Immigration: We can choose our skills, but we can't choose our family

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Immigration: We can choose our skills, but we can't choose our family

Posted 13/11/2013 by Gareth Larsen

Picture source: DIBP
Whilst boat arrivals, asylum seekers, skilled permanent and temporary programs and even students have kept immigration featured in our politics and newspapers, family migration receives little share of public debate. This is intriguing as family migration is a bigger part of permanent migration than official planning levels would lead us to believe.

Migration Program planning levels fluctuate according to the political, social and economic imperatives of the government of the day. In the mid-1970s, the planned annual intake reached a low of 50,000 places and gradually climbed to the 1988 peak of 145,000 and then reduced to 80,000 by 1993.

As can be seen in Figure 1, the Migration Program's intrinsic tie to economic growth under the Howard Government saw a steady and sustained increase in the planned migration intake and proportionally more places allocated in the Skill Stream. Between 1995-96 and 2013-14, the composition of the program shifted from around 70 per cent family to around 32 per cent  (Department of Immigration and Border Protection and Australian Bureau of Statistics figures). Taken on face value, skilled places now account for around two-thirds of the Migration Program (128,550 places in the Skill Stream) whilst the Family Stream accounts for just 60,885 places (see Figure 2).

Figure 1 – Historic Migration Program planning levels, number of program places available by year and Stream (Parliamentary Library analysis using DIBP and ABS statistics).
Figure 2 – Skilled and family as a proportion of the Migration Program (Parliamentary Library analysis using DIBP and ABS statistics).
At the October 2013 Migration Institute of Australia (MIA) conference, the incoming Government announced that the Skill Stream of the Migration Program would not fall below two-thirds of the total Migration Program—around its current level. This commitment echoes an economically-focussed approach.

However, there may be more to consider when looking at family as a component of the Migration Program. Whilst 128,550 places are available in the Skill Stream, the first skilled migrant to occupy a place may also bring a partner or other dependents who all occupy a place in the Skill Stream. The reality is that the family of skilled migrants, or as they are better known 'secondary visa holders' occupy over 50 per cent of the Skill Stream. In the following analysis, these are referred to as ‘informal’ family places as they sit outside of the official Family Stream and actually reduce the number of skilled places available in the Skill Stream.

Figures 3 and 4 illustrate skilled, family and ‘informal’ family numbers and proportions, and on this basis, it may be interpreted that family accounts for the largest share of the Migration Program.

Figure 3 – Skilled, family and ‘informal’ family as components of the Migration Program  (Parliamentary Library analysis using DIBP statistics - only secondary data from 2002-03 to 2011-12 available).

Figure 4 – Skilled, family and ‘informal’ family as a proportion of the Migration Program  (Parliamentary Library analysis using DIBP statistics - only secondary data from 2002-03 to 2011-12 available).
As we prepare to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the International Year of the Family, what is the role of family in our economy and society? The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) identifies that the family unit can provide individuals with security: financial, emotional and physical, and migrants’ families can also provide context for culture and traditions.
In an economic context, Parent migration is perceived to be a net cost to the Commonwealth Budget, however, Partners and other family (in the Family Program) appear to have a net positive fiscal contribution given their solid labour market outcomes (DIAC 2011) and strong gains are recorded across the Skill Stream, presumably across both across primary and secondary visa holders (Access Economics, 2008). 
DIBP identifies that labour market outcomes may be optimised in the short-term by influencing the type of skilled migrant or by favouring more partner/spouse places within the Family Stream. Whilst these are important considerations in Migration Program planning, the following points are highlighted from this analysis: 
  • Migration program planners only control for the formal Family Stream of the Migration Program. The 'informal' family occupying part of the Skill Stream is at present not controlled.
  • Over half of the Skill Stream places are occupied by accompanying family members.
  • Only one-third of the entire Migration Program formally addresses Australia's skill needs.
With skills again the focus, family remains an important part of the picture.



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