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The Embarrassed Colonialist: Our migration problem

The Embarrassed Colonialist: Our migration problem
Published 25 Feb 2016   Follow @jonathan_pryke

Sean Dorney's new Lowy Institute Paper, The Embarrassed Colonialist is fantastic — and I'm not just saying that because he quoted my research. Through a mixture of interesting facts, digestible quotes, and entertaining stories, Sean details the strengths and weaknesses of our nearest neighbour, provides a thorough justification for why now is the time to reengage, and explains how to do that.

There are too many areas worth highlighting in this Paper to cover in a single article. What I want to focus on in is the research I light-heartedly mentioned above, which focused on Pacific Islanders that currently call Australia home, or at least did at the time of the 2011 census. Below I recap the analysis I presented at the 2014 Pacific Update, and hone in to take a closer look at PNG.

Before sinking into the results we need a bit of methodology housekeeping. For my analysis I opted to use the variable of ancestry as opposed to place of birth to assess the stock of Pacific Islanders in Australia. Place of birth is the better indicator if you are interested in tracing individuals who are themselves migrants. Ancestry is a better indicator to assess overall stock of ethnic Pacific Islanders in Australia. This distinction matters a lot because place of birth excludes the New Zealand migration pathway to Australia (which is critical for Polynesian states), and includes a lot of people born in Pacific Island countries (e.g. Australians born in PNG) who do not identify as Pacific Islanders.

Pacific Islanders in Australia: ancestry vs. birthSource: 2011 Australian Census

Using this definition, Pacific Islanders in Australia still account for less than 1% of Australia's total population. By contrast, New Zealand's 2013 census shows people with Pacific Islander ancestry (not including Maori) made up 6.9% of its population.

While the Pacific is not an important source of migrants to Australia, Australia is still an important migration destination for some Pacific Islands. Of the 166,272 Pacific Islanders in Australia, 35% are from Melanesia, 64% from Polynesia and 1% from Micronesia. (A detailed table with the number of people from each Pacific state can be found at the end of this article.) To put this into perspective we can compare these numbers with those of the populations of these three regions. The ratio of Melanesians in Australia to Melanesians in Melanesia is 0.7%; the equivalent ratio for Polynesia is 15.9%; and for Micronesia 0.2%.

These numbers just don't stack up. Melanesian countries are our closest neighbours in almost every metric — trade, aid, proximity, defence ties — except one, migration. Why is it that there are more Cook Islanders in Australia than Papua New Guineans, when Papua New Guinea has more than 430 times the population of the former and is our former colony? Why more Nieuans than Solomon Islanders, when the Solomon Islands has more than 360 times the population of the former, and far closer links with Australia?

The explanation is simple: the New Zealand route. One third of Australian Pacific Islanders who identify as Polynesian were born in New Zealand. This is because many Polynesian countries have migration access to New Zealand, and thus Australia via our open border policy with New Zealand. We haven't provided the same migration opportunities to our closest neighbours. In fact, one could argue, we preference them pretty far down the list.

Where Melanesians sit on the list of ancestries in Australia

Note and source: There are 311 recognised ancestries in the census, 285 of which have more than 100 people in Australia. 2011 Australian Census

All of these numbers are astounding, but we're here to talk about PNG. As Sean highlights in his Paper, the Aus-PNG relationship is unique for many reasons – it is our only former colony, we shed more blood in PNG than anywhere else in World War 2, it's our closest and largest neighbour, and it's a significant trading partner. Yet we have only 15,462 Papua New Guineans living here. Interestingly, when you take a look at those in Australia born in PNG that number almost doubles to 26,787; clearly there are a lot of people in Australia with ties to PNG. Julie Bishop, as with most Australian politicians, has on numerous occasions called Papua New Guineans our 'dearest friends' yet somehow there are more Russians and Iranians, nations we are far less friendly with, living in Australia. [fold]

It's a strange and bizarre disconnect that Australia has more Polynesians than Melanesians calling it home. And, sadly, this disconnect is getting worse. Since 2001 the average annual growth rate for migrants from both PNG and the Solomon Islands has fallen, while Tonga's has increased and Samoa's has remained the highest in the region. The increase in the number of Samoans living in Australia over the last decade (almost 28,000) is almost twice the total number of Papua New Guineans living in Australia (15,462). As a result, the proportion of Polynesians among all Pacific Islanders is actually growing, and the proportion of Melanesians is shrinking.

PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu. These are the six countries in the Pacific that have the fewest labour mobility opportunities, and are generally the poorest as well. Their share of the Pacific population in Australia has fallen over the last five years from 13.6% to 12.7%. The increase in the stock of migrants from these six countries over the last five years has been 770 a year on average. That's a drop in the ocean. While a claim can be made for all of these neighbours to be given more migration options to Australia,  none are more deserving than PNG.

If Australia wants this relationship to mature beyond one of trade, aid, and asylum seekers, we can start by letting more Papua New Guineans in.

A full, and a little bit messy, dataset of my census analysis is available here.

Growth of Pacific Islanders in Australia 

Notes and sources: 2006 and 2011 Australian Censuses. This table does not include 'Fijian Indians' as they were not included as a demographic category in the 2006 census.

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