Lens Blog

Psychological insight on current affairs


posted on 7th August 2019 by Fergus Peace

Since Boris Johnson used his first appearance in Parliament as PM to declare his intention to create an “Australian-style points-based system” for immigration, there’s been plenty of discussion about just what that means. The Migration Observatory has the best rundown of what the Australian system actually is, while Jonathan Portes and Marley Morris provide useful analysis of what Johnson’s enthusiasm for it might tell us about future British policy.

The common theme in most commentary, unfortunately, is that the new prime minister doesn’t exactly know what he’s talking about. The “Australian-style system” may be more a PR move – in focus groups, members of the public often mention an Australian system as their model of a controlled approach – than any very specific policy commitment. Certainly the main feature of true points-based systems – de-emphasising the need for a job offer – doesn’t seem to be part of what Johnson and new Home Secretary Priti Patel have in mind.

But if the government did want to learn from Australia’s approach to immigration policy, what might the lessons be? If nothing else, Johnson’s comments suggest he is willing to take a different tack to that suggested in last year’s white paper – and there are plenty of elements of the Australian system that Britain could benefit from adopting.

1. Don’t build the immigration system on a desire to slash numbers

One of the defining features of British migration policy since 2010 has been its subordination to David Cameron’s promise to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. The net migration target has left the government reluctant to do anything that might increase migration flows, and constantly in search of ways to restrict it.

That could hardly be further removed from Australia’s approach. In discussion of the points-based system canard, it’s often been pointed out that Australia’s approach is actually more liberal than Britain’s. But the full scale of that difference is not really appreciated.

The most recent Australian net migration statistics show that, in the twelve months to June 2018, migration added 237,224 people to Australia’s population. The most recent figures for the UK show a net migration rate of around 258,000.

The UK’s population, of course, is significantly larger than Australia’s: 66.4 million in mid-2018, compared to 25 million in Australia. If the UK welcomed immigrants at the same proportional rate as Australia, net migration would be more than 630,000 per year.

This is not to say that Britain should actually aim to more than double the level of immigration. Australia and the UK are quite different countries, and Britain has never had a deliberate policy of population growth as Australia often has. (Though one point I’ve often heard in this context, that Australia is simply a much bigger country, is not really relevant given that as many as 90% of new immigrants to Australia go to just two cities.)

In fact, given that there is no target for net migration, Australia itself does not even aim to achieve this high immigration rate. There is no reason the UK should aim to replicate it. But that high rate does underline that there is definitely no reason to adopt a goal of slashing numbers.

The Australian model shows the likely shape of a migration policy not driven by such arbitrary targets. There is much more room for policymakers to take decisions responding to particular economic and social needs, without a restrictionist target hanging over their heads. Australia has a much more liberal approach to the immigration of family members and to international students. These are areas where, to be blunt, there is no real argument for cutting numbers – but the UK government has refused to accept that because of its self-imposed need to slash immigration overall. 

More broadly, Australia’s experience also illustrates that substantially higher levels of immigration are possible without causing overwhelming strain on public services or significant social problems. There is no reason to think that British people are, by nature, more xenophobic than Australians are. Politicians’ insistence that people in the UK cannot possibly tolerate even moderately high immigration levels is nothing but a dramatic failure of leadership.

2. Resettle ten times as many refugees from conflict regions

That lack of leadership is nowhere more evident than when it comes to refugee resettlement. Although asylum seekers are always a source of contention in the politics of wealthy Western countries, the overwhelming majority of refugees live near their countries of origin, in precarious situations in refugee camps or urban areas. Resettlement involves bringing refugees from those countries – such as Turkey, Kenya and Bangladesh – directly to countries like Australia or the UK.

The UK has historically not had a resettlement programme of any serious scale. From 2004, the government operated a scheme that brought around 750 refugees each year to Britain. Numbers have increased substantially in recent years, after David Cameron promised to settle thousands of Syrian refugees in response to the death of Alan Kurdi. That scheme aimed to bring 20,000 refugees to Britain over four years; this year, after needless delays, the government announced that it will settle 5,000 more refugees in 2020.

Australia’s current refugee intake is set at 18,750 people each year. That regular intake, by population, is equivalent to resettling just under 50,000 refugees per year in the UK. And Syrian refugees – who constituted the entirety of Britain’s resettlement programme – were admitted separately, in addition to that number.

Refugee resettlement should, in many ways, be straightforward for politicians to endorse. Governments know exactly who is coming, bring them straight from refugee camps and other vulnerable situations, and are actively involved in helping them settle – giving ready-made responses to the usual concerns raised about security, or whether asylum seekers are ‘genuine’. Australia’s politics around asylum seekers are, to say the very least, vastly more toxic than Britain’s. But the country has nonetheless been steadily expanding its resettlement programme for several decades. The current intake is, in fact, the moderate level chosen by a right-wing government. The opposition Labor Party wants to expand it by more than 70%, and the Greens (who, in Australia, are the third-largest party) would nearly triple it.

