Home is where the money is

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 7 April 2011

I had a doctor’s appointment last week. Usually that would not be worth mentioning in this column were it not for what I learnt about my doctor’s family history.

As it turned out, my doctor came from a Greek family, was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in South Africa before moving to Australia. He had to give up his South African passport when he became an Australian citizen so that he could cling on to his Greek citizenship. Apparently, South Africa only allows dual, but not triple citizenships. For his children, he told me, it would be far more advantageous to have a European passport that opened the doors to live, study and work in all 27 EU member states. His parents, meanwhile, had just retired in South Africa but were about to move to Greece “because it’s safer there”.

My doctor’s migration experience may sound complicated but it is certainly not at all exceptional in contemporary Australia. I could have also mentioned the case of the Canadian lawyer, who taught in Hong Kong, became a New Zealand citizen when he worked in Dunedin, but as a professor in Queensland he has now added an Australian passport to his collection. I could even tell you about my own experience of travelling back and forth between Australia, Britain and Germany over the past decade (though I still have to wait until I may apply for an Australian passport).

In one way, such international movements are nothing new. People have always moved around world. Just think of John Young, the 1st Baron Lisgar, who was the 12th governor of New South Wales (1861-1867). He was born in India and then served as High Commissioner in the then British Greek Islands, Australia and Canada before spending his final years in Ireland.

But something is different from such historic migration movements. The people who previously hopped from country to country were often members of the social, political and economic elite. The mass of lower and middle class migrants, on the other hand, experienced migration as a one-way street. They usually migrated to Australia, New Zealand, Canada or the US to stay for life. If they were lucky they could afford rare visits home. But socially and culturally they were largely cut off from their native countries.

Today, however, country hopping has become a mass phenomenon. Global migration flows have increased, but the migrants themselves have become far less permanent. They are no longer seeing their migration documents as a one-way ticket but are willing to reconsider their choices when better opportunities come along.

The whole experience of being a migrant has also changed. Today’s migrants can continue to listen to their favourite radio stations online. Satellite and Internet Protocol television (IPTV) let them follow their old local sports teams, news and current affairs. Most major newspapers and magazines are also available on the web. Friends and family are a click away on internet telephony services like Skype. To see what’s happening at home, today’s migrants only have to connect to their old friends and colleagues on Facebook and Twitter.

Sociologists have coined a new term for these modern migrants. They call them ‘transnationals’. They are different from previous migrants. Unlike ‘guest workers’ they do not necessarily wish to return to their home countries. They may stay, the may return or they may go somewhere else – whatever works best for them. And unlike traditional migrants they do not regard migration as an irreversible life decision. So in effect, they are living in several cultures at the same time, keeping every option open.

Globalisation and the Internet have turned migration from a life decision to a lifestyle choice. But the political, economic and social implications of this development have not been fully understood yet.

There has been some research on transnational migrants, particularly in the context of Mexicans travelling back and forth between their home country and the US. Less is known about transnational migrants in other countries. This is problematic because the transnational phenomenon also affects traditional immigration countries such as Australia.

In a research paper published last December, the Productivity Commission stated that one of the most remarkable immigration trends of the past years has been the surge in temporary migration. Until the mid-1990s, the great majority of net-overseas migrants arriving in Australia were permanent.

Today, however, about two thirds of net overseas migration to Australia is temporary. In this context, temporary means skilled business visa holders (subclass 457), international students, New Zealanders and working holiday makers. Though many of these temporary migrants may stay in Australia for longer, it is nevertheless likely that there are many ‘transnationals’ among them. As long as Australia is regarded as a good place to live and work they will remain here but it would be wrong to assume an overwhelming loyalty to Australia.

National loyalty has become looser in any case, not just in Australia. Before the financial crisis, hundreds of thousands of Poles had moved to Britain for a better life but many returned to Poland when economic prospects of the two countries reversed. The ‘Celtic Tiger’ years had temporarily turned Ireland from a net-exporter to a net-importer of people. But the Irish banking and debt crisis has now produced another major Irish emigration wave, from which Australia hopes to benefit.

The coming decades will make these migration issues more acute in many developed countries. As populations age and shrink, skills shortages will occur. Such shortages are already reported from the Australian mining sector, but also from Germany’s strong car industry. Yet the most sought after professionals, engineers and managers in tight global labour markets are also the most ‘transnational’ individuals: technology savvy, cosmopolitan, polyglot. Attracting them to a country with an appropriate migration scheme is only the first challenge. For the host country, it is equally important to make sure that these highly skilled workers stay.

Australia’s so-called population debate with its blatant populism and big simplifiers like Dick Smith has so far neglected this crucial aspect. We have talked too much about alarming sounding population figures and emotional issues such as boat people. At the same time, we have been overlooking the more strategic questions about Australia’s migrant population: How to make sure that Australia draws the best international migrants? And how to ensure that, in the long run, these people will continue to use their skills here and not elsewhere? And how to make them loyal, new Australians?

As long as Australia keeps outperforming most other OECD countries, it needs not worry too much about its transnational population. But in today’s globalised and individualised world, changes in Australia’s economic fortunes may trigger much greater population swings than the ones that occurred in the past. Who knows where my doctor’s children will end up working?

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