Calling Australia home

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  • Published 20041207
  • ISBN: 9780733314544
  • Extent: 268 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm)

AUSTRALIA IS A quintessential immigrant society. With nearly a quarter of the population born in other countries, few nations are closer to their immigrant origins. Yet Australia is also a significant nation of emigration. The contemporary diaspora of about 5 per cent of Australians living abroad is relatively larger than the 2.5 per cent of United States citizens who live elsewhere. It is, however, small compared to the fifth of New Zealanders who live overseas.

Knowledge and understanding of the characteristics, attributes and aspirations of this important group of perhaps one million Australians who do not live on Australian soil, are not counted in Australian cen­suses and are not considered in national assessments of Australia’s resources, potential and people, remain limited.

Over the past 40 years, just as patterns of immigration have changed, trends in permanent emi­gration have also evolved. Increasingly, those leaving are Australian-born, some the Australian-born children of former settlers. There is, however, a key distinction between Australian-born emigrants and those settlers who subsequently leave Australia to return to their home countries or move to others. Settler loss has some distinctive characteristics – more than one in five of post-war settlers have left Australia. Half of the settlers who leave are likely to depart within five years, 70 per cent within a decade and 90 per cent by two decades. Those leaving are most likely to be in skilled occupations, from mainly English-speaking countries and male. Refugees are the least likely to leave.

Trends in settler loss tend to shadow trends in numbers of arrivals, but with a three-year lag. Most of Australia’s post-war set­tlers, who subsequently emigrated, returned to their homelands.

The recent upsurge in the more-or-less permanent emigration of Australian-born is a new trend. The last year for which data is available showed that in 2003, 25,612 left Australia permanently. This was a record number of Australian-born permanent departures. The trend was also clear in the ratio of depar­tures to arrivals. It is apparent that there has been an increase in the numbers of Australian-born perma­nent departures in the past decade and this indicates the greater ten­dency for Australian-born adults deciding to move overseas on a permanent basis.

Young Australians – small groups of elite artists, intellectuals and business people or those seeking rites of passage – have always emigrated in search of experience and to compete for success in the world’s major cities. However, this has changed. Globalisation has seen the internationalisation of many labour markets. Whereas many young Australians in the past saw the capital cities of their states or Sydney or Melbourne as being their ultimate destination in their career advancement, it is now frequently London, New York or another global city. International migration was previously domin­ated by small flows of people making more or less permanent migrations but now it is transnat­ionalism or much larger flows of people moving on a non-permanent basis between nations that is dominant. Australia has a periph­eral location in the global economy and while it remains a country of immigration, emigration has become more significant. Surveys of Australian expatriates show that the overwhelmingly motivation of those leaving is economic and

It is also necessary to consider those who leave expecting that they will return after a year, as well as those departing permanently, as there is considerable movement between the two categories – both groups live overseas on a long-term basis. A similar pattern emerges. Between 1998-99 and 2002-03 the number of long-term departures from Australia increased from 140,281 to 169,100 and, of these, the number of Australian residents increased from 82,861 to 86,200. In 2002-03 there was a net migration gain of 9590 through “long-term” movement among Australian residents com­pared with a net gain of 101,200 among foreign residents.


ALL MIGRATION IS selective. Migrants are never a representative cross-section of the populations they leave and emigrants from Australia are no different. Age is always an important factor in migration. The settlers most likely to leave Australia are in their 30s and 40s. Australian-born emigrants are quite different. This group is dominated by young families, with a concentration of young adults between 20 and 39 and children between five and 14. The bulk of Australian-born emigrants are in the early stages of the work and family life cycle. The age distribution of those leaving on a long-term basis shows a different profile again. Young adults – singles and couples – are most likely to leave with the intention of staying away for at least a year.

Settlers arriving in Australia on a permanent basis are substantially more skilled than the nation as a whole. Managers, administrators and professionals make up almost half of all workers among perma­nent settler arrivals (49.1 per cent), which compares to 38.8 per cent of the total population. On the other hand, intermediate and low-skill workers were just under a quarter of all permanent settlers, but make up 43.4 per cent of the total popula­tion. Those leaving Australia are also more skilled. Managers, administrators and professionals accounted for more than half of those leaving (53.6 per cent) whereas lower-skilled workers made up 23.8 per cent of the per­manent outflow. Although Australia receives a net gain of all occupational categories, the occupational profile of emigrants is somewhat higher than that of the permanent arrivals. This is most marked in the highest status manager/administrator category, which accounts for 18.2 per cent of the emigrants but only 12 per cent of the immigrants. Moreover, 61.7 per cent of the emigrants were in employment before moving com­pared with 49.8 per cent of settler arrivals.

