A look in the mirror

Two events this week demonstrated how the progressive movement can struggle when it comes to migration in Australia.

The most obvious is how the lack of movement on asylum policies will occasionally come back to bite.

Richard Marles’ comments this week – when you actually read them – are nothing out of the ordinary. He spoke about how Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is paramount and boat turn backs damage the relationship (true). He said how the government had yet to establish how the process was safe (true; at least publicly this has not been shown). He did not mention the concept of refoulement but that is more difficult on a five minute talking head spot.

But that’s not how it works. We live in a binary world of yes/no. “Might” doesn’t exist and thinking through issues occurs privately. Marles’ should have known better. The tension within the ALP over asylum policy isn’t going anywhere and this was an opportunity for it to flare up onto the front pages.

Is it possible to simple not talk about asylum policy in Australia for an entire term of government? We’re going to find out as the ALP try.

And least anyone assume I say this negatively, I believe this is the only way forward. Compare it to how the Abbott government handles workplace relations. Don’t respond. Don’t bite. Ignore the question until you are blue in the face. In a vacuum, I would prefer a different approach, one where issues are debated on their merits and evidence is advanced. This is not quite the environment we find ourselves in.

There is a relatively straightforward pathway for the ALP to take into the next election; a world-leading humanitarian program of 20,000-25,000, a commitment to keep relations with Indonesia above politics, offshore resettlement as part of a regional solution and opposition to TPVs. This might sound familiar give it’s the status quo for the ALP.

One cannot forge proper relations with the Indonesian government from opposition. You cannot craft a sustainable regional solution from opposition. The hard work will come in government as the current set of asylum policies are unsustainable over a period of time any longer than 3-5 years. While pull factors exist, push factors also play out over time. This is the largely unacknowledged gap in Operation Sovereign Borders, the most expensive per capita migration policy in the world.

Passionate ALP members and progressive community advocates do not like this status quo. But the way to improve the long-term outcome of Australia’s asylum policies is from government. Witness the current lack of visa processing from the government and you immediately see a stark difference in asylum policy despite the incessant cries that the two parties are the same.

The other event was less political, more difficult. It should generate a reflection of what an Australian progressive movement wants when it comes to immigration. Unfortunately the moment will likely pass us by unnoticed or ignored.

The Scanlon Foundation produces an annual survey on social cohesion and public attitudes to migration. To quote David Marr, the reports contain “a beautiful set of figures”.

In 2014, Australian attitudes to immigration are stark. Unlike OECD countries across the world, Australian’s are largely supportive of immigration. Only 35 per cent of people think immigration is ‘too high’ whereas 58 per cent say it is ‘about right’ or ‘too low’. We are a positive outlier in one of the most socially divisive issues in the developed world.

This is incredible for a number of reasons. The actual number of migrants arriving is high and stable. Combined with soft feelings about the economy and slightly higher unemployment, tradition would dictate about half the population would think there are too many migrants arriving.

Yet this is happening (in part) because people are not concerned about asylum. In 2013, a full 12 per cent of the population thought this was the most pressing issue facing Australia. A year later this figure is four per cent. While the economy still plays a strong role in determining Australian attitudes to immigration as a whole, it cannot be doubted that these attitudes are also influenced by the particulars of asylum policy.

How should a progressive respond to such findings?

These are some of the most popular comments on the Marr’s write-up of the findings which represent attitudes similar to what I’ve seen and heard elsewhere:

DameEdnasGlasses: “Oscar Wilde nailed it.’Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious’. If people are happy now they are bloody idiots who deserve to lose the excellent quality of life we used to have to bigoted thieves.”

Wobbly: “Great weather, beaches and food, but too right wing, too intolerant, too anti-intellectual, too apathetic about environmental degradation, Murdoch too powerful and Abbott is worst PM in Australia’s history. You can live well with blinkers on but nirvana it is not.”

Brnost: “What we are seeing is not, as the article suggests, a rise in patriotism, but rather a rise in nationalism of the worst kind – the kind that fuels xenophobic right-wing groups such as the Tea Party and UKIP.”

