For 200 years Australia has been building its population through Australian Immigration. For most of this time it has been assumed that sustained immigration would ultimately give shape to Australia’s changing national identity. Successive governments have therefore sought to control migration to produce long-term social effects shaping the character of Australian politics. Between 1788 and the 1940s, migration policy was aimed to exclude anyone not of European descent and, in times of expansion, the issue of the skill-levels of migrants was ignored. Australian Immigration policy has since then focused on redressing this by targeting skilled and educated migrants from not just historic migrant-sources in Europe, but increasingly from non-European countries in the Asia-Pacific region and the world.
This chapter discusses migration policies as governments have sought control over who gains permanent residence in Australia. It also discusses immigration programs, the many sources of migrants, and the influence these have on the national ‘face’ or character of Australia.
Current immigration policy
Australia is distinct amongst western countries in the influence its government agencies have over immigration policy. Its immigration department was centrally involved in organising the huge intake of post-war immigrants. This is now called the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA). DIMIA still has considerable independence in the development of policy under the Migration Act (Cth) (1958). It currently has immigration programs that allow people to live permanently in Australia on various grounds. These include the Migration Program and Humanitarian Program. Overseas visitors living in Australia under one of a number of temporary visas can also apply for permanent residence. Those who enter Australia without authority or overstay their visa fall into the category of illegal migrants.
The Australian Immigration Program with its business and general skilled migrant entry as well as family member and special eligibility entry, aims at attracting people who have skills in particular professions or trades deemed to benefit Australia. It has required high levels of English and recent work experience, or completed Australian qualifications as the result of study in Australia. Migrants with family or children who are Australians have also been accepted. Migrants given special eligibility are those who have close ties with Australia or are former residents returning to Australia.
In 2002-2003, 93 000 migrants settled in Australia, the majority of whom (71%) arrived as part of the Migration Program, with most arriving under the skilled migration category (41%) and 30% arriving under the family migration category. Australia recently accepted a further 20 000 skilled migrants to occupy its labour force, and announced a future target of approximately 97 500 skilled migrant entrants.
The Humanitarian Program targets refugees and others who have faced serious human rights abuses. It implements an offshore resettlement program which assists those in humanitarian need for whom resettlement in another country is the only option. It also applies an onshore protection program for those already in Australia who arrived on temporary visas or illegally and who seek asylum. Australia recently accepted about 16 000 refugees through its resettlement program and continues to take 19% of refugees assisted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). About 10% of migrants in 2002-2003 arrived as part of the Humanitarian Program.
Policy on illegal migrants
Illegal migrants under the Migration Act are those who enter or work in Australia without authority or who overstay their visas. The Act requires that unlawful migrants be subject to mandatory immigration detention and to deportation unless given permission to stay in Australia. There is presently an estimated 50 000 people in Australia who have overstayed visas, the majority of whom are British nationals. The majority of detainees are Middle Eastern and South-East Asian asylum seekers who have illegally landed in Australia, often under the guidance of people smugglers. The increased number of these has resulted in policy changes regarding refugees to deter future arrivals. Those arriving by boat or other means without official classification as refugees are no longer granted refugee status on arrival. Many of these asylum seekers are turned away due to the excision of some parts of Australia from the official migration zone. Such excised areas include: Christmas Island, Manus Island, Melville Island, the Cocos Islands, Ashmore and Cartier Islands, and Nauru.
The impacts of migration and its influence on policy
Overseas migrant arrivals have played an important role in changing the face of Australia. The top ten birthplaces for the current generation of migrants as compared to the native-born majority include:
- Australia: 13 600 000 persons, 71.84% of total population
- United Kingdom: 1 035 000 persons, 5.46% of total population
- New Zealand: 350 000 persons, 1.88% of total population
- Italy: 220 000 persons, 1.15% of total population
- Vietnam: 155 000 persons, 0.82% of total population
- China: 140 000 persons, 0.75% of total population
- Greece: 115 000 persons, 0.61% of total population
- Germany: 110 000 persons, 0.57% of total population
- Philippines: 100 000 persons, 0.55% of total population
- India: 95 000 persons, 0.50% of total population
There has been a significant change in the overseas sources of migrants, with settlers arriving from more diverse regions of the world since the change in immigration policy in the late 1960s to one of non-discrimination on race or ethnic background. While most immigrants before 1966 were from Britain or Europe, since then many people from the Asia-Pacific region and the world have settled in Australia. Today, Australia’s overseas born population consists of more than 140 recognised ethnic groups, speaking more than 90 languages and practising about 80 religions. This increasing ethnic and cultural diversity has changed the way Australians view both themselves and the rest of the world. It has further prompted the replacement of its policy of immigrant assimilation with a policy of multiculturalism which, it is argued, recognises the cultural diversity of Australian society and emphasises its positive aspects by improving immigrant access to government services. However, not all Australians appreciate and accept the concept or policy of multiculturalism. They see it as a threat to an image of Australia with which they are familiar and comfortable, and argue that immigrants should assimilate by speaking English and by mixing with, and behaving like, the rest of the population.
Alongside these differences are regional differences in population composition. The contrast between multi-ethnic major urban areas and more homogenous regional populations have intensified the sense of social and economic division already existing between the two. This has prompted various failed policies attempting to encourage migrants to settle in regional areas. An example is the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme enabling regional employers to sponsor immigrants.
Australia’s future cultural diversity will meanwhile continue to reflect a decrease in the proportion of the population that is of British, Irish or other European origins, and an increase in the number of those of non-European origin. Current trends suggest a large majority of the population in coming decades will still have Anglo-Celtic or other European ancestry, with a large proportion of mixed ethnic origins. This will remain subject to changes in the level of overseas migration, future migrant-sources and the rate of intermarriage which can increase or decrease the extent of cultural diversity in the longer term.
Article Via: skwirk