How New Migration Patterns Are Transforming Australia’s Multiculturalism

Australians rally as part of the #LetThemStay campaign in support of refugee families threatened with offshore detention, Melbourne, Australia, Feb. 8, 2016 (photo by flickr user Takver, CC BY-NC 2.0).
Australians rally as part of the #LetThemStay campaign in support of refugee families threatened with offshore detention, Melbourne, Australia, Feb. 8, 2016 (photo by flickr user Takver, CC BY-NC 2.0).
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In its 2017 World Report, Human Rights Watch slammed Australia’s offshore detention of asylum-seekers on Manus Island and Nauru as draconian and abusive. The report criticized not only the treatment of asylum-seekers, but also the government’s measures—overturned by the High Court in October—to gag service-providers working at offshore camps, who can face criminal charges and other penalties if they go public with information about detention conditions. The Human Rights Watch report comes on the heels of the alleged bashing of two Iranian asylum-seekers on Manus by Papua New Guinea police on New Year’s Eve, as well as the 2016 publication in the Guardian of “The Nauru Files.” The files, which were composed of leaked incident reports from guards, case workers and teachers employed at the remote island detention center, document extensive and systemic incidents of abuse, sexual and physical assault and self-harm.

Up until the recent proliferation of bad press about its policies toward asylum-seekers, Australia, an immigrant nation par excellence, had looked like a relatively secure bastion of liberal multiculturalism, particularly at a time when Western Europe and the United States are plagued by rising populism and perceived crises over social cohesion. In contrast to the harrowing tales of suffering on Nauru and Manus, “everyday multiculturalism,” referring to mundane encounters with ethnic and cultural diversity, is a daily fact of life for most Australians, particularly those living in the nation’s highly diverse metropolises. Data from the 2011 Australian census shows that almost a quarter of Australia’s population was born overseas, and a further 43 percent have at least one foreign-born parent. Eighteen percent of Australians speak a language other than English at home, with Mandarin, Italian and Arabic as the top three. While the majority of foreign-born Australians hail from the United Kingdom and New Zealand, migration from India and China has increased rapidly over the past 10 years, strengthening Australia’s links with emerging regional powers. In that time, the number of Australian residents born in China has more than doubled, while the number born in India has almost tripled.

Despite the general conviviality of everyday diversity, anti-immigrant sentiment and racism, particularly toward Muslims, have continued to haunt political discourse in the “land down under.” In 2015, the far-right grass-roots group Reclaim Australia, a loosely structured nationalist coalition, held rallies with anti-Islam and anti-immigration agendas in several cities. In 2016, infamous right-wing populist politician Pauline Hanson—who, in a 1996 speech to parliament, warned that Australia was being “swamped by Asians”—re-emerged on the political stage after losing her parliamentary seat in 1998. Upon her return to politics, Hanson, who founded the far-right One Nation party, began a campaign against halal certification of food and called for an official inquiry to determine whether Islam is a religion or an ideology, among a host of other discriminatory proposals.

“Everyday multiculturalism,” referring to mundane encounters with ethnic and cultural diversity, is a daily fact of life for most Australians.

Anti-immigration rhetoric does not, however, have a strong hold in mainstream Australian politics. The fundamental value of immigration, particularly skilled immigration, has enjoyed largely bipartisan support since the mass-migration programs that followed World War II. There are regular skirmishes over intake numbers, visa categories and migration management processes. But immigration, particularly of skilled workers and their families, is largely considered a social and economic good by both of Australia’s mainstream parties, the Labor Party and the Liberal-National Coalition of center-right parties.

This is mirrored by ongoing public support for multicultural society. A 2016 survey by the Scanlon Foundation shows that Australians largely favor both multiculturalism and immigration: Eighty-six percent of respondents agreed that “multiculturalism has been good for Australia,” and 60 percent felt that current immigrant intake levels were either “about right” or “too low.”

The reality of migration in Australia, however, in terms of government policy and migrant experience, is undergoing radical changes that are challenging the nation’s identity as a liberal, citizenship-based multicultural state. While the asylum regime is the most pressing in terms of human rights concerns, changes to the regular migration program are also significant to this challenge.