There are a couple of take-aways from this. The most evident is people will write uninformed rubbish in the comments section.

Take the last comment above. The Tea Party and UKIP exist (in part) to oppose immigration. This is clearly not compatible with Australian attitudes to immigration, where concern is at a historic modern low. One way to look at the current environment is that there is no space for a UKIP to emerge because people do support immigration, on the proviso it is ordered. Look at the failure in the 2013 election of the myriad of far-right, explicitly xenophobic parties.

Other commenters seem perturbed how public attitudes will ‘follow’ politicians. Yet on asylum, you only need to examine opinion over time to see where our failure as a progressive force on asylum stems from.

Since about 2010, between 20-25 per cent of the public support permanent residence and settlement in Australia for asylum seekers. The rest of Australia – around three-quarters – doesn’t. This finding hasn’t changed over time. 63 per cent of Green voters agree, 31 per cent of ALP voters and just 13 per cent of Liberal voters.

That’s the equation for progressive Australia on the question of asylum and public attitudes to immigration.

I think about migration a lot. I work at the Migration Council Australia. I have an Amazon wish list titled ‘migration books’. My Twitter feed is about 30-40 per cent migration-related.

I believe both; people should have more freedom to move, particularly those seeking asylum, and, public attitudes to migration are extremely vital for long-term societal cohesion.

And at the moment, I have no idea what to think about these results. But I do believe if we continue with the current approach embodied by the comments above, history will simply repeat.

The unheard progressive response on immigration

Chris Dillow blogs:

“Wages, then, are being squeezed not by immigrants, but by some fundamental trends in capitalism.”

“Those who seek to link immigration with falling living standards are guilty not just of (perhaps wilful) ignorance. They are trying to shift the blame from capitalism to some of the least powerful members of society. That’s not just racist. It’s fascist.”

Here in Australia we have not seen a vicious squeeze on real incomes in recent years. This has led to support for migration which is high by OECD standards.

Yet there are still those who draw direct links between migrants and economic harm. It is argued, predominantly by the left, migrants displace and substitute Australians in the labour market. Just to be clear, I don’t think this is fascist but I do think it is misplaced.

As progressives, we are overlooking critical aspects of this debate. In one of the links above, Frédéric Docquier, Çağlar Özden, Giovanni Peri show the effect of immigration in 1990 to 2000 in OECD countries on “less educated native workers”:

In Australia between 1990-2000, the effect of migrants grew wages for less skilled Australian workers by between 3.7 and 5.1 per cent. This averages out to a minimum of 0.37 per cent per annum.

The data isn’t available for 2000-10 but given the number of migrants grew – in addition to a renewed focus on skills and human capital – we should expect an even better result for the decade just past.

These effects are not insignificant. They help mitigate the worst aspects of inequality and contribute to rising real wages for those towards the bottom of income scale. There are only a handful of other factors which can contribute such large gains to wages, in particular for lower-skilled workers. Stimulating the labour supply of skilled workers should be a priority for a labour movement with a focus on helping those at the bottom. Making sure visa programs achieve this effectively is an important consequence of such a stance.

I’m a progressive. I think inequality is corrosive to social wellbeing. I think the treatment of workers by employers looking to make short-term profit is abhorrent.

But as a progressive movement in Australia, we must recognise, not only that migrants are not to blame for wage pressures, but they are actively helping those who need it most. To our great shame, this is not an argument you will see articulated in Australia.

A new project and hiatus

Reading over recent blog posts, I’m not very happy with how things have turned out. I’m also about to head back to full-time work.

Because of this, I’ve decided to ditch day-to-day blog posts and to work on a more structured project where I can think more carefully about Australian immigration.

I want to create an online space where people who are interested in learning more about Australian immigration can do so. Sort of like an online course, but without all the whizz bang effects, and also a space I can update and add to as I see fit. If anyone has an idea on where to host something like this, please let me know.