Successful resettlement schemes require a well-established infrastructure of charities and support agencies, so there’s no way Britain can match the commitments of Australia overnight. But there is no reason we shouldn’t be trying. The resettlement programme for Syrian refugees in the UK has been widely seen as a success, and Australia’s efforts show that with more leadership Britain could be helping tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people in the world.

3. Abolish all income requirements for family migration

In 2011, the UK introduced a new minimum income requirement for spouses. British citizens can only bring their partner to the UK if they earn at least £18,500, a level which more than 40% of people in work do not meet. The immigration rules do not take any account of what their partner could earn in the country after arriving. The income threshold is, theoretically, set at the level where a household would stop being eligible for means-tested benefits – but people on partner visas were already barred from accessing public funds. This is a requirement that clearly exists only to cut numbers, and divides families to achieve that. In 2013-14, four thousand spouse visas were denied due to this rule, and without doubt thousands more every year do not apply at all because they know they’re ineligible.

The minimum income requirement has been the target of vigorous campaigning and legal challenges, so far without success. If the government wants to learn something from Australia’s migration system, it would abolish income requirements altogether: as in Canada and New Zealand, sponsoring partners do not have to meet any income test. In fact, Britain’s income requirement is among the highest in the world, surpassed only by Norway (where incomes are some 60% higher.) The Australian approach is not perfect – the fee to apply for a spouse visa is significantly higher, for example – but it recognises some basic truths that British policy does not. Citizens should not be stopped from living with the person they love by arbitrary hurdles, particularly when they are designed not to make anyone’s lives better but simply to pursue a one-eyed obsession with reducing numbers.

4. Create permanent visa pathways

Another feature which Australia’s system shares with other traditional ‘immigration countries’ is its approach to permanent settlement. There are a range of visas for those seeking to move to Australia which grant permanent residence immediately. In Britain, by contrast, the system is built on the premise that migration is temporary. Immigrants can apply for permanent residence if they happen to still be in the country after a period, usually around five years, and meet other conditions. But none are welcomed to the country initially on the basis that they will be staying and building a life here.

The historical reasons for this are straightforward. Britain has sought immigrants to meet specific needs – from the staffing needs of the new NHS, met by the Windrush generation, to the demand for seasonal agricultural workers – whereas Australia had a broader aim, to grow its population by welcoming ‘New Australians’.

But in the context of debates about integration and social change, it could be time for a rethink. Opposition to immigration tends to be highest among people who think that immigrants aren’t trying to become part of British society. At present, though, the design of the immigration system specifically tells migrants that they aren’t part of society. And the Immigration White Paper produced under Theresa May would move even further in that direction, with 12-month visas that would increase churn and give migrants even less reason to settle into a society that’s planning to rapidly make them leave. If permanent visas are too steep a shift from the current approach, the minimum lesson to take from Australia is that building a successful migration programme and achieving social integration should mean longer time limits, not shorter ones.

5. Create work visas without employer ties

The role of employer sponsorship in Australian immigration is one thing that has been discussed quite extensively, because it’s closely tied to the mechanics of the famous points-based system. In Britain, at present, work visas are only granted to people with a job offer or transferring within their company from overseas. Some alternative routes, such as the Youth Mobility Scheme, give migrants the right to work without needing an employer sponsor, but these visas are primarily not meant for work purposes.

That doesn’t apply, of course, to EU citizens, who can come to Britain without a job offer and work for any employer without Home Office approval. The government’s plan is for that to end after Brexit, with most labour migration coming within the employer sponsorship system. The one exception is the 12-month work visa proposed in the White Paper, which don’t tie migrants to a particular employer and are intended for low-wage occupations.

This proposal exists largely because hundreds of thousands of jobs currently filled by migrants are not eligible for sponsored visas, because of their skill and salary levels. But there are huge benefits to untying visas from particular employers, which are by no means restricted to low-wage occupations. The Center for Global Development recently summarised research showing that untied visas lead to migrant workers facing far lower rates of exploitation and abuse, as well as being paid higher wages, reducing the risk of undercutting.

Australia’s points-based system allows migrants to come to the country without a job offer and grants them unrestricted rights to move between jobs, through several different visa routes. That system recognises the benefits of eliminating employer ties, and the fact that people don’t need to secure a job offer in advance to make immensely valuable contributions to society. The UK previously had a pathway for highly skilled migrants to settle in the country, but Theresa May as home secretary raised doubts that it was functioning effectively and – rather than attempting to reform it – closed it down within eight months of taking office. Learning from the Australian system would involve rejecting that kind of kneejerk scepticism about immigration and instead looking to realise the advantages of a less restrictive approach.

6. Find ways of encouraging immigration outside big cities

One widely-discussed fact about migration and public attitudes in the UK is that the areas most hostile to immigration are the places that have experienced the least of it. This is sometimes cited as evidence that hostility to migration is born from ignorance, and that social contact with migrants can dramatically change attitudes.

