Social impacts of migration – international perspectives

Spech delivered to the Productivity Commission, Canberra, 22 March 2011

It’s not a great secret anymore that European countries have had very mixed experiences with their immigration programmes after World War II. In particular, Germany’s so-called ‘guest worker policy’ of the 1950s and 1960s is now widely regarded as an example of how not to run an immigration programme.

There is a famous phrase in German that neatly sums up what went wrong. It was coined by Max Frisch, the great Swiss playwright and novelist, who said: „Wir riefen Gastarbeiter, und es kamen Menschen.“ – “We called for guest workers, and human beings came.”

For our discussion today, and even here in Australia, Max Frisch’s quote may bear some relevance. When we are talking about population growth and migration, those working in politics and the media are quick to resort to abstracts and aggregates.

We are then discussing things like the population numbers, the net migration intake and international migration flows. The language is telling because it almost sounds a bit like physics. This makes it easy to forget that in the end we are not dealing with human particles but with human beings.

Human beings, in contrast to those elements we are dealing with in the natural sciences, come equipped with different cultures, languages, skills, education, religions and attitudes. Ignoring them in the context of population growth and immigration would be a careless mistake.

Of course, all of this is a truism. It nevertheless needs spelling out because it had also been a truism at the time when European countries made their great mistakes. That is to say: They should have known better.

Migration obviously has social and cultural impacts. And they can go both ways. In recent months, we have heard statements from European politicians about the death of multiculturalism. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, was first. In an outburst of untypical frankness, she declared that multiculturalism ‘has failed and failed utterly’. We then heard similar statements from Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and David Cameron, the British Prime Minister.

All three of them – Merkel, Sarkozy and Cameron – are mainstream centre-right politicians that are not known for extremist language. Yet they were united in their rejection of multiculturalism – something that until then had only ever been voiced by far right, nationalist parties.

The idea that multiculturalism has failed is now widespread in Europe. Compare this with the situation here in Australia. There are no Australian politicians, Pauline Hanson aside, who would publically say that multiculturalism had failed. Multiculturalism in Australia is still a bipartisan project, and anyone claiming that multiculturalism was not working in Australia would be laughed at.

As a German living in Australia I find all of this very curious. In many ways, Australia and Europe are very much alike. Their societies are built on the same historical and philosophical foundations going back to ancient Rome and Greece. Australia’s language, culture, legal and political system is, of course, strongly influenced by Britain. There is certainly more that is uniting Australia and Europe than there is that is separating us from them.

And yet, there are some enormous differences between Australia and Europe, and I think the idea, practice and experience of multiculturalism is one of them.

This is surprising because there are obvious parallels between Australia and Europe when it comes to the changes in the ethnic composition of their societies. If we go back to the immediate post-War period, we can see that both Australia and European countries like Britain and Germany were ethnically very homogenous. They were predominantly white, Christian countries.

Over the course of the last sixty years, this has changed both here and in Europe. Let’s look at Australia first.

In Australia, roughly a quarter of the population was born abroad, and about half the population has at least one parent who was born overseas. Still the largest share of Australia’s overseas-born population comes from Europe. However, more recent migration patterns show that Asia and Oceania have become more important sources of migrants.

I hardly need to explain that Australia’s big cities are now extremely diverse places. But perhaps just to give one example, let’s look at the languages that are spoken in Sydney. In the 2006 census, about 29 percent of the population of Sydney said that they spoke a language other than English at home. 2.6 million people only spoke English at home, 1.2 million spoke another language, while just under 300,000 did not state their language – or maybe they did not speak at home.

The language diversity revealed by the census was enormous. The following languages were all spoken by more than 5,000 people in Sydney: Arabic, Chinese, Croatian, Dutch, Filipino, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Macedonian, Maltese, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Samoan, Serbian, Sinhalese, Spanish, Tagalog, Tamil, Turkish, and Vietnamese.

That’s 29 languages other than English with more than 5,000 speakers in Sydney alone. The biggest three languages – Chinese, Vietnamese and Arabic – had more than 150,000 speakers each.

The multitude of languages spoken in Australian cities is a good indicator of the degree of ethnic diversity. If we now compare the Australian situation to Europe, the extent of ethnic diversity is certainly not on the same level. However, European countries have also changed quite substantially over the past decades.

The United Kingdom opened its borders to migrants from all Commonwealth countries. From 1948, theoretically 800 million people could have moved to Britain. However, it was not expected by the British at the time that this would trigger a big migration wave.