I’m going to record interviews and “lectures”, write some content and create some case studies about particular events and policies.

I’m not sure how far I’ll get but hopefully I’ll get a lot of the process and produce something which can help others in the meantime.

I’ll post bits and pieces as they become available, as well as the occasional blog post when something takes my fancy. I’ve made a start over the past fortnight and am hoping to have some stuff available by November.

I’m always happy to chat about Australian immigration. Feel free to tweet (@henrysherrell) or email me (henry.sherrell@gmail.com).

Thinking about diversity statistics

When people talk about diversity in Australia, there is one stat quoted over and over: one in four Australians were born overseas and over two in five have at least one parent born overseas.

This is an incredible data point which is becoming more widely known. It neatly captures the scale of Australia’s diversity. This can be particularly helpful when looking back over time to previous versions of the Census. This rate has increased steadily over the past generation.

Yet I get a bit bored of it. You hear this in nearly every political speech on immigration. It’s quoted in support of everything migration related even if the relationship is particularly weak. Diversity for diversity’s sake is not necessarily a good thing. This line of argument runs the risk of disappearing into a level of meta analysis where policy goals become confused and actual outcomes blurred.

At a conference last week, I heard a different data point which tells the same story on diversity but with better ability to discuss the ramifications of immigration to Australia:

  • 19.2 per cent of people speak a language other than English at home. This is skewed towards large urban centres, for instance in Sydney where 34.4 per cent speak a language other than English (H/T Graeme Hugo)

This means something. It means even more if we consider the trend growth of non-English spoken language at home which increased by over 15 per cent between the 2006 and 2011 Census.

Some may say this is obvious given one in four people are born overseas but this overlooks the fact many people born overseas were born in English speaking countries (myself included).

Looking at language better highlights inter-generational trends as some second-generation migrants may speak a language other than English at home.

One in five people speak a language other than English at home. This cuts much deeper in terms of what immigration means for policy surrounding education, the labour force and an ageing society than one in four people were born overseas.

By talking about diversity in this manner, a much stronger case can be built about how government policies should engage with migrant communities. By combining this with the rapid trend growth, we can add a sense of urgency to the conversation.

(More information on language spoken in Australia)

Speech to the Don Dunstan 2014 Migration Update

I gave a presentation yesterday at the Don Dunstan Foundation’s 2014 Migration Update. Thanks for the Foundation for making time for my speech in their busy schedule.

While I veered away from my prepared notes a bit, here is the speech as prepared:

Speech – Don Dunstan Foundation 2014 Migration Update

Hello. My name is Henry Sherrell. I work at the Migration Council Australia.

We’re an independent, non-profit organisation who advocate, promote and research Australian immigration and settlement.

I’m also going to preemptively apologise for the jargon that has slipped into this speech and any assumed knowledge. I’m very happy to answer questions at the end.

Our report ‘More than Temporary: Australia’s 457 visa program’, was released last year and based on survey data undertaken by the Social Research Centre and commissioned by the (then) Department of Immigration and Citizenship.


The 457 visa is Australia’s most important skilled visa program given the bipartisan support for a skilled migration framework, one increasingly tilted towards labour demand.

It is also a temporary visa.

There are currently about 190,000 visa holders living and working in Australia, including over 105,000 primary visa holders.

In 2011-12 and 2012-13, the number of 457 visas granted was equal to the total of all permanent skilled visas.

The program has changed since its inception in 1996.

Slide02As you can see, small numbers of migrants once filled niche, highly skilled occupations in the late 1990s.

Today, a larger number of migrants are employed in a more general mix of medium and highly skilled occupations.

This expansion can be seen from primary 457 visa holders representing about 0.2 per cent of the labour market in the late 1990s to slightly over one per cent today.

If we only consider the skilled labour market, 457 visas represent about two per cent of the total.

Read the rest of this entry »

Immigration and polling: an example

The Pew Research Centre published a new poll about Mexican immigration to the U.S.:

“A new survey about preferences and trends in Mexico concludes that one out of every three Mexicans would migrate to the United States if given the opportunity. The survey published Tuesday by the Washington-based Pew Research Center also says that of the 34% of Mexicans who indicated they would like to move to the U.S., 17% “would do so without authorization,” meaning without legal documents.”

(Source: CNN)

There was an increasing number of people who migrated from Mexico to the United States in the 1990s and 2000s and stayed. However, since about 2009-10, the total number of “irregular” Mexicans living in the United States has remained at about 11 million.

34 per cent of the Mexican population is 41 million people. 17 per cent of this number is nearly 7 million people.

The way I read the Pew poll is that there are 7 million people in Mexico who would move to the United States “without authorization”. Yet over the past five years, we have not seen this level of immigration occurring.

While Mexican’s continue to immigrate to the U.S. (offset by some returning both by force and by choice), 7 million is implausibly high. Entering the United States without authorisation is possible now. Further, in the article, a Pew spokesperson says the same poll conducted five years ago showed very similar results. While what people say to pollsters has not changed in five years, their revealed preference (what they actually do) has.

So what then do we learn from this type of polling?

We know these people are not going to arrive in the United States tomorrow, if at all. I think we learn very little about migration from these polls but we do discover how people view opportunities and some level of preference. This is important but not earth-shattering.

This also shows how the nation-state still plays an overwhelming role in controlling the movement of people across borders. Some are keen to discuss the decline of the nation-state yet many people in the world (and apparently 34 per cent of Mexicans) would tend to disagree.

Review: “Beyond Operation Sovereign Borders” by Peter Hughes and Arja Keski-Nummi

In May, the Centre for Policy Development, partnered with Australia21 and the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, coordinated a report called “Beyond Operation Sovereign Borders: A Long-term Asylum Policy for Australia“. This was a discussion paper for roundtable discussions held in July.

It is without a doubt, the best policy document I have seen in response to Operation Sovereign Borders.

Authored by Peter Hughes (former Deputy Secretary of DIAC) and Arja Keski-Nummi (former First Assistant Secretary of DIAC), this document is pragmatic, grounded in fact and presents a sustainable asylum policy where one can imagine bipartisan support. This won’t occur tomorrow. But the ideas and concepts at the heart of this document show a viable pathway forward for the political class.

The paper tackles two issues.

The immediate concern is of people in detention, both in Australian and offshore. The authors say a time-frame is required for decisions on visa applications to force a more responsive system. The old 90 day rule from 2005 is considered. This is maybe one of the only proven methods of pushing the massive bureaucracy towards constant movement on protection visa applications. Given the caseload currently in Australia, the authors say a goal of June 2017 should be considered to clear the backlogue of cases.

In an obvious effort to move the needle on the 30,000+ asylum seekers in Australia and offshore, the authors find Temporary Protection Visas may be appropriate despite their lack of deterrence, as long as a determination is made on the claims of asylum. Paragraph 30:

“UNHCR acknowledges that, at times, temporary protection may be the most appropriate arrangement. For example, in circumstances where there are mass influxes (generally involving larger numbers than experienced by Australia), temporary protection may be a valid tool in ensuring protection is available for asylum seekers while allowing authorities the breathing space to more fully examine and determine the need for a permanent protection and stay in a country at a later stage.”

With regard to those people on Nauru and Manus, the authors are less forgiving. All cases should be complete by June 2015. Given the lack of progress in both countries, this is highly unlikely to occur despite the conditions of detention. The authors hint at more resources from Australia but part of the deterrence is the process.

The authors come out strongly on work rights and community living. This is not just two lefties banging on about their pet issue. This reflects decades of executive experience at the Department of Immigration and the understanding that particularly punitive measures such as restricting work and mandatory detention simply do not work as a deterrence. The cost of detention is raised, with people on bridging visas equal to 20 per cent the cost of detention, while community detention is about 50 per cent (paragraph 78). This cost savings are massive when we consider the total cost of detention, approximately equal to funding the NDIS.

The options regarding those detained offshore are much more limited. There are real constraints on Australian government action for those already in Nauru and PNG. This is reflected in the questions and options raised. This is the sad reality, limiting the ability to even consider a broader range of options in offshore detention centres.

Questions of scale when working with third-countries are raised. To me, this paragraph (92) raises some very important contextual information which I had not considered before:

“It is unlikely that either PNG or Nauru has the capacity to locally integrate many more than the current number of people in the detention centres there, particularly if a high proportion of them are recognized as refugees. Given the size of their local populations, these numbers alone would put them in the top 10 resettlement countries globally, comparable to European resettlement countries and New Zealand.”

However the authors highlight the positive also. There is an opportunity for both Nauru and PNG – with significant assistance from Australia – in attempting resettlement. A concern I would have is that any large package of resettlement assistance will contrast with the opportunity for local citizens, something that does not occur in Australia. This has the very real potential to undermine the concept of resettlement as we understand it in Australia.

Returning failed asylum seeker applicants is a critical part of the system. The authors reflect on some “known knowns” however do not acknowledge some well-known issues. Iranian asylum seekers are particularly difficult. Returnees to Syria may work on occasion as we have seen in the past fortnight but attempting to return more than a handful may prove extremely difficult. The question of what happens to failed asylum applicants in many countries – including Sri Lanka – is a difficult one to engage with.

The second issue considered by the paper is a future policy to replace Operation Sovereign Borders.

The most important piece of context that asylum flows are likely to increase over time (paragraph 121, p.31). Demand for migration to the developed world, via asylum or other considerations, is growing and supply is drying up. Where legal avenues close, others open. Given Australia cannot change global migration trends and increasing flows, we can either engage or ignore them.

The key points for a future asylum policy are: integrating a refugee policy into broader policy considerations and working with our region instead of unilaterally. This is based on the long-term goal of near universal ratification of the refugees convention, a medium-term goal of a regional initiative on force migration (suggested with ASEAN working through a deliberate framework to neutralise the politics) and a short-term goal of building on existing institutions, such as the Bali Process. The long-term goal is acknowledged as unlikely given the current strategic environment and the lack of any catalyst to change this.

These goals are not sexy. The work needed to meet them  will not appear on the front pages. But together they generate the most likely opportunity for a long-term outcome which meets the bipartisan consensus on asylum movements. The proposals are pragmatic. They can adapt and appeal to a range of people and interested groups.

Obviously, there is much work to do to achieve these outcomes. With resources – time and money – being spent elsewhere, this is not a blueprint for the next 12 months or for this government. However it is a clearly laid out plan with discrete steps towards outcomes based on historical realities. There is more explanation of what is required from paragraphs 120-168.

This proposal shows why any plan for Cambodia would be a failure. I was wrong back in May when I wrote how we should keep open minds about new proposals. Perhaps one day Cambodia will be a suitable society to resettle refugees but that day is not today. The fundamentals for regional cooperation are not in place: cooperation with Indonesia and Malaysia. This prevents any possible success when working with countries with a much reduced capacity to assist. Instead, we would see more cases of mistreatment and an inability of countries to manage asylum claims and resettlement to a standard we should accept.

There is so much uncertainty in this policy. Those who are the most confident make rash decisions and are ill-prepared to consider a broader perspective. This is Hughes and Keski-Nummi’s most important contribution. Drawing on their decades of experience, they help guide the way for the next generation of decision-makers, advocates, policy wonks and those who are genuinely interested in advancing the cause of those who seek asylum.

Perhaps as important is the fact this proposal – with the concept of regional cooperation at its core – is sponsored and coordinated by the Centre for Policy Development, one of a handful of progressive think-tanks in Australia. Tacit endorsement from the CPD will allow those of us in progressive politics a better avenue for discussion with those who have long opposed such measures mooted within this document.

Some might look at asylum policy now and think anyone who believes positive change can occur is dreaming. Yet Hughes and Keski-Nummi have laid a credible path towards a better policy, an extremely difficult thing to achieve in the current debate.


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