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What are the Implications of Australia’s New Pacific Engagement Visa for its Regional Relationships?

Christopher Hogan

Image sourced from Christopher Johnson via Flickr.


On the 3rd of June, Australia’s new permanent migration pathway, the Pacific Engagement Visa (PEV), opened to the first applicants from Pacific Island Countries (PICs) and Timor-Leste. This visa represents a new milestone in Australia’s Indo-Pacific relationships as it looks to counter the rising influence of China in the region. 


The PEV is notably not framed in the contemporary language of targeting skilled migrants solely for economic gain. Instead, it emphasises the social capital angle of growing and developing Australia’s Pasifika and Timorese diasporas in government literature.


The new visa will see the arrival of a maximum of 3,000 persons from 10 eligible countries each year, although strict application guidelines may further limit this number. This raises questions over the Australian government’s objectives for the new visa and its potential impacts on migrants’ communities and countries of origin.


Pacific-Australia Migration Flows


The PEV creates a new chapter in a complex history of Pacific-Australia migration flows. Its most infamous chapter is the ‘blackbirding’ of labourers, predominantly from Melanesia, in the late 19th century. This remains a stain on Australia’s migration history, with ongoing semantic debate focused on whether it crossed the line between indentured labour and slavery rather than its impacts on migrants themselves. 


Migration in the 20th century was limited with the introduction of the White Australia Policy by the newly federated Australian parliament in 1901. The repeal of that policy encouraged a steady stream of naturalised New Zealanders with Polynesian backgrounds to migrate via the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement (TTTA) leading to the growth of a Pasifika diaspora, predominantly in Sydney and Brisbane. 


The early 21st century has seen significant flows of Pacific migrants from a wider range of countries through structured seasonal employment programs such as the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme (PALMS) and its forebears. This scheme, in combination with the PEV, adds a new dimension to the complex debate on Pacific-Australia migration flows. PALMS has raised important ongoing questions over the rights of workers, the delivery of development outcomes for origin countries, and the potential for brain drain in Australian discourse. Consequently, these and similar schemes globally are increasingly subject to debate about both their implicit intentions and impacts on individuals.


Climate Perspectives


A key argument for labour migration globally in governmental and academic settings is the role of remittance income in supporting local communities, although this is limited by a lack of understanding of broader holistic wellbeing outcomes. Remittances have become a significant source of income and foreign currency for PICs but has led to them becoming increasingly reliant on the economies of Australia.


Nevertheless, the PEV could counter climate change concerns and impacts on PICs and local communities - a powerful capability given their heightened exposure. Remittances are important in this context given their role in recovery processes following natural disasters, which will only increase as climate change progresses. 


As such, Australia’s role in contributing to climate change cannot go unremarked. As the third largest exporter of fossil fuels globally, Australia’s political economic reliance on primary resources means that there is little policy will for divestment on the timeframes required to avoid climate change. This has been and continues to be an ongoing point of tension between Australia and its Pacific neighbours.


Economic integration or dependence?


Another explanation for the PEV’s introduction is growing geopolitical tensions and Australia’s agitation with a more geopolitically assertive China in the Pacific theatre. Many islands throughout the Pacific are seen in military and foreign affairs circles as forming Australia’s arc of defence, an issue that came to the fore with the Solomon Islands 2022 security deal with China. 


Through a realist lens, the PEV could be seen as an attempt to use Australia’s economic and geographic comparative advantages to further integrate itself with the Pacific and offset climate tensions. Another example of Australia’s activity in this space can be seen in the recent signing of a climate migration deal with Tuvalu


The PALMS has created significant economic leverage beyond the development and aid portfolios, given it is a major source of income for participating countries. Yet this is complicated by a growing dependence on PALMs workers in Australia’s agriculture and horticulture due to their productivity


This dependence is further being exacerbated as Pacific-Australia labour migration moves beyond unemployed and underemployed workers to increasingly attract skilled workers following growing employer demand in Australia post-COVID-19. This is fuelling ongoing concerns of a ‘brain-drain’ to Australia, adding to ongoing sustainable development and poverty alleviation challenges while increasing reliance on labour migrants’ remittances and therefore Australia’s economy. This has incited calls for the benefits of the TTTA to be expanded to include Pacific countries by some, which is of little interest to Australia and New Zealand.


Conclusion


In summary, the new PEV visa, as well as existing structured labour migration pathways, can be seen to be tools for developing and integrating Pacific communities by socio-economic, developmental, and diasporic means. However, it can also be viewed as leverage against PICs in the context of growing geopolitical tensions in the region and across the globe. Only time will tell whether the PEV meets the triple-wins that define successful labour migration development outcomes, however its future relationships with PICs will almost certainly depend on it.



Christopher Hogan is a PhD student in Demography and Geography at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia. He is currently researching the wellbeing of temporary labour migrants to assess the impact of the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme. He also works as a Statistical Analyst in the Australian Bureau of Statistics Population Statistics Branch.

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