Symposium calls for more research on the social cost of Temporary Migration

Our Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation held last week (6 July 2012) a national symposium on ‘multiculturalism’, which attempted to connect theory and academic research to policymaking and community practice.

Indeed, and whilst the speakers from academe reflected on such concepts as feminism, cosmopolitanism, liberal democratic theory and social justice, a panel withprominent policy and community representatives provided ample pointers as to where the real gaps lie in this often polarised debate.

The genesis for the symposium was a genuine search for a systematic conduit linking abstract theory to practical issues in the broad multicultural policy arena. The Federal government released its latest policy articulation in 2011 and Minister Bowen summed it up rather nicely when he called it ‘genius of Australian multiculturalism’. Many would argue with Bowen’s positive assessment and indeed the current debate about asylum seekers would be used a case in point revealing the limit of tolerance and care towards the most vulnerable of all human being, forced migrants fleeing persecution, torture and civil wars.

But if one wants to explore the other side of this ‘genius’, then it is possible to point out to the millions of migrants (including refugees and asylum seekers) who settled in Australia quite successfully since the post war period and who overwhelmingly contributed to the fabric of contemporary Australia in all walks of life. This perhaps, more than any other fact illustrates the genius of Australian multiculturalism: an ability to integrate newcomers irrespective of their religious beliefs, ethnic backgrounds, skin colour, socio-economic status and other personal and/or life style choices.  

Now to come back to our symposium. The policy panel included Dr Hass Dellal Executive Director of the Australian Multicultural Foundation, Carmel Guerra, Chief Executive Officer, Centre for Multicultural Youth, Mr Warren Pearson, Assistant Secretary, Multicultural Affairs, Department of Immigration and Citizenship and Mr Chin Tan, Chairperson, Victorian Multicultural Commission. Each reflected on the key challenges from their own perspective and that of their respective organisations. And whilst all agree academic research needs to connect more closely with people most affected by multicultural policy, they also pointed out to areas where research is sorely needed.

And nowhere was this evident than in the ‘temporary migration’ issue which is seeing a massive increase in numbers for those on short term visas (including international students) without much assessment of the impact of this visa status on issues pertaining to social inclusion, local belonging, human rights and family reunion.  

The expansion of the temporary component of Australia’s migration program has implications at both conceptual and policy levels, for individual migrants, communities and states. The existence of temporary working visas raises questions about how social justice and political engagement are framed, how rights are articulated for workers without permanent residency, and how individuals operating within a transnational context are supported and included in Australian society.

And this is an important if challenging new research agenda that will need to be approached with rigor, objectivity and an open mind from all concerned stakeholders because the social and economic implications for Australia are very significant in the medium to long term.

Fethi Mansouri