THE government is considering developing new visa rules that will see migrants living in rural areas.
Citizenship Minister Alan Tudge said the issue of migrants leaving their assigned region upon receiving their permanent visa has become a “key issue for discussion”.
“There are many regions in Australia that are now facing skilled labour shortages and we are working with regional leaders and businesses to find solutions,” he told news.com.au.
“Many migrants are sponsored for permanent residence on the basis of an intent to live and work in regional Australia but don’t stay long in the region once they have their permanent visa. This is obviously not ideal and contributes to the labour shortages.”
The Minister said he was actively working with his colleagues on solutions to help regional areas to meet labour demands.
It comes amid an increasingly heated debate over our growing population, which is expected to rise from 24 million to 36 million by 2046, sparking concern among some critics over the impact on our cities.
The data suggests that around 40 per cent of that growth comes from net migration from other states and overseas.
But one tiny town in regional Victoria shows how resettling migrants in small communities can have a hugely successful outcome.
HOW MIGRANTS CHANGED A STRUGGLING TOWN FOREVER
In early 2010, five families arrived in a small Victorian town called Nhill in response to an advertisement for five unskilled jobs at a factory called Luv-A-Duck.
The families were Karen refugees — a persecuted ethnic group indigenous to the Thailand-Myanmar border in South-East Asia.
Community-oriented and accustomed to a rural background, they were drawn to the small town near the Victorian-South Australian border, and immediately seized on the chance to engage in unskilled labour.
Within just years, they had completely transformed the struggling Aussie town.
Former Nhill councillor Wendy Robins has been volunteering for the Karen people since they arrived almost a decade ago.
She told news.com.au it was “truly a win-win situation” when they settled in the community. “It wasn’t just the Nhill community and our volunteers that helped the Karen refugees — they helped us too, by filling our churches, putting students in our schools, employing people, and creating jobs,” she said.
A 2015 report published by Deloitte Access Economics and the AMES settlement agency found the initiative contributed $41.5 million and 70 jobs to the town’s economy over five years.
The Karen resettlement helped the town to redress population decline, revitalise local services and increase social capital.
The refugees who settled here were not forced to do so; the report notes that the Karen people are generally from rural backgrounds and many have not had the opportunity to attain higher levels of education, which — combined with a strong community-oriented mindset — attracted them to the small rural town.
“I think there were around 160 at first,” said Ms Robins. “At first of the 200 Luv-A-Duck staff, 50 were refugees.
“Now they’re employed by lots of other people. They’re like any other migrants that come to our country — their parents worked really, really hard to educate their children, who are now nurses and mechanics, and going off to university.”
Deloitte also notes the community has an unusually high level of social capital compared to the rest of the nation, with strong volunteer rates.
The Karen people aren’t the only migrants in the Wimmera community — Ms Robins said there was a notable population of Filipinos, Indians and Sri Lankans as well. She described something of a cultural melting pot — people of different religions cooking for each other on special holidays, and different denominations sharing spaces and singing songs in different languages.
In February, former prime minister Tony Abbott made the controversial call for Australia’s migrant intake to be reduced from 190,000 to 110,000, prompting renewed debate over whether outsiders are compatible with our country.
Having seen the effects of migration first-hand, Ms Robins said: “You can’t put everyone in one basket. Get to know people. I can’t speak for anyone else, but here in Nhill it’s just been such a positive story.
“They’ve rejuvenated the town. Maybe we’ve been lucky because the Karen people are a good, kind and gentle people, and they’re very grateful for everything we’ve done … but to label an entire group based on one person’s actions … I just don’t understand that thinking.
“People just need to get to know each other and be more understanding. These people actually helped build our town.”
Ms Robins admitted that she herself had a bit to learn from their arrival.
“I’ve learnt to be tolerant of people sitting in a room where they speak another language,” she said. “I’ve also learnt how lucky we are to be in Australia. We don’t know what it’s like for others.”