But it happened nevertheless. The number of foreign-born UK residents grew dramatically: 2.5 million in 1961, 3.4 million in 1981, and 4.9 million in 2001. The current figure is close to 7 million.

With the surge in migration, the ethnicity of Britain changed. In the UK 2001 census, 85.7 percent were classified as ‘White British.’ However, there are strong regional variations. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland remain almost exclusively ‘White British’. England has far lower percentages. The lowest ‘White British’ share was recorded for Greater London at 57.7 percent.

As for Germany, it is a very similar story: Until 1945, Germany was as ‘white German’ as Britain was ‘white British’ and Australia was ‘white Australian’. Germany was an ethnically homogenous country. And just as in Australia and Britain, all of this has changed since.

The German Federal Statistical Office just reported that of Germany’s 81.8 million inhabitants, 16 million people (19.5 percent) had a so-called ‘migration background’. A ‘migration background’ is defined as either being a migrant or the descendent of migrants who entered the country after 1950.

Of course, a large part of German migrants still originate from other European countries. In fact, quite a few people with a ‘migration background’ are ethnic Germans like the German minorities from Russia and Romania. However, there are also about 3 million ethnic Turks living in Germany today.

So to sum it up: The ways that Australia, Britain and Germany have changed through migration show some similarities. In all three countries, non-White migration is a relatively new phenomenon. All three countries had to integrate people coming from very different backgrounds and cultures.

And yet the results of these integration processes are very different. And therefore the conclusions are different as well: Multiculturalism is now being declared dead in Europe, while it is still very much alive in Australia. So what is the explanation? Or asked differently, what does Australia do better than Europe about integrating its migrants?

My answer to that question may surprise you: I think that Australia does not in fact do very much about integrating its migrants that is different from European countries. The key to the great integration successes of Australia lies in its better selection of migrants. Apart from that, as a traditional migration country, Australia has a much richer experience in absorbing new arrivals. But that’s more a cultural phenomenon, and not so much the result of government policy.

As John Hirst has often argued, the roots of multicultural Australia are much older than the end of the White Australia policy. The first migrants to Australia from Britain were certainly quite diverse in themselves. They were English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish. As anyone who has ever spent some time in the United Kingdom can tell you, the differences and often animosities between these proud nations have survived until the present day.

In Australia, on the other hand, these differences were never allowed to become dominant. Differences were tolerated as long as they were quarantined in the private sphere. So the Irish were allowed to practise their Catholicism in Australia, but no special treatment was given to individual groups. If you read Hirst’s latest collection of essays Looking for Australia, you will find many good examples of this attitude.

The egalitarian treatment of migrants in Australia was certainly helpful. However, I think the great success of Australia’s integration of migrants has to be found in its selection of migrants.

The great majority of migrants, who have come to this country in the last thirty years, have been skilled migrants. In order to come to Australia, you had to have a sufficient command of the English language and you should have brought some educational and professional qualifications with you as well.

If you like, Australia has been cherry-picking its migrants. As Australia is such an attractive address on this planet, it could also afford to be choosy.

As a result, Australia got migrants who had the right mix of skills that enabled them to be successful in Australia. And then it is not at all surprising anymore that integration and multiculturalism in Australia has worked.

You can measure how well it has worked. In comparative studies of education achievements like the OECD’s PISA study, the children of Australian migrants regularly do at least as well as the children of the native population, if not better.

You can also compare crime statistics, although that’s difficult because there is not enough data. However, we do have data for Australia’s prison population. According to the most recent ABS data, for every 100,000 Australia-born residents there are 202.4 prisoners. The total rate for the entire resident population, however, stands at 170 prisoners per 100,000 residents. This means that foreign-born residents actually have a lower chance of being imprisoned for serious offences than the native-born population.

And of course, we can look at labour market results of migrants. Given that Australia has mainly attracted well qualified migrants, it cannot surprise that migrants have done very well. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship reports that skilled migrants have higher labour market participation than the overall population. Their unemployment rate is lower and their median full-time earnings are higher.

So the children of migrants are well educated. Migrants are probably less criminal than people born in Australia. And on top of that, migrants do well in the labour market. The results couldn’t be better.

But let me highlight once again that this has nothing to with an effective integration policy. I would say that these migrants have basically integrated themselves. Because Australia had only let in those migrants who were likely to integrate themselves. If you had put the same migrants into other Western countries, they probably would have become good French, British, Canadian or German residents as well.

Which brings me to the failings of European integration. Why has integration not worked in Europe? Why is multiculturalism now seen as a failure in Berlin, London and Paris?

