• Analysis
  • September 11, 2018
  • 10 minutes
  • 2

Government can send immigrants to rural areas. But can it make them stay?

Canada and Australia take very different approaches to encouraging regional settlement

In the three years to 2020, Canada will welcome almost a million new immigrants. Hundreds of thousands will settle in cosmopolitan cities like Toronto and Vancouver, where nearly half the population is foreign-born. But other parts of the country want a slice of the action — and federal immigration policy is trying to help them get it.

An uneven distribution of immigrants is common: new migrants are drawn to “gateway cities” with a track record of welcoming newcomers. In Australia, for example, nearly two-thirds of new immigrants to Australia settle in Melbourne or Sydney. That dynamic can put pressure on big cities, while other parts of a country struggle with population declines.

Both Canada and Australia have responded using immigration policy, designing special categories of visa to encourage immigration to less popular regions. But once migrants arrive, getting them to stay is a further challenge — one the two countries are tackling in very different ways.

Beyond the gateway

Australia and Canada are two of the nations widely dubbed “countries of immigration”. Australia has the highest foreign-born population of any developed country; Canada’s multiculturalism was world-renowned even before Justin Trudeau doubled down on it. Business and local government leaders have come to see migration as a boon, and become restive when the benefits don’t flow to them.

According to Kareem El-Assal, an immigration analyst at the Conference Board of Canada, “the various [Canadian] provinces went to the federal government throughout the 90s and early 2000s, saying that they weren’t getting their fair share of immigrants.”

Similar calls came in Australia from outside the two most populated states.

In response, the federal governments in both countries have carved out special programs to decentralise immigration.

Half of Canada’s economic immigrants are chosen by provincial governments. Provinces set the criteria they use to nominate migrants, who are then only checked for health and security risks by the federal government. The federal government also approves provinces’ criteria, to avoid a race to the bottom.

In Australia, nomination by a state government doesn’t guarantee a place in the country, but it does give applicants extra points which increase their chances of getting a visa.

The two countries also have more tailored programs which encourage migration to rural areas.

A new pilot in Canada makes admission easier for immigrants sponsored by an employer in one of the four sparsely populated Atlantic provinces. In Australia, two special visas — one temporary, and one permanent — allow entry for immigrants to work in regional Australia, away from the biggest cities.

A regional backdoor

But migrants’ desires to move to a handful of major cities poses a challenge. What’s to stop an immigrant accepting a job offer in a less popular area — or even just promising they plan to move there — and then abandoning it once they’ve made it into the country?

Canada can prosecute and deport immigrants if they’re found to have lied on their residency applications. Federal authorities are investigating a scheme in which hundreds of people are alleged to have used fake addresses after moving to Prince Edward Island, one of the Atlantic provinces that benefits from a tailored visa scheme.

But in general it’s difficult to prove that migrants intended to deceive, El-Assal said, rather than simply changing their plans on arrival, so residency revocations are rare.

The real challenge is what to do about those immigrants who do change their minds. Some Australian employers have complained after migrant workers who’d signed up to work in rural areas found the environment inhospitable and quickly moved to the city.

Figures given to Parliament by the Australian immigration department suggest that 10% of migrants who settle in a regional area move within 18 months of their arrival.

In Canada, most provinces lose about a fifth of economic migrants within five years. And retention rates are much lower for some — just 45.1% of economic-class immigrants who arrived in New Brunswick in 2010 were still living there in 2015, and less than 15% in Prince Edward Island.

“The conundrum will remain for all of them about retention,” said David Crawford, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer with experience in Australia and Canada.

Getting tough

Although they face a common difficulty, governments in Australia and Canada have taken very different approaches to responding to it.

Australian politicians have been more drawn to a punitive approach, which would make it very difficult for immigrants to regional areas to move away.

The use of temporary visas has been one way of making migrants stick to their plans. Transition to a permanent visa can be made conditional on having stayed in a regional area during their temporary residence, according to David Radford, a sociology lecturer at the University of South Australia.

But not many temporary regional visas are now issued, as the bulk of migration shifts towards the permanent scheme and other categories, leaving enforcement relatively light. “Other than the fact that they’re told to stay, I don’t think there’s anything stopping them leaving,” Radford said.

That’s left the government looking for new options. “We’re looking at ways that we can effectively bind people to the regions,” minister for multicultural affairs Alan Tudge said in May.

The suggestion sparked outcry from migrant advocacy groups, and wasn’t supported by rural organisations like the Regional Australia Institute. That hasn’t stopped the country’s new prime minister, Scott Morrison, pushing ahead with the plan.

Or laying the table

It’s an approach foreign to the Canadian system. Provincial nominees, as well as those granted the new pilot Atlantic visa, are granted permanent residency from the off. And though retention rates are broadly comparable to those in Australia, and much lower in some provinces, there’s been no call for a more punitive approach.

“I haven’t heard anything along those lines,” Crawford said. “There’s a large-scale consensus, regardless of who you speak with, that the provincial programs are a huge success,” El-Assal agreed.

Instead governments have focused on proactively drawing migrants to their regions, through overseas promotion missions, and trying to select those most likely to stay. Immigrants from a religious or cultural community that’s already established in the province, for example, are less likely to move away, as are those whose skills fit the particular needs of a provincial labour market.

Some governments are looking to draw migrants not only to their province, but also to less populous communities within it

But that’s mostly taken the form of involving municipalities in selection of provincial nominees, and some discussion of expanding the Atlantic provinces pilot to employers in rural communities across the country.

It’s the kind of approach that many in Australia would also prefer.

“Obviously to get people to come to rural and regional areas you need employment,” Radford said. “But for them to stay you need belonging.”

That’s made harder because settlement services are typically not as well-resourced in small rural towns as in major cities. Local leadership, too, makes an enormous difference to whether migrants feel welcome in a regional area, according to Radford.

That might be more readily found in Canada. “Canadians, for the most part, see immigration as a good thing,” Crawford said.

That means more of the kind of welcome that’s crucial to making regional migration work. “Successful immigration is not just about getting someone in the country,” he said. “It’s about successful settlement.” — Fergus Peace

(Picture credit: Flickr/Mark Wassell)

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