AUSTRALIA is undergoing an unparalleled movement of people and ethnic change through “hidden immigration”, but lacks a comprehensive policy to deal with it, according to an eminent demographer.
Monash University professor Andrew Markus said raw immigration numbers masked the magnitude of a demographic revolution that had produced a population where one in four residents was born overseas.
At 24 per cent, the overseas-born proportion of the population is twice that of the US at 12 per cent, and three times that of England and Wales at 8 per cent, where racial tensions have flared again.
“Opinion polls in England in July 2007 and March 2008 indicated that immigration and race issues are the main concern of electors,” Professor Markus said.
He said that while Australians had been tolerant and migrants committed to their new home, strong political leadership was required to convince the nation of the benefits to all of high immigration to avoid a backlash.
Professor Markus presented his analysis at this week’s Australian Davos Connection Future Summit.
“The elements of a policy to promote social cohesion within communities characterised by diversity of language and culture are well known—and difficult to implement,” he said. “At present, Australia lacks full clarity of vision, coherence and consistency—while the largest movement of people in the country’s history is under way.”
Speaking to The Australian yesterday, Professor Markus said that although many Australians regarded the rate of immigration as high, they probably had little idea that the transformation was far bigger than they imagined. The usually quoted “headline” number of permanent arrivals—people successfully applying each year for permanent residency from overseas—rose 67 per cent between 1999 and last year, from 84,000 to 140,000. But Professor Markus said this figure failed to include on-shore “conversions” from foreigners on student or temporary work visas to permanent residence.
That number rose from 15,000 in 1999 to 52,000 last year. Taking those figures into account, the annual increase in new permanent residents nearly doubled over the past nine years, from 99,000 to 192,000.
The number of permanent departures—Australians leaving the country without any immediate intention of return—doubled from 35,000 in 1999 to 72,000 last year.
Many of those departing were taking highly sought skills to more highly paid jobs overseas, Professor Markus said.
Added to an ageing population, future economic growth would require filling Australia’s skills shortage largely from overseas. But the result would accelerate the pace of ethnic change, and because immigration had been skewed towards “magnet” destinations, in some areas the transition would be extraordinary, he said.
“With the uneven distribution of the overseas born, this translates to 34.5 per cent of Sydney’s population, 31 per cent of Melbourne’s, and over 70 per cent in some urban localities,” Professor Markus said.
He proposed several measures towards a national policy to make immigration work.
These included challenging disadvantage in education and employment, tackling institutional discrimination, and a “consistent set of policies to be implemented at the community level to promote inter-cultural understanding, bridge building and participation”.