Attracting skilled migrants to regional areas: what does it take?

Author:Hugo, Graeme

For some time government policy has tried to encourage permanent migrants to settle outside the major cities in so-called regional areas. This policy has met with limited success (even though the term 'regional' has often included Melbourne). In 2003 the policy was extended to temporary migrants entering on 457 work visas. A large survey of principal visa holders on 457 visas suggests that there are a number of conditions that would have to be met if this policy were to be successful.


One of the distinctive features of immigration to Australia is the strong pattern of spatial concentration of where immigrants settle. This applies not only to traditional permanent immigrants who have settled disproportionately in Australia's major cities (1) but also to the more recently introduced skilled temporary migrants. (2) This has been attributed to the significance of ethnic networks in shaping where immigrants settle as well as the diversity and number of job opportunities in large cities. (3) However, one of the many major shifts in immigration policy in Australia in the last decade (4) has been the introduction of special visa categories which allow people to enter the country to live and/or work provided they settle outside of designated areas of high levels of immigrant settlement. This trend toward regionalisation of immigration has not only occurred in Australia but also in a number of federations and quazi federations, (5) notably Canada. (6)

The idea of making immigration contingent upon settlement in a particular part of the destination country (for at least a specified period) is not new. In Australia, for example, the immigration of displaced persons from Eastern Europe in the late 1940s and early 1950s involved them being allocated to areas of labour shortage, often in regional and remote locations where they were to stay and work for a period of at least two years. (7) However, the recent efforts to influence where immigrants settle in Australia represents a considerable departure from the post World War II immigration and settlement practice for at least two reasons:

* First, whereas the Commonwealth has control over immigration and settlement, states and territories are now playing an increasingly significant role in the immigration program and in the delivery of services to assist in the integration of settlers.

* Second, whereas, immigration has long been seen as an element in national economic development, the new schemes see immigration specifically as a facilitator of regional development, especially in regions seen to be 'lagging'.

Despite these significant changes there has been a general lack of research into the nature and effects of regional migration. Moreover, while it is clear that migrants have in the past been drawn disproportionately to settle in particular parts of the country because of the existence of strong social networks with previous migrants, the presence of ethnic-based job opportunities, the availability of cultural, social and economic support, and diversity of opportunity, little is known of the factors which could make areas which have had little recent immigration more attractive to migrants. The present paper seeks to make a contribution in this area.


In May 1996, the annual meeting involving Commonwealth, state and territory ministers for immigration and multicultural affairs established a working party on regional migration, which heralded a new era in patterns of migrant settlement. The working party examined ways in which a higher proportion of migrants might settle in regional Australia. Accordingly, a number of initiatives were taken to attract immigrants to areas which are currently receiving small intakes under the State Specific Migration Mechanisms (SSMMs).

SSRM initiatives enable employers, state/territory governments or relatives to sponsor prospective skilled migrants. Mechanisms include the:

* Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (RSMS)

* State/Territory Nominated Independent (STNI) scheme

* Skilled Designated Area Sponsored Visa Categories (SDAS)

* Skilled Designated Area Sponsored Overseas Student Category

* Skilled Onshore Designated Area Sponsored New Zealand Citizen Category

* Regional Established Business in Australia (REBA)

* Skilled Independent Regional (Provisions) Category (SIR).

An interesting development in 2004 was the development of the Skilled Independent Regional (SIR) Visa. This is a two-stage process. An applicant who is five points short of the 115 points (8) required to enter Australia under the skilled (9) migration scheme is able to apply for this visa. These persons are granted a three-year temporary residence visa provided they settle in a regional area. After two years they will be assessed to establish that they have settled successfully, and if so, they can apply for an RSMS or STNI visa. This represents an important change since it makes a fundamental distinction between types of migrants--settlers and provisional settlers. The precedent was established in the Australian government's action in 1999 to introduce a three-year Temporary Protection Visa for persons who entered Australia as asylum seekers and were assessed onshore as having a valid claim for refugee status. By comparison, other refugees accepted offshore were granted full settler status. In March 2003, the same approach was applied to business skills migrants. While some 'high calibre' business migrants are granted permanent residence directly under the Business Talent visa category, (10) most of the other business skills migrants also face the same two-stage procedure, with an initial grant of a provisional visa, and the success of any later application for permanent residence contingent upon evidence of satisfactory business or investment activity.

A crucial element in the SSRM scheme is the definition of 'regional' since eligibility is...

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