighbour New Zealand (24.1%). Only Switzerland (27.7%) has more immigrants than Australia in relative terms among OECD countries.

There are a number of major drivers to international migration. One is economic. Globalisation has increased international labour migration as most countries seek to attract professional and highly skilled immigrants to fill labour shortages in areas such as health and informational technology, as well as other immigrants with trades in shortage in the labour market of the host country. In Australia, accountants, chefs, nurses, engineers and software developers top the skills-in-demand list for recent immigrants.

Another major driver of international migration is global inequality. As scholars such as Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz have pointed out, globalisation has not delivered on its promise to reduce global inequality. Inequality drives international mobility for those who can turns dreams into reality.

Another related driver of immigration is political. The expansion of the European Union, for example, enables people from the new member states (Romania joined in 2007 and Croatia in 2013) to move to other countries within the EU to seek employment.

At the same time, political conflict such as that seen recently in countries in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe unleashes the movement of many millions of people within and beyond national borders to seek refuge and protection. Estimates put the number of refugees at 16.7 million, asylum seekers at 1.2 million and internally displaced people at 33.3 million for a total of 51.2 million people. As The Guardian recently put it:

If displaced people had their own country it would be the 24th most populous in the world.

Countries of settler immigration – who wanted immigrants and their families and subsequent generations to stay and become part of nation building – have been the exception and not the rule. Australia, the US, Canada and New Zealand are most prominent in this regard.

However, trends in Australian immigration in the past two decades strongly suggest that Australian can no longer be regarded as a settler immigration nation. 2012-13 immigration data shows that 190,000 arrived under the permanent immigration program (or 192,599 when Trans-Tasman migrants are included).

But in the same year, 725,043 – or 766,273 including Trans-Tasman migrants – migrants arrived on temporary immigration visas. This included 258,248 on working holiday visas, 259,278 on international student visas and 126,350 on temporary work (skilled) visas.

This shift of Australia from a settler immigration nation to a temporary migrant nation has been the biggest change in nearly seven decades of post-war immigration history. Yet, remarkably, there has been virtually no debate about it other than understandable concerns about abuses of workers under the temporary 457 visa and of some working holiday makers by unscrupulous employers or agents.

The available oxygen for Australian immigration debates today has been captured almost exclusively by the “boat people” debate. However, the 15,827 humanitarian entrants to Australia in 2012-13 comprised only 8.3% of entrants under the permanent immigration program and 1.9% of the total (permanent plus temporary) program in that year.

The OECD report concluded that immigration had strong public support in Australia. It found:

… a high level of support in 2012 for all immigration categories in Australia, with the public most favourable towards skilled migrants.

Unfortunately, this flattering conclusion cannot be extended to humanitarian immigration and boat arrivals. It is an aspect of Australia’s remarkable immigration history that should bring shame to the country and its political leadership.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 183,800 academics and researchers from 4,961 institutions.

Register now