First, there is a cultural reason. In the same way that Australia was open and welcoming to newcomers, European countries were not.

More importantly, though, European countries failed to attract skilled migrants. Instead they were often just letting in people as a quick fix for some labour market shortages, particularly for unskilled jobs.

Just think of the Gastarbeiter policy – the famous ‘guest workers’. They were recruited by the German government in the country’s economic miracle years to fill the jobs for which no Germans could be found. And these were often jobs at the bottom rungs of the labour market ladder.

First the ‘guest workers’ came from Italy, Spain and Portugal. Later from the Balkans and then also from Turkey. The term ‘guest workers’ implies that like good guests, these workers would eventually return home.

Left and Right were equally naive. The Left welcomed the newcomers with open arms without taking any interest in them. They assumed the migrants would automatically enrich Germany with their cultures, spices and habits. The Right showed an equal disinterest in them, since it was still believed they would only be a passing apparition.

Both views were wrong. At the very latest, it should have become clear when otherwise intelligent people started talking, entirely seriously, about ‘third generation (!) guest workers’. By then, many of the guest workers were no longer working but welfare dependent.

Germany had never recruited qualified, skilled migrants that would practically integrate themselves. Instead, the Germans had opened the door to temporary, unskilled workers. These workers stayed in Germany longer than expected and then managed to bring over their families as well. However, they remained outside mainstream society, and their lack of formal education virtually ensured that they would form a segregated underclass.

In Berlin, three-quarters of all Turkish migrants lack any school qualifications, and nearly half of the unemployed are of Turkish origin. Almost 40 per cent of all Berlin-based Turks get most of their income via welfare payments.

It is probably true that many migrants in Germany lacked the will to assimilate. But it is equally true that mainstream society showed a corresponding reluctance to accept the newcomers. The lack of education and the stifling effects of welfare dependency only made the process of integration even more difficult. The result is a society that is slowly falling apart.

It is this background that explains why Angela Merkel now speaks about the utter failure of multiculturalism. However, if German politicians were honest they would be taking some of the blame for this failure themselves.

Now let me finally say a few words about another important difference between Australia and Europe, when it comes to multiculturalism. My own impression is that Australians and Europeans often mean something very different when they speak about it.

In Australia, multiculturalism means you can bring your culture, language and your religion with you. But you would be frowned upon if you started parading them around. It is un-Australian to do so. The Australian way is to fit in and become Australian. This is why it was government policy to call the newcomers after the War ‘New Australians’. They were meant to become a vital part of the community.

In this sense, the term ‘multiculturalism’ is a bit of a misnomer. Actually, we should be speaking about multi-ethnicity. That is because Australia’s culture is a given. It consists of the Australian values that every long-term resident has to sign when he first gets into this country.

In Europe, multiculturalism means a different thing. Unlike the Australians, the Europeans do not celebrate what unites them. Instead they celebrate what divides them. Cultural diversity is not tolerated but promoted. Europeans don’t believe in making value statements on culture in any case. And therefore they don’t expect a great effort from their migrants to become part of European culture.

Just look at Britain: The British government and its agencies now rival the United Nations in their employment of interpreters and translators. London’s Daily Telegraph reported that the police spend £25 million on interpreters annually for the benefit of foreign offenders, victims and witnesses who do not speak English. Haringey Council welcomes visitors to its website with information in French, Kurdish, Albanian, Somali and Turkish.

The council of Salford went even further. They recruited a ‘Welfare Rights Linkworker’ to provide advice on ‘means-tested, non-means tested and disability benefits as well as tax credits’ in Urdu and Punjabi.

There is no doubt that such initiatives are well-intentioned. But they send a very problematic message to newcomers: English is optional.

Compare this with Australia’s insistence on migrants’ language skills. But not only on language skills, but more broadly on subscribing to the Australian way of life. As a migrant in Australia you are left in no doubt that it is not enough to just physically arrive in the country but that it is your responsibility as a migrant to play by the rules of your new home.

And then you can speak Kiswahili or German at home; you can be Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or atheist; you can still follow your cultural traditions as much as you like: But in the end, you will be Australian in how you are dealing with your colleagues, friends and neighbours.

Multiculturalism in this sense, in the Australian sense, is working very well. It is a selective approach; it strongly insists on a minimum set of rules; but it produces integration results that are vastly superior to those produced in Europe.

So my conclusion is simple: Migrants can only add value to recipient countries if they fit in and make an effort to integrate. Immigration nations ignore this basic insight at their peril.