From Settlement to Uncertainty

Since the late 1990s, Australia has seen a rapid increase in temporary migration, changing the nature of immigration processes, social and political belonging, and the functions of multicultural democracy. Unlike other major migrant-receiving nations in the West, Australia never adopted guest-worker programs or planned large intakes of temporary migrants. From the nation’s founding in 1901 until the 1990s, immigration was largely seen to be a matter of nation-building—a means of growing a population of new workers and citizens who would make the nation their permanent home and become Australian.

In 1901, Australia emerged as a nation through the federation of the British colonies dispersed across the island continent. The move to federate hinged in large part on questions of immigration and population-building. One of the earliest pieces of legislation passed by the newly formed Parliament of Australia was the Immigration Restriction Act, which laid the foundation for what would become known as the White Australia Policy. Comprising a constellation of policy approaches over the first half of the 20th century, White Australia was designed to keep the fledgling nation closed to non-European migration—to remain, in the words of Prime Minister John Curtin during World War II, “an outpost of the British race.”

The White Australia Policy was abolished piece by piece over a period of about 25 years. Gough Whitlam’s Labor government put the final nail in its coffin, explicitly removing race as a factor in immigration decisions in 1973. The firmly reformist Whitlam is also credited with the introduction of multiculturalism as federal policy. In public policy terms, a “multicultural Australia” came to mean legislation against racial discrimination, promotion of the value of cultural diversity, and social welfare programs that recognized the disadvantages faced by ethnic groups.

After the demise of the White Australia Policy in the late 1960s and the introduction of multiculturalism in the 1970s, the purported basis of the immigration system was nondiscriminatory on the grounds of race, nationality or religion. While the largely white Australian populace did not immediately embrace ethnic and cultural differences during this period, migrants were generally granted full social and political rights relatively quickly, crucially including the right to permanently reside in Australia and full citizenship for themselves and their children. The “ethnic vote” became a key electoral concern for political parties from the 1970s, and ethnic community organizations began to play a key role in civic life. Access to publicly funded health care and education, as well as the right to vote, strengthened the political, social and economic integration of migrants whether they came as skilled workers, refugees or migrants seeking to join family members.

The postwar immigration program comprised mostly displaced people from Europe, who often found work in Australia’s then-booming manufacturing sector. The fall of Saigon in 1975 heralded a wave of refugees from Vietnam. Since the 1980s, humanitarian asylum and family reunions began to be steadily outnumbered by a policy focus on skilled immigration, largely of qualified tradespeople and knowledge-workers in occupations that were in demand in Australia’s changing economy. Migration since the 1990s has been dominated by migrants who meet “points-based” criteria—including work experience, educational qualifications and language skills—or acquire employer sponsorship. Multicultural rhetoric since the 1990s has also taken on a more neoliberal bent, often focusing on the economic value of culturally competent workers and citizens in the era of economic globalization and the dawning of the so-called Asian century.

Today, the intake of temporary migrants regularly exceeds permanent intakes, with implications for integration, economic and social rights, and the Australian labor force. Author Peter Mares, in his detailed examination of the consequences of temporary migration in his 2016 book “Not Quite Australian,” estimates that temporary visa holders now make up between 8 and 9 percent of the national workforce.

Access to publicly funded health care and education, as well as the right to vote, strengthened the political, social and economic integration of migrants.

Temporary visa categories and the rights and durations attached to them vary. The primary groups are skilled workers who are sponsored by employers for four-year work visas, known as 457 visas; international students and graduates who are granted working rights; and New Zealand citizens who are granted Special Category visas of indefinite duration. Australia also has reciprocal agreements with certain countries under the Working Holiday Maker program that allow individuals aged 18-30 to work legally during their stay in the country. The United Kingdom, Taiwan, South Korea and Germany were the top countries of citizenship for working holiday makers in 2015-2016.

International students, a crucial revenue stream for the nation’s universities since ongoing cuts to public funding began in the 1990s, make up about 40 percent of temporary visa holders. In practice, students often resemble migrants more than merely transient scholars due to their high levels of labor-force participation and often relatively long-term stays. Australia provides generous working rights for student-visa holders, and those who complete university degrees can gain full labor rights for two to four years after graduation.