That is part of the story – but another part is that these are communities with the least reason to believe in the benefits of migration, because they haven’t seen them. Migrants not only fill crucial jobs in sectors like social care, construction and the NHS, but also bring immense entrepreneurial spirit and cultural dynamism to the places they settle. But those places are mainly big cities, especially London – and so the advantages of immigration fall along pre-existing regional divides.

One way to tackle the regional divide – in both economic dynamism and public attitudes – is by making sure the financial benefits of immigration are spread more fairly throughout the country, as our recent report proposing a Migration Dividend Fund argued.

Another way is to do more to ensure that migration directly benefits all parts of the country. Many of the places most opposed to immigration are facing challenges – declining working-age populations, difficulty convincing young people to stay in the area – that migration is well placed to address. Australia, where many small towns have similar demographic problems, has embraced immigration as part of the solution. Several different visa types are available for immigrants who want to live and work in rural Australia, helping deliver workers and sustain the population. More broadly, state governments are given a role in migration policy so that different parts of the country can attract the different kinds of migrants they need.

The UK has never seriously considered trying to encourage migration to different parts of the country. In fact, inflexible criteria like the £30,000 salary threshold and the minimum income requirement for spouses are much easier to satisfy in London than elsewhere – meaning migrants are, as a matter of policy, directed to the capital. And calls for any kind of devolution or subnational input to immigration policy, which have regularly been made by the Scottish government and more recently by Sadiq Khan, are quickly dismissed by the Home Office. The case for reforming policy to encourage migration to more parts of the country, and how Britain could go about doing that, will be presented in an upcoming Global Future report. Australia’s approach shows the potential benefits of making that move.

7. Liberalise student migration

Theresa May, as home secretary and then prime minister, fought a long and lonely battle against international students. Against the views of other Cabinet ministers, she insisted that international students frequently overstayed their visas and abused the system, and imposed costs on public services and local areas.

Those arguments have been entirely refuted, by a Migration Advisory Committee report and by internal Home Office data which the government tried not to publish. But the restrictive policy introduced still remains, most notably the abolition of a post-study work visa and the expansion of bureaucratic requirements and interviews. That’s driven a rapid decline in positive perceptions of the UK as a place to study, and stagnation of enrolment numbers.

Australia, meanwhile, has conducted a series of reviews aimed at identifying policy change needed to attract more international students. Enrolments in Australia have been increasing rapidly, in contrast to the flatlining number in Britain. Universities UK last year estimated that matching Australia’s international student growth rate would have increased education exports by £4.45 billion in 2017.

8. Invest more in integration services

Another result of the contrast between Australia’s history as a country of immigration and Britain’s of seeking immigrants for particular purposes is in the level of government commitment to integration.

Australia has a well-established ‘settlement sector’, consisting of a network of government services and non-profit organisations which work to help new migrants settle into their new society. In Britain, on the other hand, public debate still frames integration primarily as a demand imposed on immigrants, rather than a duty of the government to promote cohesive communities and ensure migrants’ access to opportunity.

When it comes to language learning, for example, politicians in the UK have insisted that learning English is crucial to migrants’ integration while presiding over a 60% cut in funds for English classes. Australia’s main programme for newly-arrived immigrants, the Adult Migrant English Programme (AMEP), now has a budget more than 50% higher than the UK government’s entire spending on English classes for speakers of other languages, in a country some 60% smaller in population. New migrants are entitled, not just as a matter of policy but by legislation, to 510 hours of English tuition, and around 60,000 people are served by AMEP each year.

The differences in migration history may explain why Britain has historically neglected integration, but they don’t make it justifiable. The reality is that immigration is a major and continuing part of British life, and that is not about to change. Integration services are vital to enabling migrants to make the best of their lives in Britain, and to promoting healthy communities.

Much to learn

What’s notable about many of these aspects of Australian migration policy is the way they work together.

Higher net migration and a vastly more generous refugee resettlement programme are both easily manageable when the government is dedicated to ensuring integration and settlement services are effective. Longer-term or permanent visas, offered on the premise that migrants are not just temporary guests but full members of society, are a natural fit with a stronger focus on integration. Work visas without employer sponsors and special visas to settle in rural areas both build on the understanding that there are many ways for migrants to contribute to society, beyond merely filling a specific job opening at a specific time.

Needless to say, there are many parts of Australia’s approach to immigration that nobody should be replicating. Fees are often high, and some of the country’s temporary visas create conditions ripe for exploitation and abuse of workers. And, of course, Australia’s offshore refugee processing regime – which deliberately inflicts harm on asylum seekers, in the words of the chief psychiatrist responsible for their wellbeing – is routinely condemned by advocates and the UN for its total disregard of human rights.

Nor is it likely, or necessarily desirable, that the UK is going to adopt wholesale the attitudes and policies of a country which has always seen migration as essential to its national growth. But if Boris Johnson does want to look towards Australia, there are worse lessons he could learn than these eight – all of which recognise, and try to maximise, the benefits of immigration. Migrants already make huge contributions to Britain, but reformed policy could make our migration story even better.