Australia needs US-style green card deal for climate-threatened Pacific islanders

Australia should introduce a “post-disaster humanitarian visa” for Pacific islanders displaced by natural disasters and climate change, a new report from the Migration Council Australia has recommended.

And to boost historically low rates of migration from the Pacific, Australia should consider instituting a green card-style lottery for Pacific islanders to live and work in Australia, and boost seasonal worker numbers to industries such as horticulture.

Migration from Pacific countries to Australia has been consistently low for decades – representing less than 0.5% of all visas granted to Australia – but the Migration Council, an independent migration policy body, argues that the movement of people from the Pacific could benefit source countries and Australia.

Pacific countries, geographically disparate, sparsely populated and, in many cases, economically fragile, are forecast to be at the forefront of the impacts of climate change, with low-lying atoll nations particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and worsening natural disasters.

Research suggests that by 2050, between 665,000 and 1.7 million people will be displaced by climate change across the Pacific. "For a handful of countries – Kiribati foremost amongst them – climate change will pose an existential threat,” the council’s paper said. “At some stage in the 21st century Australia, as the major regional power, will be required to play a leading role in managing climate-induced migration.

After disasters, bringing people to Australia would save lives and enable displaced people to earn money to more quickly re-establish themselves back at home. It is much easier to provide access to basic food, water and shelter in Australia than it is in isolated, post-disaster countries with little responsive capacity,” the report said.

Working migration to Australia could help boost Pacific island economies, counter poverty through remittances, and reduce the need for aid. Money earned by migrants working in Australia and sent home as remittances flowed directly to families and communities to support small businesses, pay school fees, or help build houses.

Migration and aid are complements, not substitutes,” Henry Sherrell, acting chief executive of the migration council told the Guardian. More migration opportunities for Pacific citizens to Australia creates a triple win, for the migrants themselves, for Pacific countries and for Australia. Pacific citizens can earn four to 10 times more income in Australia than their home countries.

This drives remittances which help underpin economic development while allowing [Australian] labour shortages to be addressed in industries like horticulture.” The US diversity visa “green card” lottery, implemented in 1995, offers 50,000 visas a year, and is designed to attract migrants from countries with low migration rates to America. New Zealand runs two similar lotteries for Pacific countries, one for Samoan citizens and the other for a number of Pacific nations. The report suggests Australia could run a similar lottery.

Thirty one countries have signed bilateral working holiday treaties allowing young people to work in Australia, but only one is in the Pacific: Papua New Guinea. Since the PNG working holiday treaty was signed in 2011, no visas have been approved from that country. Australia has a seasonal worker program for Pacific islanders, which began with a pilot scheme in 2008-09 granting 56 visas. It has grown strongly each year, to about 2,800 in 2014-15, but is still dwarfed by New Zealand’s program, which is more than 7,000. The migration council argues this program should be expanded, with a focus on workers returning on second, third and subsequent visas.

A study by Abares (the Australian bureau of agricultural and resource economics and sciences) found seasonal workers from the Pacific were more efficient and productive than backpackers on working holiday visas, and those working consecutive seasons were the most productive. Speaking in Niue last month, the minister for international development and the Pacific, Steve Ciobo, told the secretariat of the Pacific Community that Australia would look to increase labour mobility across the region to support economic growth, including introducing two-year low-skilled work visas for Pacific micro-states, and uncapping the seasonal workers program.

He said 5,000 Pacific islanders were expected to participate in the seasonal work program in the coming year, a near-doubling from 2014-15. "The benefits of labour mobility are obvious: training and upskilling for workers, and linking people who need jobs with employers who haven’t been able to source employees locally. But what is less obvious – and perhaps the most positive result of the program – is the generation of remittances, as workers send money back home. The average [seasonal work program] worker remits about $5,000 over a six-month placement, money that is spent on housing, education, healthcare and household consumption.

In some Pacific island countries remittances are greater than foreign direct investment, per-capita income, or aid flows.” On Monday Ciobo launched the Pacific humanitarian challenge, “an opportunity for businesses, organisations and individuals to come up with new ideas around how we prepare for, and respond to, natural disasters in the Pacific”.