Other temporary programs, like the Working Holiday program, have similarly expanded in terms of both numbers and duration over the past 15 years. Working Holiday visas were once primarily an opportunity for young people to experience up to one year of leisure travel and cultural exchange in Australia, and considered a “backpacker visa.” Now the most common visa for working holiday makers, the subclass 417, allows migrants to stay in Australia for up to two years if they undertake three months of specified work outside of metropolitan areas. Many regional agricultural industries are now dependent on seasonal flows of individuals with Working Holiday visas and student visas as unskilled workers.

Recent media attention has focused on the vulnerability of the temporary migrant labor force. The long-running investigative journalism program Four Corners ran an exposé in May 2015 called “Slaving Away: The Dirty Secrets Behind Australia’s Fresh Food.” The program showed temporary migrant workers at poultry-processing factories and produce farms who were paid illegally low wages, forced to work punishing hours in unsafe conditions, and reported abuse and sexual harassment. The companies investigated are suppliers for the nation’s largest supermarket chains.

Four Corners followed this with another program in September, a joint investigation with Fairfax Media, called “7-Eleven: The Price of Convenience.” This story revealed widespread wage fraud in the 7-Eleven convenience store franchise that exploited a workforce mostly composed of international students. The investigation alleged that up to 60 percent of 7-Eleven staff nationally were underpaid, receiving less than half of the legal hourly wage. The scandal led to the resignation of the franchise’s CEO and chairman in Australia and the formation of an independent review and compensation panel. While media attention on temporary migrant labor led to calls for tighter regulation of employers and of middlemen such as labor hiring contractors, visa policies remained largely untouched.

Often ignored in the debate is how policies facilitating temporary migration have created increasingly multistep and tenuous pathways to permanent residency and political belonging. Migrants who arrive on temporary visas often move across multiple temporary categories over many years in the hope of eventually meeting the criteria for permanent residency. These criteria can include various combinations of English language test scores, qualifications in particular “in-demand” fields, work experience, employer sponsorship, or marriage or de facto relationships with Australian citizens. But criteria can shift rapidly, leaving previously eligible migrants stranded, and processing times for permanent visas can extend over several years. This “stepping stone” migration has become such a prominent feature of the migrant experience that now 50 percent of permanent residencies are granted to those already living in the country on temporary visas.

In his previously mentioned book, Mares estimates that in 2013 at least 65,000 people had been living in Australia on temporary visas for between six and 10 years. Temporary visa holders, even if they stay for an extended period, have limited access to social welfare provisions. They are ineligible for the subsidized health care and education available to citizens and have no voting rights. This makes social, economic and political inclusion far more limited than it was for previous generations of settler migrants, who mostly arrived with or quickly gained the right to permanent stay and, accordingly, political representation. For Mares, these policies not only leave individual lives uncertain but also destabilize Australia’s commitment to a liberal, citizenship-based multiculturalism by generating a significant population of noncitizen residents and workers.

Interlinked Mobilities: Education, Investment and Migration

The 1990s heralded the dominance of skilled migration and temporary migration, but also the advent of the “investor migrant” category, via the Business Skills Program, launched in 1992. This was superseded by the Business Innovation and Investment Program in 2012. These niche programs sought senior executives, experienced business owners and investors who would bring assets, business skills and investment activity into Australia in return for the right to migrate permanently.

After a period of national protectionism between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, Australia began to liberalize direct foreign investment in parallel with the emergence of the investor migration schemes across the late 1980s and 1990s. The resulting foreign investment in residential property and agricultural land often comes under fire in the mainstream Australian media. Chinese foreign investment has courted the most controversy in recent years. By “selling off” Australia to foreign and particularly Chinese interests, critics argue, housing becomes unaffordable in Australian cities, and investment becomes rife with corruption. But these allegations are contested: Rates of offshore foreign investment remain relatively small compared to domestic investment; regulations have tightened for foreign buyers in 2015 and 2016; and factors shaping housing affordability are multiple and variable. Complex connections between citizenship, real estate and education are, however, undoubtedly changing real estate and education landscapes and migration pathways, especially in relation to Chinese investor-migrants, who constitute the largest subgroup of this category.

