Weighing up the costs of migration

Migrant streams
Image// Commonwealth Department of Immigration and Border Protection

Government policy about migration generally focuses on meeting the social and economic needs of the country. Sadly, it’s rarely about the humanitarian (or even just plain old human) aspect or the ways migrants can be supported to help achieve the ideal of a cohesive and prosperous country. This focus on building the economy is evident in Australia’s migration program: of the 190,000 places available in the 2014-2015 program, 68% were skilled migrants and 32% were migrants from family visa streams.

The latest Productivity Commission Report on Australia’s migrant intake also highlights the ways economic benefit might be maximised through the migration program. The report examines the costs and benefits of immigration specifically as it relates to visa charges and the potential for some types of visas to be qualitatively restricted.

The report found that the parents of migrants who have settled in Australia are costing the health and welfare system billions of dollars. As such, the report recommends an overhaul to family reunion visas. In particular, it suggests that tighter restrictions be placed on parents wanting to join their adult children in Australia and that their children be wholly responsible for the health and income cost of their parents during their stay.

Separation from immediate and extended family members is one of the main challenges of settling in a new country, and for many immigrants it is one of the main causes of social isolation. This is why the report’s recommendation that family reunion visas need to be restricted for parents of migrants is particularly concerning.

An intersectional approach to migrant intake would consider the ways that visa types and their respective entitlements and restrictions might impact on groups and individuals already made vulnerable by migration structures and processes. It would also consider the policy impact on partners as well as on “skilled migrants.” If the proposed recommendation is taken up, it is immigrant and refugee women who are most likely to be impacted, whether they arrive as skilled migrants or as their partners. For example, for immigrant and refugee mothers, pregnancy and birth can be a particularly stressful time, especially without close familial and bilingual support. Just like the majority of Australian-born women, immigrant women are also more likely to take on most of the unpaid labour of parenting, sometimes without any assistance. However, unlike Australian-born women, immigrant women must also negotiate the tensions and challenges that arise from the migration experience: changing family dynamics and roles within the household; learning a new language; finding a home and a job; raising a child in a new country; worrying about elderly parents overseas and so on.

For most women and their families, having parents close by helps to ease these various challenges. Our migration program needs to recognise and acknowledge the day-to-day realities of immigrant women’s lives, so that they are able to more fully and equitably participate in Australia’s prosperity, economic or otherwise. It’s an argument that requires us to look beyond the budgets and ask about the real costs and benefits for women, families and migrants in general.