One of the key motivating factors for many of the refugees and migrants I know to make the (often treacherous) journey to Australia is the hope that in the future, they will be able to send money home to support relatives left behind. Some may call it “brain drain” and creating a culture of dependency, but most migrants would not call it that – in many non-Western cultures it is considered a moral duty or obligation to help extended family in whatever way possible; indeed that is how they survive (and often, thrive). We are a nation of “boat people,” and much of our prosperity has been built on the hard work of migrants, many of whom send remittances home. Over the next 5 years, it is estimated some extra 2.5 million extra skilled workers will be needed in Australia to meet industry needs, of which a significant portion will be temporary skilled migrants – many of whom will apply to stay on permanently. Australia also accepts approximately 13,000 refugees as part of its humanitarian program annually, and another significant amount on spouse visas or family reunion. However, Australia’s immigration program is not faultless, and we still have a long way to go before all migrants can consider themselves “lucky.”
From 2009 to 2011, 107, 868 skilled workers migrated to Australia, primarily from countries including the UK/Ireland, the Philippines, India and South Africa. Of these, approximately 70% are highly skilled such as doctors and engineers, many of whom find work in rural areas. Others, however, faced with systemic or cultural discrimination, are not so lucky. Miguel, for example, is a dentist from Peru who moved to Australia 5 years ago to marry his Australian wife. As his qualification is not recognised, since his arrival he has been studying English in order to reach the Occupational English Test (OET) score necessary to continue onto university or sit the Australian Dental Council exams (which he tells me, according to the experience of other dentists, are costly and extremely difficult to pass). The complexity of the system frustrates him, as he would be more than happy to work in a country town for a couple of years, where there is a true shortage of dentists, not to mention doctors and allied health professionals (the lack of consistency in Australia’s process of employing overseas-trained doctors is problematic both for our healthcare system, and for the doctors themselves).
In the future, he hopes to send money home to his family, who run a school for disadvantaged children – which is why Miguel’s remittances would make a vital contribution not only to his family’s wellbeing (for example, for medical expenses) but also to the educational opportunities of many children. Ironically, it is Miguel’s dad who currently sends him money from time to time, so he can stay on top of the bills. Not surprisingly, many migrants who find themselves in a similar situation – unable to work in their professions, or confronted by racial or systemic discrimination – return home, and it is estimated that up to one-third of permanent migrants return to their countries of origin each year.
I am also reminded of a Karen (Burmese) refugee family who arrived in Australia several years ago. At the time I was working as a settlement officer, and as usual I was waiting at Brisbane International Airport to greet the family and take them to their home. These are among the few you could truly call “lucky,” having fled from a life of persecution and uncertainty in Burma and Thailand to one of relative security and prosperity in Australia. I will never forget, however, that upon unpacking their bags and sitting down for our first conversation, the first thing the couple asked me was “where are we going to work?” I explained they didn’t have to worry about that for now, and that in the meantime the government would support them while they studied English.
Yet I know that eventually, when this couple do find work, they will surely send some money back to their relatives living illegally in Thailand and Malaysia, many of whom would otherwise have virtually no other source of income. It is also heartening to see that among the migrants and refugees who come to Australia, not all stay here just because of economic reasons – since the declaration of Southern Sudanese independence, for example, many Sudanese refugees educated in Australia have now chosen to return in an effort to rebuild their fledgling nation. In a small but significant way, migration and remittances thus play a vital role in helping to bridge the gap between the Global North and Global South, and helping to turn around the luck of those who would otherwise truly be considered “unlucky.”