While media attention on temporary migrant labor led to calls for tighter regulation of employers and of middlemen such as labor hiring contractors, visa policies remained largely untouched.

The rise of investor-migrants has led to a suite of policies around how foreigners can buy real estate in Australia. Foreign buyers can purchase newly built but not already existing residential dwellings, a policy designed to boost the supply of overall housing stock. The Significant Investor Visa Program, known colloquially as the Golden Ticket, grants permanent residency to foreigners who invest over $3.7 million into complying investments over four years, including real estate and property trusts. Less well-known is the fact that temporary visa holders residing in Australia, including student-visa holders, can purchase one home, whether newly built or existing.

The migration status of foreign investors is therefore a complicated one and can involve many different motivations and patterns of mobility. Many Chinese investors, for example, are not absent offshore buyers, but already live in Australia, have family in the country, or are planning to immigrate. If a parent in China contributes funds to purchase a home for their child working or studying in Australia, these purchases can later become investment or retirement-enabling assets. That has led parents to increasingly consider sending their children to Australia as international students in primary or secondary school not only as an investment in their children’s education, but also as part of a long-term strategy to acquire citizenship. These migrants may seek traditional settlement in the long term, or may see permanent residency or citizenship as a personal or financial asset in the short and long run.

Migrants’ mobility strategies and the visa policies that enable them can impact local housing and education markets. In 2016, for example, immigration policy changes allowed students aged 6 and above to apply for student visas regardless of their country of citizenship. Previously, immigration risk assessments based on country of citizenship would have made these visas difficult for Chinese families to obtain for primary-school education. The new rules led to predictions of sales boosts to properties in desirable school zones, with claims in the real estate press that Chinese buyers would pay 10 to 15 percent premiums for properties near well-ranked schools. This trend has changed how the Australian real estate industry functions both at home and abroad. Brokerage firms increasingly connect clients to multiple industries and provide combined services around school choice and entrance requirements, property searches and purchases, investment strategies, finance, taxation and visas. Australian real estate firms have, for example, developed in-house educational offices that partner with private schools to provide an all-in-one service for families looking to purchase property as both a financial investment and an attempt to secure better education for their children.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks during the Summit for Refugees and Migrants at U.N. headquarters, Sept. 19, 2016 (AP photo by Seth Wenig).

While a small number of the wealthiest investors can expedite an investment and citizenship package via the Significant Investor Visa scheme, many more middle-class families can craft their own long-term strategies that combine study, investment, temporary work, business opportunities and potential citizenship via student visas and other temporary visa pathways. The full impact of these new forms of migrant mobility on urban and suburban landscapes, housing prices, education, brokerage industries, business innovation and bilateral relations with China has yet to be clearly seen. But a debate that focuses solely on federal regulation of offshore foreign investment is only part of the picture.

Asylum Regimes: Human Rights, Privatization and Regionalism

The greatest challenges and controversies of migration governance that Australia has faced over the past two decades, however, are without doubt around the asylum regime, particularly the treatment of asylum-seekers who arrive by boat. The hard-line politics and public fear over the migrants who enter Australia by boat seeking asylum are in stark contrast to the bipartisan political support for immigration and the overall public confidence in multiculturalism.

Mandatory detention policies, first introduced in 1992, require all persons who enter Australia without a visa to be detained while their claims for asylum are processed. This has led to a plethora of political complexities and humanitarian tragedies. There are detention centers, as well as alternative residential accommodation centers and community detention systems for “low risk” detainees, on the Australian mainland. These centers house asylum claimants as well as those who have overstayed visas or breached visa conditions. But the most controversial policy remains the offshore detention centers set up on small Pacific islands, currently Manus Island in Papua New Guinea—where the center is still running but slated for closure—and Nauru. Since June 2013, all asylum-seekers intercepted arriving by boat and seeking refuge in Australia have been sent to Manus Island or Nauru rather than to mainland detention centers. Run by private contractors, offshore centers have been plagued by reports of human rights violations, as highlighted earlier. Detainees have been killed and sexually assaulted; many suffer from substandard living conditions and face mental and physical health problems with inadequate treatment.

The hard-line politics and public fear over migrants seeking asylum are in stark contrast to the bipartisan political support for immigration and the overall public confidence in multiculturalism.

