Connecting migrants with new opportunities
The slow population decline in rural areas is a long standing and dominant issue in the regional development discussion in Australia. Despite years of debate, public hand wringing and community and government strategies, this remains the key issue of concern for many rural areas.
In a Talking Point called the Missing Migrants released last year, the RAI argued that rather than as a last resort, international migration should be the first priority for communities looking to turn this situation around (or at least to slow the trend). We pointed to the facts that lower international migration to regional areas is the fundamental driver of population growth differences between the city and the bush.
Most importantly, the paper also showed that there were 100 rural local government areas where international migration had already altered the trend, offsetting the loss of Australian born residents, stabilising local populations and underpinning slow growth. This is not a speculative proposition – it’s the only major demographic driver moving in the right direction for country towns.
As part of that work we promoted community led solutions as the key opportunity for change, citing the great results achieved in Nhill in Victoria and Dalwallinu in WA as evidence of what works. Since then communities such as Biloela in QLD and Mingoola in NSW have also come forward as further examples of this approach working in practice. There is clearly potential for greater success here.
Recently I had the pleasure of travelling to key towns in the Great South Coast region of Victoria at the invitation of Leadership Great South Coast and iGen Foundation. The region is looking at how it can engage local communities to help them bring migrants already in the city who are looking to move to rural areas to their towns.
During the trip I was also privileged to travel with Emmanuel Musoni from the Great Lakes Agency for Peace and Development. A key leader in western Sydney migrant communities and a facilitator of the moves made by migrants to Mingoola, Emmanuel has identified more than 200 families in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane who would like to make the move to rural areas. Their motivation is generally both their rural background and the fact that the opportunities for them to find work and a great life for their families in metropolitan suburbs are limited.
However at present the pathway for these 200 families and potentially many more to find their home in rural areas is not open. Two things are getting in the way. First the settlement services networks many migrants engage with are urban based and either ignorant of possible rural opportunity or actively discourage people to see a move to the bush as an opportunity. Second and more important is the lack of information and organisation in rural communities to connect with potential migrants and to help them find their way to moving to the bush.
I came back from my trip last week convinced that there was an opportunity for governments to support this trend via a carefully developed Secondary Migration Policy. This policy would have an objective of connecting existing migrants in the city with communities in the bush who can offer them the opportunity to secure jobs, housing and a place in the social life of one of our many great country towns.
Several things are needed to make such as policy work:
- Support for communities to organise to engage with possible migrants. To engage this opportunity, local committees or groups of potential employers, support service providers and community groups need to come together to work out what a community can offer and what they need in terms of skills to help their place grow. Any initiative must be community-driven and community-led.
- Better systems (a mixture of technology and migrant community facilitators) for identifying migrants in the city who are looking to move to identify themselves as interested and to share their skills and aspirations with local committees looking to recruit new residents.
- Making the move easier by freeing people from the restraints the job services system places on their movements, and potentially some support with travel costs during the process of deciding to move.
- Establish training systems to build the capacity of migrants before they move to rural areas, especially in Agricultural mechanisation, rural entrepreneurship and hidden jobs.
This approach would be relatively low cost and deliver many benefits. It could attract support from philanthropists as well as in kind contributions from communities to complement those from government.
The social benefits for people moving are a crucial motivator for such a policy, but should not be considered a settlement welfare program. It should actively draw upon people who have lived in Australia for some years, who are Australian citizens and who are ready to live within small and sometimes remote communities. It is not a program of settlement ‘placement’ but community request so that communities are ready for new people to move into their area. It is squarely an economic development strategy. The RAI’s work on regional economies and labour market efficiency shows that even though many rural areas are experiencing population decline they are also short of people. Very high participation rates and often very low unemployment are evidence of stressed labour markets with no spare people to enable businesses to expand and positions to be filled. All of the communities I spoke to last week confirmed that this ‘hidden jobs’ situation is a key constraint for many communities.
Overall we see a really significant win-win opportunity here. New residents for declining rural communities, a better life for migrants already in Australia but unable to finding their place in the urban economy, support for the development or the rural economy and better use of existing infrastructure such as schools, housing, community facilities and health services.
The RAI will be working with others to develop a proposed policy approach to this in the coming months.
Jack Archer, CEO, Regional Australia Institute