The census provides accurate figures for the population living in different parts of Australia, but it is difficult to be precise about where Australians are living in foreign countries. One source of estimates is that produced regularly by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The estimates provided for December 31, 2001, indicated there were about 858,886 Australian citizens living in over­seas nations and an additional 264,955 “visiting citizens” in those countries.

A better indication of the distri­bution of the Australian diaspora is given in the countries of destination of Australian-born people leaving the country permanently over the past decade. This shows that the United Kingdom and New Zealand are the major destinations, although the trans-Tasman migration is in many ways more akin to internal than international migration. Esti­mates of the number of Australians in the UK are as high as 300,000 and partly reflect strong links since colonial times, and the role of London as a global city, home to the head offices of many multinational companies and organisations. There are a number of significant groups of Australians living in the UK: large numbers of young Australians on working holidays and travelling in Europe; managerial and profes­sional workers on transfer with their employers; highly skilled workers who have sought employ­ment in Britain; and returned former settlers.

Females outnumber males five to four in the emigration of the Australian-born on a long-term or permanent basis to England. The movement to the UK is dominated by people active in the workforce, particularly the highly skilled and educated. However, 40 per cent of Australian emigrant workers in the UK are in semi– or low-skilled occupations, reflecting the large number of people on working holi­days. Although the incidence of “rite of passage” movement of single young Australians spending time working and travelling in Europe before settling down has increased over the past two decades, the increasing numbers of Australians moving to the UK to work is the main reason for the increased movement.

The next largest group of Aus­tralians is in the United States. Whereas Britain is a traditional des­tination, the US has been increasing in importance over the past decade. The number of Australian-born per­manent and long-term emigrants moving to the US each year has more than doubled since the begin­ning of the 1990s. Those moving to the US are equally balanced between men and women, and although they are also young, they are not as young as those moving to the UK, where two-thirds are aged between 20 and 29 years, compared to less than a third of those going to the US. This partly reflects the reciprocal Working Holiday Program with the UK, a scheme that does not apply with the US. Those moving to America are over­whelmingly already in the workforce, moving to gain experi­ence or promotion. And there is a predominance of families and their dependent children. The proportion of Australian-born children under 10 moving to the US is twice that to the UK. Canada is also an increas­ingly important destination of Australian emigrants.

There are two other major clus­ters of Australian expatriates – continental Europe and east South-East Asia. The former is the destination for many Australian-raised children of post-war immigrants from continental Europe and the increasing flow of Australians to jobs in the expand­ing European community economy. The expatriate communities in several South-East and East Asian nations have been increasing, although the 1997-98 Asian finan­cial crisis dampened the movement. Several Asian coun­tries, including Indonesia and Malaysia, have not been able to produce sufficient numbers of people with the skills needed for their fast-developing economies and have sought expatriate immi­grants. The Australians emigrating to Asia are most likely to be managers, administrative, professional and para-professional workers. Those Australian-born people moving to Asia on a permanent or long-term basis are likely to be older than those moving elsewhere.


PUBLIC DEBATE ABOUT emigration unforunately seems polarised between exaggerated and often hysterical fears of “brain drain” and oversimplified macro-presentations of aggregate immigration and emigration statistics, which suggest Australia’s “brain gain”. The emigration story is much more complex and nuanced than this. “Brain drains” are an important element in the globalising world and need to be addressed, as can be seen from the significant proportion of highly skilled emigrants. There is, however, evidence that diasporas are not only growing but the potential impact on the homeland is not unambiguously economically harmful.

Recognising that 5 per cent of the Australian population lives abroad raises the fundamental question: who is an Australian? In-depth research with the diaspora indicates a strong identification with Australia even among those who have no intentions of return­ing to live in their homeland. One survey of more than 2000 expatri­ates found that 79.3 per cent still called Australia home. One respon­dent captured this sentiment:

I have my husband and family now here in the USA, but all the rest of my immediate family is in Australia it will always be “home” but I also have a home here. I will never give up my Australian citizenship.

This strong identification with Australia raises the issue of whether expatriates should be included more into the mainstream life of the nation. In recent years they have established a range of networks, usually facilitated by the internet, which have lobbied strongly on issues of concern to expatriates. These groups were instrumental in the repeal of Section 17 of the 1948 Australian citizenship act in 2002, so that, for the first time, Australian citizens were allowed to take out dual citi­zenship. The depth of feeling about this issue is reflected in the words of two respondents:

In order to work in Canada as a teacher I was forced to take out Can­adian citizenship and Australia removed my birthright.

The anguish that existed over whether or not we could keep our Aus­tralian nationality is/was a real psychological difficulty. I feel pro­foundly Australian but needed to take up French nationality to become part of the country that I have been living in so long.

Southern Cross and other expa­triate lobby groups then lobbied to allow those who had previously given up their Australian citizen­ship to reclaim dual nationality and this was achieved in July 2004. The voting rights of Australian citizens living overseas are now an issue of concern.

A second area of policy interest relates to the possible return of expatriates. The survey found that about half had intentions of return­ing to Australia. Again, some quotations from respondents are illustrative …

I love Australia and want to return and hopefully make a contribution although I will need to compromise my career to do so.

We live in Silicon Valley, Califor­nia, as do numerous other Australians (thousands). Of the hundreds that I’ve met, the majority intends to return to Australia, most commonly within a 10year span.


OBVIOUSLY, THERE CAN be significant dividends to the home country if expatriates return, especially when they are highly skilled in areas in demand, they have extended their knowledge and experience while overseas and return with a network of international contacts. The survey showed that many Australians currently overseas wish to return when they have children. Others see Australia as the place to retire. There is scope to introduce programs that facilitate and encourage the return of Australian expatriates whose skills and experience are considered to be of national importance.

As lifestyle, cost of living and family are the factors most likely to draw Australians home, the devel­opment of data bases which “match” Australians overseas with job opportunities may encourage the pre-existing desire to return. There may be scope for govern­ment assistance to institutions and businesses that can make strong cases for “bringing home” out­standing Australian scientists, innovators etc. This should not be subsidisation of normal headhunt­ing activity but reserved for truly outstanding individuals who will make a major contribution to the economy and society.

There is a need to investigate the “transaction costs” of a return to Australia. Several respondents were concerned that, on return, their superannuation and accumu­lated wealth would attract taxation as income. Overcoming this concern would not only assist return migration but also con­tribute a gain of foreign exchange.

Australia provides potential and intending settlers with detailed and relevant information and it would be appropriate to expand this to potential Australian returnees. Redirecting part of the national immigration program to attracting back Australian expatriates would send important psychological mes­sages to Australians residing overseas – that their experience and skills are valued.

It is useful to remember that much of Ireland’s economic boom was built by Irish returnees who had emigrated in the 1980s. Returnees bring with them the greater breadth and depth of exper­ience that working overseas gives them. Moreover, they return with extensive international networks that can assist employers develop contacts with overseas markets. In many cases, they will be more valuable as returnees than they would have been if they had remained in Australia.

A third area of policy interest is engagement of the diaspora in eco­nomic, social, political and cultural development. There is a growing interest among development econ­omists that the diaspora can make an important contribution to the economy of the home country:

  • It has been established that foreign currency remitted to their home countries by people living outside of their countries of birth/origin now accounts for $US100 billion annually. Hence, for several nations, their largest export earnings are derived from their citizens moving and working in foreign nations.
  • The diaspora can be both a direct source of foreign direct investment (FDI) and be effec­tive “middlemen” to channel FDI towards the home country.* China and Taiwan are cases par excellence. Their spectacular eco­nomic growth of recent years has been heavily influenced by investment from a diaspora of perhaps 30 million overseas Chinese.
  • The diaspora can be a bridge­head into expansion of the economic linkages of the home nation. Korean Americans were crucial to the successful penetra­tion of the US market by Korean car, electronics and whitegoods manufacturers. Australians in Asian countries may be an effec­tive way of embedding the Australian economy in Asia. Canadian studies have shown that doubling skilled migration from Asia resulted in a 74 per cent increase of Asian imports to Canada.
  • Diaspora networks have become important in transmit­ting information both in formal and informal ways. R.E.B. Lucas has shown how professionals in origin and destination countries have maintained strong link­ages so that ideas flow freely in both directions. To what extent do Australian scientists and engineers in the diaspora inter­act with their counterparts back in Australia? Certainly, the potential for such interaction to accelerate diffusion of new ideas, products, processes etc. is there.

Australia has a substantial dias­pora in comparative global terms and its position in the world economy suggests that it will grow rapidly. It is in Australia’s interests, both in terms of its duty to its national citizens and its economic, social and cultural development to have policies that encourage brain circulation rather than brain drain among Australia’s young people. Policies relating to emigration and the diaspora can address the needs of expatriates living abroad on a permanent or long-term basis, encourage expatriates to return and keep talented Australians in Aus­tralia.

The recent Senate Inquiry into Australian Expatriates was an important step in developing such an Australian expatriate policy.

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About the author

Graeme Hugo

Graeme Hugo (1947-2015) was Federation Fellow, professor of the Department of Geographical and Environmental Studies and director of the National Centre for Social Applications...

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