Critics of Australia’s asylum regime often argue that indefinite mandatory detention and lengthy processing times are incompatible with the country’s stated commitment to human rights, and raise concerns about transparency and accountability within a privatized and offshored detention industry. In 2013, the government opted for a so-called regional approach to asylum policy, which included offshore processing and detention and bilateral resettlement deals with Papua New Guinea and Cambodia. Under these deals, refugees whose claims for asylum are found to be valid and genuine can be resettled not in Australia, but in Papua New Guinea and Cambodia, in return for several million dollars of aid and resettlement assistance funding from the Australian government. The government purports that mandatory offshore processing and regional resettlement deter human trafficking and prevent migrants from taking perilous sea journeys to Australian territory. These bilateral resettlement agreements seem at present far from effective. According to Human Rights Watch, only 25 refugees have moved to mainland Papua New Guinea from Manus. Several of those resettled have returned to Manus due to safety threats and poor working and living conditions in mainland cities. Of six refugees who resettled from Nauru to Cambodia under a deal struck in 2015, four have returned to their country of origin, and two remain in Cambodia.

While polling from 2016 shows fairly even divides in public opinion in Australia concerning mandatory detention and offshore camps, international and domestic condemnation of Australia’s asylum policy has grown louder. A focus on the detention of children has also been reflected in domestic political debate. Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs released a damning report on children in detention in 2014, which led to significant tensions between the government and the Human Rights Commission, with then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott questioning Triggs’ impartiality and the timing of the report. But the report also incited increased public support for the release of children being held in onshore and offshore detention facilities.

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng sign a deal on the resettlement of refugees, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sept. 26, 2014 (AP photo by Heng Sinith).

In February 2016, the flames were further fanned when Abbott’s successor, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, refused to allow 267 asylum-seekers, including about 90 children and babies, to stay in Australia, insisting they return to Nauru. The group had been brought to the mainland mostly for medical treatment. The incident inspired the Let Them Stay campaign, spearheaded by refugee-advocacy groups, religious leaders and medical professionals, which garnered significant public support. Hospital staff in Brisbane refused to release one of the babies being treated there without an assurance she would not be sent back to what they considered unsafe conditions on Nauru. The Human Rights Law Centre, an Australian NGO, took the case to the High Court, challenging the legality of returning the asylum-seekers to Nauru. Although the court ruled that the return was legal, most of the 267 asylum-seekers were eventually granted community detention in mainland Australia.

Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) have also become a recurring and contested part of the asylum regime in Australia. Under the TPV system, asylum-seekers who have been legally deemed refugees are offered only a three-year visa, not permanent settlement. Initially introduced in 1999, TPVs were abolished by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Labor government in 2008. In 2014, they were reintroduced by Tony Abbott’s Coalition government as part of a deal that also saw the government gaining more power to turn back asylum-seeker boats in Australian waters, in return for the release of children detained on Christmas Island.

Long Tunnels, “Mutant Mobilities” and Network Governance

Taken together, the many changes to migration pathways and immigration policy shape the way migration must be understood in today’s Australia.

Historically, the road to becoming “Australian” has never been smooth, with various social and economic barriers facing migrants and refugees. But the new constellation of policy arrangements for both humanitarian and nonhumanitarian entrants to Australia has made pathways to political and social belonging, and to the right to reside permanently in Australia, increasingly bureaucratically complex, uncertain and fragmented. More than ever before, migrants are either detained before they reach Australian soil or arrive on the country’s shores with no certainty of how long they will be able to stay, and without knowing when, if ever, they will accrue social and political rights. Extended temporariness for individuals also delays access to family reunion and undermines the ability to return home to support family members overseas. Both asylum-seekers and migrant workers can find themselves suspended in indefinite states of transience, a state of limbo that geographer Alison Mountz has aptly described as creating a “long tunnel” of migration.

Alongside the long tunnel to belonging exists a sense of what scholars have termed “mutant mobilities”: a multiplication of the identities and motivations of migrants. A holder of a temporary student visa will study in Australia, but could also work, run an informal business, purchase property, volunteer, pay taxes, raise children or undertake the long journey to eventually gaining citizenship. An investor-migrant may be looking for educational opportunities for their children as much as they seek capital returns, and a skilled worker may be primarily motivated by business, education or lifestyle opportunities.

