FAZAL RIZVI. Migration Ain’t What It Used to Be

Jun 16, 2016

That Asian-Australians are making a substantial contribution to the Australian economy is a fact that can no longer be contested. This contribution is of enormous significance, especially as Australia seeks to become integrated into the regional economy.

The issues of how this contribution might be mapped and enhanced are examined in a report released by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA). The report provides a discussion of the business opportunities that Asian Australians have, as well as the challenges they face. It also provides a discussion of how Australia, and its major institutions, might address these challenges. The report was released by Australia’s Chief Scientist on May 26.

The basic premise of the report is that much of the discussion of the Asian Australian experience is based on limited data, which is confined to the narrow categories of migration and migrant settlement. The data does not also refer to Asian Australians of the second and subsequent generations, permanent residents, work visa holders, international students and those of mixed cultural backgrounds, who nonetheless view themselves as having an Asian background.

Furthermore, in popular imagination the idea of migration continues to be associated with the deficit notions of marginalisation and disadvantage. Economically productive aspects of Australia’s cultural diversity are often overlooked. What is more, the traditional notion of migration does not adequately recognise the transnational experiences and networks of many Asian Australians.

Migrant experiences are not, the report insists, what they used to be. They no longer involve an expectation of permanent detachment from a migrant’s country of origin. Dual and even multiple citizenships have now become available to many Asian Australians. Their decision to migrate is much better informed than ever before, as is their ability to remain connected with friends and family at home and elsewhere, using new communication and transport technologies.

Transnationalism has thus become a permanent feature of cross-border mobility for purposes that are becoming much more diverse and complex that they might have once been. Increasingly it is not the individuals but ethnic networks that move, and cross-border flows are now in multiple directions. At the same time, over the past decade, the number of skilled migrants has been greater than that of the unskilled.

The report thus demands a new analytical and policy approach to describe Asian-Australian experiences. It suggests that the traditional ‘migration logic’ is no longer sufficient to capture the transnational networks and experiences of many Asian Australians. It suggests that the term ‘diaspora’ might better capture their sense of belonging across national borders, as well as the potential they have to forge and sustain relations of trade, innovation and enterprise.

While the ‘diaspora logic’ views Asian-Australians to be located primarily in Australia, it also views them as ‘dispersed but transnationally connected’. In view of this broader definition, according to the Diversity Council Australia, Australia’s Asian diasporas now constitute over 17 % of its population, and is growing rapidly.

The benefits of the diaspora logic are many. It better captures the diversity, dynamism and mobility of Asian-Australian communities, showing them to be a rich source of innovation, enterprise and entrepreneurialism. The report provides many examples of how Asian Australians have been able to use their transnational networks to establish new businesses in fields as diverse as science and technology, retail, tourism and international education.

In the field of cultural consumption, Australians of Chinese background, based in Adelaide, are developing Chinese tastes in markets for Australian wine, while many Indian Australians have been enormously successful in positioning Australia as a major site of Bollywood films whose audiences number in tens of millions. These are just two examples of how transnational economic space is a site for much creativity and innovation.

If utilised effectively, transnational networks of which many Asian business diasporas are a part, can be of major advantage to Australia as its economy becomes increasingly integrated into Asia. Their transnational experiences and their linguistic and intercultural skills are a resource that can be deployed to help all Australians to become ‘Asia capable’.

This advantage has an added value in an Australian economy that is transitioning from a reliance on resources to services. This is particularly so in the new cultural, knowledge-based and technology oriented industries. 

Fazal Rizvi is Professor in Global Studies of Education at the University of Melbourne. He is the co-author of ACOLA’s Australia’s Diaspora Advantage report.



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