Graeme Hugo, Janet Wall and Margaret Young. Migration between Australia and South East Asia is a two-way process.

Migration flows between countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Australia are generally viewed as going in one direction: toward Australia. In practice, however, data on this migration system reveal a much more complex picture that includes Australian emigration, significant temporary movements in both directions, and close connections between the two regions even after migrants permanently return to their country of origin.

Australia has experienced significant inflows, particularly in the post-war period; almost half of its population of 23.2 million is either foreign born or has at least one immigrant parent. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it is usually regarded as a traditional destination country, drawing students and skilled workers from around the world and across the ten-member ASEAN region. Australia also sends a significant number of emigrants out from its shores. The last official estimates, back in 2003, put Australia’s diaspora at approximately 750,000. Unpublished Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) data reveal that for every two people who moved permanently to Australia from the ASEAN region between 1991 and 2013, one person moved in the opposite direction.

To cast Australia as a destination country and ASEAN members as sending countries thus oversimplifies this regional migration system and fails to recognize the multidirectional movement taking place. Migration flows vary significantly across ASEAN countries, and over time. For example, while flows to Australia from Malaysia and Singapore have remained constant over time, Indochinese refugees dominated flows in the 1970s and 1980s. More recently, migration from the Philippines has increased. Recent trends in part reflect a shift in Australian immigration policy away from encouraging settlement toward drawing skilled (temporary) labor migration. Today most emigration from Australia to ASEAN destinations is to the fastest-growing economies, such as those of Singapore and Malaysia. Return migration to Vietnam is notable, while few are going back to Myanmar or the Philippines.

Aside from permanent movements, DIBP data reveal significant levels of temporary mobility between Australia and the ASEAN region, in both directions. These include the movements of new settlers, visitors from Southeast Asia, Australian residents with roots in Southeast Asia, and former Australian residents from Southeast Asia who have permanently left Australia. Many ASEAN-born Australian settlers and residents make at least one overseas trip per year; more than half of those who once resided in Australia make at least two trips to Australia per year. The data also record nearly 600,000 nonresident ASEAN nationals traveling repeatedly to Australia, with 78 percent making at least one trip a year. These data on temporary mobility reveal the circular nature of migration flows between Australia and the ASEAN region, and indicate the strong ties that nonresidents, former residents, and current residents maintain simultaneously with both Australia and their country of origin.

Migration flows between Australia and the ASEAN region are mostly skilled. Most ASEAN residents migrate to Australia as students, or through skilled temporary worker programs. This is reflected in the educational profile of the ASEAN-born population in Australia, compared with the native born: 35 percent of the ASEAN-born population has a tertiary-level degree, compared with around 15 percent of the native-born population. Migration flows in the opposite direction are similarly highly skilled. Of those who permanently move from Australia to the ASEAN region, most work as skilled professionals (38 percent), managers (21 percent), or technicians (13 percent). Given that many ASEAN countries are experiencing skilled labor shortages, policies to engage with diaspora members and encourage skills circulation are crucial.

Evidence on migration flows between Australia and the ASEAN region reveals that many ideas about return migration are outdated. Traditionally, return migration has been thought to primarily comprise retirees returning home after a career working abroad, or “failed” migrants who could not make a success of their time overseas. Data for returning Australian and ASEAN nationals contradict such beliefs. Most migrants returning to Australia are in their 20s, 30s, or early 40s, with return rates falling with the 40-to-44 age group and older cohorts. Most migrants returning from Australia to the ASEAN region, meanwhile, are of working age (the highest return rates are found among the 30-to-49 age group), and are often accompanied by their young children. There is clearly a window of opportunity for expatriates in their 30s and 40s to seriously consider returning to their country of origin.

Meanwhile, considerable improvements in communications and the reduced cost of international travel mean that expatriates can significantly contribute to their country of origin without having to permanently return. This offers major opportunities for development in the ASEAN region—and improved economic links between Australia and Southeast Asia. A growing number of diaspora engagement policies encourage the temporary or even “virtual” return of expatriates, recognizing the valuable contributions they can make while settled overseas. Policymakers can seek to tap the potential of diasporas in a number of ways, such as by encouraging them to send remittances, providing them with investment opportunities in their homeland, encouraging diaspora trade with (and exports to) destination countries, and facilitating technology and information transfer back to the homeland.

The Australia-ASEAN migration system offers prime lessons for transatlantic sending nations. Unlike many countries, Australia records the movements of individual migrants in and out of the country, along with their motivations. Such data provide a remarkable opportunity to analyse migration patterns in this region. They show that international migration increasingly consists of temporary and repeat cycles of movement, and is far from a zero-sum game. Contemporary migrants maintain close ties with both sending and destination countries, potentially opening up new economic and development opportunities for both, regardless of where they choose to permanently settle. Rather than viewing emigration through the lens of “brain drain,” and focusing efforts solely on encouraging expatriates to permanently return home, policymakers in sending nations should instead try to better engage diaspora members—wherever they may be—to benefit from their accrued skills, experience, and networks.

This is excerpted from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report, The Southeast Asia-Australia Regional Migration System: Some Insights into the ‘New Emigration’, which can be read in full here.

This article by Graeme Hugo, Janet Wall and Margaret Young is run as a tribute to Graeme Hugo who died recently after an outstanding contribution to Australia’s understanding of migration.  John Mendue

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