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The moral conundrum of temporary migration

24 August 20160 comments

The character and disposition of Australia’s migration program has been transformed in recent years with almost two million temporary migrants now living in Australia.

These include international students, skilled migrants on 457 visas, working holidaymakers, New Zealanders and refugees on temporary protection visas.

If you exclude New Zealanders on special category 44 visas, there are now 1.35 million temporary migrants.

This is a world away from the permanent settler model that has been at the heart of Australia’s migration policies for much of the last century and – according to some observers – it raises questions about Australia’s claim to be a democracy committed to a system of citizenship-based multiculturalism.

A paper by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection titled Temporary Entrants and New Zealand Citizens in Australia shows the numbers of temporary visa holders rose 13.5 per cent year on year in 2015.

There were 159,000 temporary skilled visa holders and 56,000 other temporary visa holders, an increase of 9.3 per cent on the previous year.

Swinburne University of Technology researcher Peter Mares says the thrust of contemporary migration policy – not just in Australia, but globally – is not towards settlement but toward temporariness.

Peter Mares

Peter Mares

“If government treats migration as a purely contractual arrangement, then we will encourage migrants to treat their relationship to Australia in exactly the same way: to ask ‘what is in it for me, what can I get out of this country’ rather than ‘what is my connection to this country and what are my obligations?’,” Mr Mares said.

In a recent article, Mr Mares pointed to Malcolm Fraser’s landmark speech on multiculturalism in 1981.

Mr Fraser said: “Australian multiculturalism is a unique achievement. Australia may have stumbled into the multicultural epoch. We were a nation comparatively small in size and insular in outlook. But within a period of time that is short in historical perspective, Australia has been enlarged in capacities, talents and outlook by millions of men and women from every corner of the globe.

“Today, while other societies still perceive ethnic cultural diversity as a problem to be contended with, Australia, without pain, without conflict, has broken through and this breakthrough is a significant achievement indeed, especially for our children.

“Let us take strength and confidence from this knowledge and work together to bring the promise of multiculturalism to fruition, that promise of a cohesive nation that draws strength and unique character from its diversity. That is my faith and my commitment,” Mr Fraser said.

Mr Mares argues the national building agenda and ethos behind migration policy has been replaced by an ethically compromised system of rating migrants’ skills or what they may bring to Australia in a commercial sense.

“To focus on borders rather than belonging is to stab at the heart of the idea of the nation as an inclusive political community,” he said.

“We must ask at this point whether temporary migration can ever be reconciled with liberal democracy. Is there a way of organising temporary migration that is compatible with the idea of an inclusive, pluralist society that upholds basic rights and fosters engagement and commitment?” Mr Mares said.

“Consequently, the starting point for a consistent liberal response to temporary migration must be a pathway to permanent residence that is, after a certain period of time, unconditional – not one that depends on an employer’s endorsement, or a particular qualification, or the ability to achieve a certain score on an English-language test, or a person’s health status, or whether they arrived by plane with a visa rather than by boat and without one.

“So, we must set a threshold after which migrants are offered membership. What should this time limit on temporariness be? There is no mathematical formula to help us out here,” Mr Mares said.

“Some threshold must be established beyond which the right to stay is indefeasible.

“Migrants who live in Australia for a significant time, who contribute to the economic life of the nation through their labour and their taxes, who possibly pay fees to study, are people who, for all intents and purposes, make Australia their home,” he said.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist