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.

Why can’t asylum seekers fill those low-skilled jobs instead of more migrants?

There’s an immigration meme that does the rounds fairly regularly. Asylum seekers should fill low- and semi-skilled jobs that are going to other migrants.

In an otherwise good column for the Guardian, Richard Ackland slipped this in at the end:

“There’s something else that could work to our benefit. The government has given the go-ahead for visas to foreign workers who are prepared to do skilled and semi-skilled jobs at discount rates. Yet, we already have a supply of these workers sitting in wretched camps waiting to be processed on Christmas Island, Nauru, Manus Island and elsewhere.

The problem? Work rights for asylum seekers and providing semi-skilled visas to other immigrants are not mutually exclusive outcomes.

Before I expand, let me say there has been no “go-ahead” for migrants working below market salaries. This is a misunderstanding stemming from the government’s inability to communicate properly and some in the media skim reading the detail of policy announcements. Even in op-ed’s, this isn’t a high bar to clear.

Yes, asylum seekers should be allowed to work. Here is my take on that. The fact a government who purportedly have a strong belief in individual liberty refuse some the right to work is hard to fathom.

Further, at least for asylum seekers in Australia, mandatory detention has not proved to be an effective deterrent. This is the case in both Australia and in other developed countries (see Tim Hatton’s work on asylum seeking in the OECD). I would argue living in the community with work rights while asylum claims are processed would have a minimal impact on the trend of people arriving by boat.

Moving onto Ackland’s specific claim. It is true that asylum seekers would be able to perform many jobs in the labour market, some of which Australian citizens have shown a preference to avoid and employers face high vacancy rates.

But it is also true asylum seekers may not be able to perform some of vacancies that employers seek workers for. In the mooted ‘Designated Area Migration Agreement’ for Darwin, occupations such as childcare workers, disability carers, mechanics, bricklayers, office managers, carpenters, chefs and nurses are apparently included.

While the population of asylum seekers may include perfect matches for these vacancies, they likely do not.

Think about it this way. In a vacuum, should we force asylum seekers to live and work in specific places, such as Darwin? While the obvious retort is that this is better than mandatory detention, I think a superior policy outcome would be the freedom to work anywhere they choose. Government forcing already vulnerable migrants to work in particular locations on particular jobs is a recipe for failure.

Community support for newly arrived asylum seekers is a critical part of any settlement process. Given the large ethnic communities in major metropolitan cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – compared to where many of these Designated Area agreements are likely to be in place, this is fanciful thinking. The lack of community support combined with the lack of government support will fall flat.

Looking for a better outcome for asylum seekers should not be dependent on implicitly scapegoating other migrants. Further, any solution should be thought out and considered, something this policy meme is not.

Reconciling asylum and humanitarian policy on “Australian Agenda”

There was a very interesting exchange on Australian Agenda last Sunday between Peter Van Onselen and Scott Morrison:

Van Onselen: Can I ask you one final question on this, the issue of the number of people who are seeking to get here having declined down to the 10,000 number in Indonesia and so forth. Do we fundamentally know where most of them go or do we care? Because my point is just that they don’t vanish into the ether so are they making hazardous journeys elsewhere? Are they non-genuine refugees that go back to their original homeland or are they potentially genuine refugees who are just stranded in non-signatory nations but obviously because we have clamped can’t get here.

Minister Morrison: There are 10.4 million refugees around the world Peter and Australia is not the UNHCR nor is our mandate to provide that service of support all around the world. It is our job to ensure that those who have come through the proper process we can provide support for them. One of the things I am most pleased about is when Labor in their final year the special humanitarian programme fell to just 500 places. This year it will be 5000 places, now that is a dramatic increase that we have been able to effect. Over the entire programme we have put 4,400 places this year for those affected by Iraq and Syria. Many of those, I would assume the vast majority of those would be Christian communities affected by that slaughter that we are seeing. Now you made the point before that it is predominantly sectarian within the Islamic community, well I think that in the broad is true but in terms of the persecution of Christian communities in the Middle East we know, we read today of women being sold into marriages. All of the most medieval barbaric craziness that makes us all sick to the stomach.

Van Onselen deserves credit for these insightful questions. They are rarely asked but get to the heart of any asylum policy based exclusively on deterrence.

Does Australian policy shift people from seeking asylum in one destination to another? Or does the policy stop people who are not strictly asylum seekers and seeking a better life?

These questions should be asked more often. Morrison’s answer is inadequate on a number of levels.

It is true Australia cannot resettle over 10 million refugees. However if the goal is to provide as much support as possible to refugees, as inferred by the Minister’s comparison of Liberal and ALP numbers under the Special Humanitarian Programme, then the Minister is blurring the truth.

The number of refugees granted visas in 2012-13 was about 20,000. The number under the Coalition is scheduled to be 13,750.

Minister Morrison boasting about how his actions have enabled more places under the Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) is politics. He is relying on a poor public understanding of the intricacies of Australia’s asylum and humanitarian program.

The total number of people assisted and resettled in Australia as refugees is significantly lower under the Coalition government than the ALP. This decision was made by the Coalition because of the costs of resettling an additional 6,250 people every year (approximately $2bn over four years). For the Immigration Minister to pretend it was anything else is regrettable.

A much harder question is how to reconcile offering assistance specifically to Iraqis and Syrians. There are two issues with this.

As the Minister pointed out, there are over 10 million refugees in the world at the moment. By highlighting the Iraqi and Syrian caseloads, other caseloads are ignored. This is inevitable with any decision in a limited humanitarian program. But it is hard to gel with Coalition rhetoric about queues and the automatic reference to African refugee camps whenever the question of boat arrivals is raised. If we accept the concept of a queue, should the Iraqis and Syrians wait their turn? This nonsense argument shows we should not accept the concept of a queue.

Even more difficult is the different treatment Iraqi and Syrian citizens will receive if they travel by boat to Australia. These people, including presumably “persecuted Christians” where “women being sold into marriages” amongst other “medieval barbaric craziness”, are not offered a safe haven but an alternative. Compared to the 4,400 people resettled under the SHP, their lives will be significantly worse off in terms of health, education and economic outcomes.

I support a regional process which includes some third country settlement. But the Minister’s rhetoric shows how difficult it is to piece together a coherent asylum and humanitarian policy. Explaining the nuance behind why and how the same group of persecuted people are owed different outcomes has not been attempted. This should belie the Minister’s confidence as it is misplaced. Instead we get sound bites and talking points.

This brings us back to the original questions from Peter Van Onselen. Is Australian policy deterring Iraqi citizens fleeing violence and forcing them into equally dangerous journeys elsewhere? Or is it stopping Iraqi citizens who want a different life but do not face the threat of persecution?

The answer is probably both but with the continuation of violence, the former is likely to account for an increasing share.


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