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Australia steers immigrants beyond Sydney

Visa regulations going into effect in March seek to steer new arrivals toward other parts of the country.

By Janaki KremmerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 29, 2003



SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA

It's a migrant fairy tale: He came to Sydney from a small town in India, worked in kitchens, hardly saw his children, and wondered at times whether it was all worthwhile.

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But now, Manjit Gujral runs a booming restaurant and catering business in upmarket Balmain, owns a late-model Mercedes-Benz, and enjoys the fruits of his success.

Like so many new arrivals to this country, the burly Sikh from Punjab, India, has made good. But visa regulations scheduled to take effect by March have many wondering if Australia will remain a place of opportunity for people like Mr. Gujral.

Under the new legislation, business immigrants will receive concessions designed to make it easier to get work visas quickly - but only if they steer clear of the country's largest and most prosperous city, Sydney. That's because states like Tasmania and South Australia began complaining during the past decade that they were losing business migrants to the country's commercial capital. The regulations aim to develop neglected areas by giving business migrants only provisional residence visas. Those will be made permanent after four years - once the government is satisfied their business is a functioning regional enterprise.

Migrants already here are not affected by the proposals. But questions are arising over whether the scheme will give new arrivals a "fair go."

"Do you think my business would be so successful if I was in [a provincial center like] Mildura or Wollongong?" Gujral says. "Why would I even come to the country ?"

Immigration lawyer Nigel Dobbie agrees. "Migrants make huge sacrifices to come here," he says. "Why should they go to other states, like South Australia, which are not financially healthy? It's like asking an Australian not to go to London, but go instead to Northumberland if they want to migrate. Sydney is the hub."

Immigration lawyers here say Australia is the first country to try to keep migrants away from certain cities. But since 1998, individual Canadian provinces have been able to nominate economic immigrants they would like to attract.

The Australian restrictions will not apply to "high-caliber business people," say officials of the Department of Immigration in Canberra. But they were unable to say who would qualify.

Sydney became Australia's first city in 1788, when a British fleet sailed into its harbor and founded a convict settlement to accommodate the overflow from British prisons. Nowadays, immigrants come to Australia of their own free will. About 88,900 came in 2001; most chose Sydney for its mild climate, growing economy, and existing immigrant communities.

But the New South Wales government says the influx is putting a strain on the state capital. "We don't want to end up with the density of Brooklyn, and we don't want to end up with the sprawl of Los Angeles. I like our lifestyle," says Bob Carr, a state premier who supports lowering immigration. Statistics show immigrants account for 75 percent of Sydney's annual population increase, depleting land and housing in the Sydney basin. Australia attracts about 8,000 business migrants a year; Sydney gets 45 percent of them.

The government hopes to lift pressure on the city by giving preferential treatment to migrants who want to settle in regional areas and set up businesses like ecotourism.

But analysts wonder how the new regulations will be enforced. Australia lacks a national identity card, and driver's licenses don't include visa status. So once in the country, migrants can move easily, says James Jupp, director of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Studies at the Australian National University.

Racially motivated?

Other observers detect a strain of racism in the move. Restrictions on Chinese and nonwhite migrants were not entirely removed until 1973.

In the 1990s, an anti-immigration party calling itself One Nation rose to prominence. Its leader Pauline Hanson warned in 1996 that Australia was "in danger of being swamped by Asians."

Some migrants fear echoes of One Nation in the latest policy changes.

"I really doubt that if there were Europeans coming in huge numbers, they would be able to tell them where to go. It just would not happen," says Anil Vickramasinghe, a Sri Lankan settler who runs a thriving spice business in downtown Sydney.

Business migrants come mostly from Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Britain, Singapore, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe and Kenya.

Tightening of immigration regulations, however, seems popular with voters, and Bob Carr faces a state election in coming months.

Prime Minister John Howard won reelection in 2001 by taking a hard line against asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat.

Prospective Asian migrants have begun to see neighboring New Zealand as a more attractive destination. About half of the 52,856 immigrants approved for residence in New Zealand in 2001-2002 were from Asian countries.

Demanding tests

But in New Zealand, the trend is also for tightening up controls. In November, the government there imposed demanding new English-language tests for all migrants.

The government admits that the regulations will reduce the numbers of migrants from China, South Africa, and India. Those already in New Zealand - including people from Anglo-Saxon backgrounds - are heaving a sigh of relief at not having to submit to secondary-school level language exams.

But while tighter migration policies may satisfy voters, the economies of Australia and New Zealand may suffer as a result, experts say. "Migrants contribute to financial growth - they even create jobs for the locals - but despite all that we don't want them? We need 1 million more if these countries are to really prosper," says Mr. Dobbie.

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