Asian migration will help build Australia’s future

01 May 2013

By tapping into Asia’s people power and building co-operative structures to manage migration, Australia stands to gain a lot, writes migration expert PETER HUGHES. The Australian government’s white paper on the Asian century provides the best opportunity to make sure we get future migration policy right.

Australia’s migration relationship with Asia represents one of the most dramatic changes in Australia’s interaction with the region over the last 40 years. It has produced equally dramatic and enduring changes in Australian society.

In that period, Australia has moved from a situation of having almost no Asian-origin permanent or temporary migration to a modern reality where Asian countries figure very prominently in the top 10 source countries of permanent migration and in the top 10 source countries of most forms of temporary migration.

The effect of 40 years of opening up to all forms of Asian migration has been overwhelmingly positive in terms of Australia’s economic and social development.  It has changed the face of our society and the image that we portray in the region.

And now, the development path which Asian countries are speeding along provides Australia with incredible opportunities to bolster its nation-building activities and enrich the nation through migration.

The growing pools of highly skilled, English-speaking people in Asia who are also mobile will match Australia's needs for permanent and temporary skilled migrants to service our own economic requirements and to deal with labour market gaps created by an ageing workforce and population. Equally, the growing pools of people in Asia with high disposable incomes and an interest in travel and study abroad create continuing opportunities for well-targeted tourism and international education policies.

The white paper on the Asian century, commissioned by the Australian government and led by former Treasury Secretary Dr Ken Henry, presents the perfect opportunity to make sure Australian migration policies make the most of the opportunities that migration presents. So important is Australia’s migration relationship with Asia, it merits specific coverage in the white paper. This will ensure the nation charts a well thought out strategic approach to migration which is fully integrated with other policy directions.

So how can we strike the right balance? It is important that policy and practices are carefully risk-managed to ensure that Australia does not attract forms of migration that are not beneficial to its interests or unrealistically raise expectations of permanent migration opportunities.  The latter will result in more restrictive policy reactions when outcomes and trends prove unacceptable (such as policy changes in recent years flowing from an unwisely generous linkage between some forms of international study and permanent migration opportunities).

Australia also needs to continue to review and adjust its scrutiny levels and migration controls to reflect changing risk profiles from Asian countries, particularly as those risk levels reduce over time with growing affluence. Australia already applies its lowest risk levels to a number of Asian countries, reflecting that trend.
The effect of migration policy change over the last 40 years has been the development of a very significant population of Australians of Asian origin. With the support of world leading migrant settlement and multicultural policies, this change has been extremely well-managed and occurred without significant problems. The continuance of effective national multicultural and diversity policies in order to maintain a harmonious and cohesive society is in Australia's interests and will reflect positively on Australia's image in Asia.

Australia’s migration relationship with Asia is not just an issue that plays out on our nation’s shores. Beyond migration issues involving the movement of people to Australia, Australia has a broader interest in regional cooperation on migration.
Most of the world's population lives in Asia and there will continue to be growth in mobility in that population. With that growth, there is potential for an increase in irregular migration, including people smuggling and trafficking. Forced migration and internal displacement for humanitarian reasons already impacts on millions of people in Asia.  Effective management of refugee protection in the region is hampered by the fact that few countries are signatories to the 1951 Refugees Convention. Those that are signatories lack the capacity and systems to give effect to their obligations. This opens up gaps which are filled by people smuggling and exploitation. There is also growing concern about the possibility of further massive displacement in Asia as a result of climate change, but with great uncertainties about its timing and scale.
Australia has played an important role in the resolution of refugee situations in Asia through political action, financial assistance and resettlement of refugees in Australia. It will continue to have an important role in this area.
Australia also has a continuing strong interest in making a long-term investment in multilateral and bilateral forums aimed at cooperative management of migration, including humanitarian migration, in the region. This investment will yield its best results if it is consistent, and persistent, in building up structures for the long-term, rather than through one-off reactions to particular crises or flows of people. The long-term goal should be to achieve a standing set of cooperative arrangements in the region as a basis for collectively and cooperatively dealing with migration opportunities and challenges. These arrangements need to be backed by capacity building, where necessary, to ensure that relevant national administrations (many of which are extremely weak in the area of migration management) are capable of both participation and effective implementation.

Peter Hughes is a Program Visitor at the School of Regulation, Justice and Diplomacy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. His involvement in the migration field involves over 30 years working in the Commonwealth Department of Immigration and Citizenship. He retired from the position of Deputy Secretary of the Policy and Program Management Group of the Department in early 2011.


Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team