Australia will have to open its doors to potentially tens of thousands of unskilled migrants to save its smaller Pacific island neighbours from economic ruin, a report commissioned by the Federal Government has found.
The report, by a taskforce on foreign aid, argues that the plight of the island nations has become so dire that urgent remedies, notably moving abroad in search of job opportunities, are necessary to keep them viable.
The tiny states of Nauru, Kiribati and Tuvalu are cited as the economies most in need of a migration fix. But the report also points to Melanesian nations like Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, with their larger populations.
While the Federal Government has substantially raised its immigration numbers over the past few years, its policy is to concentrate on people with skills.
Late last year, the Prime Minister, John Howard, flatly rejected a request from Pacific island leaders to allow seasonal workers into the country, arguing that it would simply create a new pool of visa overstayers.
The demand for a radical policy shift has been made by the Government’s Core Group. It was commissioned to prepare a report for the new white paper on Australia’s aid program.
The group’s conclusion, after detailed economic analysis, is that it is “deeply concerned about the future of the Pacific”.
To avoid a descent into increased poverty and a complete deterioration of services, the region needs to integrate with the global economy. This involves expanding migration opportunities for Pacific islanders.
“The Government should consider developing a Pacific unskilled migration window to facilitate migration, especially from Melanesia and the microstates,” the report says.
“For microstates such as Nauru, Kiribati and Tuvalu, it is highly unlikely that these economies will be viable in the absence of migration opportunities.”
The Core Group, headed by Professor Ron Duncan of the University of the South Pacific, says the need to expand migration opportunities to the Pacific islands is “urgent” given the rapid population growth.
It compares the situation in Melanesia, which has had very limited migration because of a lack of opportunities, with that in Polynesian countries, which have long had easy access to the labour markets of New Zealand and the United States. Polynesia has as a result experienced higher economic growth, lower population growth, better social indicators and more social stability.
The issue of unskilled migration is a sensitive one for the Government given its refusal to use its immigration program as a foreign policy tool.
The report was quietly released on AusAID’s website two days before Christmas. The Prime Minister came under intense pressure at last year’s Pacific Islands Forum to allow temporary work rights for islanders.
Papua New Guinea accused Australia of hypocrisy because it grants 100,000 backpackers from Europe and North America work visas every year. As a compromise, Australia will help fund a regional technical college to give islanders trade qualifications that meet criteria for skilled migration.
The Pacific Islands Forum communique committed member countries, including Australia, to further examination of the idea of labour mobility.
Bruce Bilson, who oversaw the public consultations for the white paper in his role as parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, said: “I can understand why some people are attracted to the idea.
“We’ve got a migration program that provides many, many opportunities to [Australia’s] labour market. The question is should that be expanded and on what terms and what the net benefits would be. It needs analysis and I think that’s good.”
Labor’s spokesman on overseas aid and Pacific island affairs, Bob Sercombe, has for some time advocated limited labour mobility for Pacific islanders. Australia has a strong interest in helping create sustained economic development in the Pacific, he said.
* Australia is being urged to take unskilled migrants from Melanesia and tiny Pacific island states.
* The economies of Nauru, Kiribati and Tuvalu are in urgent need of help.
* Papua New Guinea is upset that Australia allows 100,000 backpackers from Europe and North America work visas every year.