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Asia-Pacific and Migration Tensions: Outlook for 2018

15 May, 2018

Dr. Kate Coddington, Assistant Professor of Geography, Durham University, UK

The nearly 800,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh after violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state have dominated media headlines in recent months, highlighting the precarious nature of migration governance within the Asia-Pacific region. Yet behind the headlines, echoing trends from across North America and Europe, are the increasing restrictions being placed on mobility of all kinds. With Brexit’s uncertain impact overshadowing migration within and to the UK and Europe, and the election of President Donald Trump already bringing new restrictions on migration pathways to the US, tensions over migration in Asia-Pacific have received comparatively less global attention, but they are no less noteworthy.

Clampdown on Skilled Migration

In 2017, moves to restrict skilled migration to Australia culminated in the abolition of the 457 visa program, which had attract- ed over 95,000 skilled foreign workers, such as nurses and doctors, to the country. The program was replaced in March 2018 with a new Temporary Skill Shortage visa, which offers two- and four-year visas, targeting a more limited worker pool and including terms that prioritize Australian workers. This shift reflects the conviction of the Liberal–National coalition government and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that “Australians must have priority for Australian jobs”. These changes were accompanied by efforts to change Australian citizenship applications, with the government proposing an increased waiting period before permanent residents may apply for citizenship, more demanding English language requirements for applicants, and new questions designed to ascertain whether applicants subscribe to ‘Australian values’. The controversial citizenship changes, which were opposed by members of the opposition as well as by numerous immigration advocates, were blocked in the Australian Senate in October 2017, but they continue to be part of the coalition government’s agenda.

Similar clampdowns on skilled migration occurred in New Zealand in 2017. New restrictions promoted a “Kiwi-first approach to immigration”, as noted by Deputy Leader of the House Michael Woodhouse, who was Minister of Immigration at the time. Proposed changes to the existing skilled-worker visa program included raising the income threshold to over NZD 49,000 per year, restricting low-skilled workers to three-year visas, and introducing a new requirement that the partners of skilled migrants qualify for skilled work in their own right. However, pushback by employers and some regions prompted the government to revise the planned changes, moving toward a three-tiered system in which skilled workers are classified by their salary level rather than by their work experience and qualifications. Mean- while, questions about a possible strain in the relationship between Australia and New Zealand emerged after the 2017 election of a new coalition government in New Zealand, headed by Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern, which casts doubt on the future ease of cross-border mobility between the two countries.

Easing Mobility to Attract Talent

Some countries across the Asia-Pacific region mirrored this trend to- wards restricted migration, particularly Thailand, where the abrupt imposition on 23 June 2017 of the Royal Ordinance on Foreign Workers Management — with its penalties for employing undocumented workers — resulted in over 60,000 migrants fleeing Thailand the following week and pushback from employers around the country. Other countries pursued different strategies, hoping to ease mobility, particularly for highly skilled workers. Taiwan, for instance, has relaxed visa requirements for university students and foreign workers from Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states as part of its New Southbound Policy plan. The country is developing a raft of immigration policy changes that are designed to attract skilled foreign workers, including the authorization of dual citizenship, as part of  the National Development Council’s plan for retention of talent in Taiwan. Simplified visa applications are also part of the new plan. Japan has introduced similar immigration re- forms, easing requirements for skilled workers applying for permanent residence, and building on the 2012 transition to a points-based system for skilled migrants. The Japanese government has advertised the scheme as offering “green cards for highly skilled professionals”, with as little as one year’s waiting time. China, too, has begun to reform its permanent residence rules to attract more highly skilled foreign workers: new regulations allow permanent residents to live in the country, own property, and enroll children in local public schools. Accompanying these relaxed rules are new Foreigner’s Permanent Residence Identity Cards, which embed users’ identity information within the card, reducing their need to carry passports when opening bank accounts or accessing public services.

Outlook for 2018

Many of these initiatives to ease migration for skilled foreign workers throughout Asia-Pacific occur even as traditional skilled-worker destinations — such as the US, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand — have initiated restrictive immigration regulations targeting migrants, from asylum seekers to highly skilled employees and students. The push in the Pacific Rim to encourage skilled migrants opens doors, just as opportunities for skilled-migrant mobility elsewhere are potentially diminishing. Countries in the region are seizing the opportunity presented by skilled workers who find themselves shut out of traditionally desirable destinations. As global uncertainty related to the transformation of relations between the UK and Europe as well as the instability of the US under President Trump increases in 2018, there likely will be more contradictory responses to global mobility: that is, increasingly restrictive approaches toward low-skilled or forced migrants, combined with mixed approaches toward highly skilled migrants, as typified by the Asia-Pacific region. In the long term, countries that ease restrictions on migration should benefit, since mi- grants diversify their destinations, whereas the promotion of ‘country-first’ migration agendas has the potential to limit migration, economic growth, and the development of diverse societies.

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