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Temporary migration needs more debate, less bluster

4 April 20190 comments

Over a decade temporary migration has quietly crept up on us and is now having a profound effect on Australia’s economy and society.

But until recently, it has attracted very little attention or debate.

Now, in the lead up to a federal election in which population policy will be front and centre, a new paper from the Scanlon Institute for Applied Social Cohesion Research lays out the facts and figures around temporary entry into this country.

According to the most recent data, there are now around 840,000 international students, working holiday makers or skilled workers in Australia.

In 2006, that number was just over 300,000.

When you stack the latest temporary migrant numbers up against the nation’s permanent intake, they are not insignificant.

For the past half-decade or so, Australia has taken in about 190,000 newcomers, including about 16,000 refugees.

Although the figure fell to about 160,000 last year, per capita Australia is still one of the migrant accepting countries in the world.

According to the Scanlon Institute paper, the three largest groups of temporary migrants are made up of 150,000 or so people on temporary skilled working visas, 136,000 working holiday makers and 575,000 international students.

“Temporary migrants hail from many places. One in five skilled workers comes from India. Nearly two in five international students – more than half in NSW – come from China,” the paper says.

“Working holidaymakers, who are typically aged between 18 and 31, are most likely to come from Britain, South Korea, Taiwan and Germany.

“The impact of these groups, as workers and consumers, is profound. Important sectors of the economy – notably education, construction, tourism, aged care, horticulture and hospitality – have come to rely on them.

“Most strikingly, international students fund the country’s third biggest export industry, worth $28.6 billion a year and directly employing 130,000 people. In New South Wales, they make up about a quarter of all university students and of university revenue,” the Scanlon Institute paper says.

But temporary migrants’ massive influence in Australia’s economy is inversely related to their visibility in our politics.

Both sides of politics have cited temporary migration as a cause of congested cities and high unemployment levels in some areas.

The Scanlon Institute paper says that comments from political leaders have been unclear or misleading.

“While temporary migrants do briefly crowd the bus, they either eventually transition to permanent residence – about half of all permanent migrants were temporary migrants first – or they leave Australia. Over the long-term, the big driver of population growth remains permanent migration,” the paper says.

It asks what ethical obligations nations such as Australia have towards migrants especially when it reduces the numbers it allows to settle.

“As the number of temporary migrants in Australia grows but the number accepted for permanent residency remains capped… there are stories of migrants in limbo for 10 years, sometimes longer, uncertain whether they can stay,” the paper says.

“What impact, he asks, does a state of permanent temporariness have on the nation, and on them?” it asks.

The paper says numbers of temporary skilled migrants are falling in part because temporary migrants are finding it harder to obtain permanent residence.

“The National Farmers’ Federation, university and employer groups have all called on the government to maintain pathways to permanent migration. But the government is going the other way,” it says.

“In April last year, it announced a plan to require permanent residents to wait four years, instead of one, before becoming citizens. For temporary migrants, this could stretch the period for obtaining citizenship to seven years or more.”

The paper also points to an immigration system under strain with people often waiting for years as visa processing times blow out under the weight of numbers and the government’s desire to slow down the granting of both temporary and permanent visas and of citizenship.

“As migrants wait for a determination on a permanent or temporary visa, a record 197,000 of them have moved onto bridging visas. Another 220,000 are waiting for nine to 12 months to get a decision on their citizenship applications, compared to about 40,000 waiting an average of two months in 2015. This state of permanent temporariness, if it continues, will create a new landscape in this country,” the paper says.

The Scanlon Institute paper concludes that neither politicians nor the Australian people have any idea of the sheer variety of the kinds of temporary migrants who are present in Australia, or the scale of their numbers, or the size of the policy shift towards temporary migration that has occurred this century.

It said the experiences of temporary migrants, and attitudes toward them, varied from state to state and from city to region.

“South Australia, for example, had long been pushing the Federal Government to help it build its population through migration. Some regions were also crying out for new people, yet participants were sceptical that the Government’s plan, floated in 2018, to strongly encourage or force new migrants to live in the regions for five years would succeed or contribute to the sustainable growth and productivity of the receiving area,” the paper said.

It said migrants were vulnerable to exploitation in the workforce but that all surveys showed that both temporary migrants and their employers expressed a positive view of a migrants’ time in Australia.

Then paper also concluded that the move to increase the number of temporary migrants was a profound change that had largely occurred without any public or policy discussion.

“Exploration of the topic should be strongly encouraged and include both the advantages of temporary migration – both to the migrants and to locals – and the potential downsides, such as workforce exploitation,” it said.

“There is also the potential risk to social cohesion created by inviting large numbers of people into the country while constricting their pathways to citizenship, where citizenship had once been recognised for its power in building social cohesion and loyalty,” the paper said.


Laurie Nowell 

AMES Australia Senior Journalist