The new constellation of policy arrangements has made pathways to political and social belonging, and to the right to reside permanently in Australia, increasingly bureaucratically complex, uncertain and fragmented.

Similarly, refugee identities and pathways have also fragmented, largely due to asylum policies. A refugee processed by Australia and legally granted protection may end up settled in Papua New Guinea or remain in limbo on a TPV. Illegal maritime arrivals, a term introduced by then-Immigration Minister Scott Morrison in 2013 to describe asylum-seekers who arrive by boat, are subject to different policy mechanisms than those who arrive by plane, despite their identical status and right to claim asylum under international law. Asylum-seekers who are under 18 years old also experience radically different forms of processing and government support.

Finally, migration in Australia can be described increasingly as a process of “network governance” rather than one of state-managed migration. A wide range of private and nongovernmental actors—universities and schools, real estate agents, private migration agents, online brokers and settlement services from insurance companies to English-language trainers and employment coaches—are now heavily implicated in both selection and settlement processes, providing assistance to the nearly 2 million temporary residents who are not eligible for the government-funded settlement support provided to permanent humanitarian migrants or the social services provided to citizens. Multinational security contractors, NGOs and other regional governments make up the network of the asylum regime, along with Australian government and military actors.

The Impact on Australia’s Culture and Politics

These new complexities have varied impacts on Australian society, politics and culture, some of which seem inherently contradictory. “Asia literacy” is high on the national education agenda to strengthen links with new Asian superpowers, and the number of students learning Chinese in Australian schools has doubled between 2008 and 2016. Yet, polling from the Lowy Institute shows that 70 percent of Australians think that the government is allowing “too much” investment from China in Australian residential real estate. Migrant-background students are outstripping their nonmigrant classmates in standardized testing in primary school, yet young-adult migrants who hold temporary visas remain unskilled and often exploited as expendable labor in low-skilled industries. In May, Australia’s most illustrious television industry award, the Gold Logie, chosen by the public via online voting, went to TV host Waleed Aly, a Muslim and vocal supporter of cultural diversity. Yet in July, morning television presenter Sonia Kruger, another publicly popular personality, voiced support for a total ban on Muslim immigration. And the nominees for the nation’s most prestigious civic award—Australian of the Year, to be announced during Australia Day celebrations on Jan. 26—include Deng Adut, a lawyer and refugee advocate who arrived in Australia at 14 as a young refugee from South Sudan. Adut’s nomination occurred in the same year the government finally conceded to release asylum-seeker children indefinitely held in immigration detention.

The complexity of migration policies and pathways is leading not just to divided opinions and public rhetoric, but also challenges within communities. Strong ethnic community networks and migrant political organizations, many forged in the 1970s, are adapting to new flows of more transient migrant groups, whose political activism and senses of belonging may be based on transnational, rather than local, connections. New divisions are emerging, based not necessarily along racial or ethnic lines, but along the lines of migrant cohorts or generations—how, when, why and under what policy conditions they arrived may shape migrants’ integration and acceptance more radically than the color of their skin.

Multiculturalism itself has been repackaged and reimagined multiple times over its 40-year history, and although diversity is now irreversibly ingrained in the fabric of Australian identity, tension points over multiculturalism’s value and its limits remain. While the 2016 Scanlon Survey results show 91 percent of respondents reported a sense of belonging in Australia, they also show that 20 percent have experienced discrimination based on skin color, ethnicity or religion—the highest level recorded since the surveys began in 2007. These are worrying trends in a country that has long prided itself on tolerance.

On the surface, Australia’s liberal model of citizenship-based multiculturalism looks relatively healthy, especially in contrast to the increasingly xenophobic far-right politics on the rise in Europe and the United States. But Australia is nonetheless experiencing complicated transformations in the way migration is managed and experienced. In the coming years, the country will be forced to reckon with how these transformations shape migrants’ prospects for social and political belonging, and subsequently their implications for social cohesion, multiculturalism and the state of Australian democracy.

Shanthi Robertson is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, specializing in migration and globalization.

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