Reimagining Australia’s migration system
Migrants have always been a key part of Australia’s economy.
From the Scottish and German shepherds brought out to tend the Merino flocks and the international brigade of prospectors who worked the golddiggings in the 1800s - to the post war Europeans who kept our factories running, migrants have been critical to Australia’s success as a nation since European settlement.
The conjunction or the end of COVID, the war in Ukraine and a new government in Canberra gives us a chance to reimagine our migration programs, which have, in recent years, become less than fit for purpose.
And indeed, that’s the remit of a new government review of our migration system.
At AMES Australia, we have been supporting migrants and refugees settle in Australia for more than 70 years and over this time we have developed some insights into what a successful migration system looks like.
We need a migration system that builds social cohesion and multiculturalism.
The Scanlon Foundation’s latest report identified that social cohesion in Australia increased during the pandemic but is now declining. This decline may indicate a return to a pre-COVID normal. But levels of national pride, sense of belonging and social justice are now lower than before the pandemic.
There are, however, also positive outcomes reported, such as the proportion of people who agree that ‘accepting immigrants from many different countries makes Australia stronger’ has increased from 63 per cent to 78 per cent since 2018.
And support for the idea that migrants are good for our economy has also increased from 74 per cent to 87 per cent.
This high and growing support for multiculturalism in Australia is a sound platform for a future migration system and can be the driver for strengthening opportunities to build social cohesion by creating a sense of belonging and trust.
Successful integration and increased social cohesion do not solely rely on government policies and programs; but a migration system that prioritises positive dialogue around migration and its social, economic and cultural contribution and facilitates environments where opportunities for connections and friendship can flourish can contribute to a socially cohesive Australia.
We need a migration system that supports all migrants. Currently, migrants who arrive on non-humanitarian visas – for example skilled, temporary labour and family visa holders - have access to limited support to navigate Australian systems, understand their rights, and be sufficiently informed when entering employment. Without this knowledge workplace exploitation can result while also creating barriers to settling.
There is evidence that migrant worker exploitation is entrenched in numerous industries across Australia. The vast majority of unlawful employer conduct goes undetected because migrant workers will not report it for fear of losing their visa or jeopardising a future visa.
A national migration strategy needs to embrace all migrants, and services calibrated for their needs, from welcome to successful settlement.
There is currently limited capacity for coordination and harmonisation between settlement services, English learning, employment, and health services, due to different contract funding models, compliance measures and key performance indicator reporting requirements.
We believe specialist settlement services should be designed to support migrants and facilitate connection to mainstream services, not duplicate them.
We need a migration system that is transparent and provides pathways to permanent residency.
Australia’s migration system is overly complex. The varying and changing visa conditions, costs and unclear pathways to permanency do not serve migrants, employers, regions, or communities well.
This complexity hinders attracting and retaining talent. In an increasingly competitive global marketplace, it is important to ensure Australia remains a destination of choice.
A clear pathway to permanency will contribute to Australia’s attractiveness as a destination for migrants with critical skills who are willing to fill an immediate gap in the labour market, alongside continuing to offer safe haven to those in need of refuge. Pathways to permanency will not only be a benefit to the individual but will provide a benefit to Australia’s economic position and social fabric.
We need a migration system that focuses on rural and regional communities and prepares them to support migrants and refugees settle in their communities.
In recent years, Australian migration policies have targeted rural and regional locations as primary and secondary settlement sites, partly as a means to address population decline and labour shortages.
While there are many documented benefits of regional re-settlement, primary settlement has not proven to be as successful.
There is evidence that the things that enable successful settlement and retention of migrants in regional and rural areas include: family connections, job opportunities, adequate housing and service provision - including health care, places of worship and access to familiar goods.
A generally welcoming community is also vital as is leadership driven by local and state governments.
Other key elements are collaboration including between representatives of the migrating and host communities and service providers, and the sharing good practice models between regional areas.
Regional settlement is key to regional development to realise long-term sustainable outcomes for regions and their communities. Realising these outcomes can change the narrative to promote the positive social and economic benefits migration can have in revitalising rural and regional communities.
Finally, we need a migration system that recognises and respects the vulnerabilities of various migrant cohorts.
We need changes to the system and their implications to be communicated clearly. We need streamlined visa processing times and adequate resourcing of the visa process.
These measures will shift the mindset from ‘barrier’ to ‘opportunity’ for prospective new migrants while also allowing Australia to reap the benefits of the contributions they make.
And they will help us reimagine and create a cohesive and diverse society where everyone can participate fully in the economic, social and cultural life of the nation.
On a personal note…
The past year has again been a challenging one for all of us at AMES Australia.
Last year, in September, we saw thousands of refugees from Afghanistan arrived in Australia over a very short time after the fall of Kabul – and after we had seen almost no refugees arrive over the previous two years because of closed borders.
Then in February this year we saw more people arriving fleeing the war in Ukraine.
It is an understatement to say that I am extremely proud of the way AMES’ dedicated staff, volunteers and partners rose to these challenges.
We were able to leverage our relationships with corporate and community partners, volunteers and stakeholders to be to supply the Afghan and Ukrainian refugees with the material and intangible requirements to support them through a confronting and difficult period.
I am deeply grateful for the hard work and professionalism all of our staff members and volunteers have displayed through these challenging recent times.
As we look ahead to another exciting and challenging year in 2023, I would like to take this opportunity to wish all AMES Australia staff members and volunteers, as well as their families, a safe and very happy holiday season.
Cath Scarth, AMES Australia CEO
20 December, 2022