Skilled arrivals work in Australia’s favour

Published in The Newcastle Herald, 7 September 2011

Although in many respects Australia, Britain and Germany are very different countries, there is one development they all share.

Until the 1950s, all three were ethnically homogenous. They were white Australian, white British and white German, respectively.

Sixty years later, society in all three countries has undergone a radical transformation. To differing degrees Australia, Britain and Germany can now be described as multi-ethnic. Since the end of the White Australia Policy, Australia has become more Asian; Britain has experienced a large non-white influx mainly from other Commonwealth nations; and Germany has received many southern European, Turkish and Middle Eastern migrants.

Quite literally, the faces of all three countries have changed. Today, the most famous Australian neurosurgeon is Singapore-born Charlie Teo. One of Britain’s funniest comedians is Omid Djalili, who has a Persian family background. And Germany’s top soccer star is Mesut Özil, a third generation Turk from Gelsenkirchen. However, these shining examples mask enormous differences in integrating newcomers.

Australia has so far managed to absorb migrants from different cultures and world regions; Australian multiculturalism remains at least in principle supported by both major parties.

In contrast, the idea of multiculturalism has been under attack from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron. In an untypical outburst of frankness, Ms Merkel declared that “multiculturalism has failed and it has failed utterly”. Mr Cameron went even further and linked “the doctrine of state multiculturalism” to the segregation of society and the rise of Islamist terrorism.

How can it be that multiculturalism works in Australia and fails in Europe?

By understanding the crucial differences between Australian and European migration and integration policies, we can ensure that Australia remains a society that keeps integrating its migrants well.

It is necessary to spell out that Australia’s integration successes are not just political rhetoric. They are in fact measurable.

Australia’s migrants have, on average, higher household incomes than the resident population. They are less often unemployed or imprisoned for serious offences.

In school evaluations, their children regularly do better than the average student.

Compare this experience with Germany and Britain and you encounter the precise opposite.

The prima facie conclusion from these experiences is that European countries are simply not as good as Australia in integrating their migrants.

Perhaps the Brits and the Germans should have spent more money on language courses for newcomers? Maybe Australia is just a more welcoming and receptive country? Or maybe it is Australia’s longer experience as a traditional destination for migrants?

There may well be some truth in all of these points but they miss the most crucial factor.

The main reason for Australia’s superior integration experience is what sociologists would call ‘composition effects’.

Australia simply did not receive the same kind of migrants that countries such as Britain and Germany accepted.

Especially since the introduction of the points system for potential migrants, Australia has been selecting migrants in a much more targeted way than the Europeans.

In order to settle in Australia, would-be migrants had to prove language and professional skills.

This system ensured that Australia received migrants that were, on average, well equipped to prosper and thrive.

Those European countries, which now face problems in their multi-ethnic societies, were far less selective. Besides, their generous welfare states made migration attractive precisely to those migrants who lacked the skills needed to qualify for an Australian visa.

This difference in the skills profiles explains almost entirely the relative failure of European migration programs.

Any country wishing to integrate its migrants well must ensure that these migrants have the skills necessary to succeed in society.

Ignoring this while relegating the resulting problems to the welfare state would create precisely the failures now on display in Europe.

Australia must not go down this path but continue its practice of securing good integration through careful screening of migrants.

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