The Regional Immigration Realities That Australia’s Politicians Overlook

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Australia is in the throes of another heated debate on immigration, following the news last week that 39 men had arrived by boat on the shores of Beagle Bay, a remote Western Australian Indigenous community.

The men, reportedly from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, said they had come to seek work. They were later sent to offshore detention centers — but their first contact was with local Aboriginal families, who provided the migrants with food and water.

That initial welcome stood in stark contrast to the response from many politicians, who characterized the men as cause for alarm, reigniting old concerns about border security. This reflects, at least in part, Australia’s dual reality when it comes to foreigners who want to work: In many cities and suburbs, there is a fear that foreign migrants will take jobs from Australians; but in Australia’s most remote regions, finding people who want to work and stay is a bigger concern.

In the Australian desert, there’s a saying among Indigenous populations that Kartiya (white workers) are like Toyotas: When one breaks down, it’s carted off, and in comes a replacement. High churn and low worker-retention rates are familiar tropes in the Northern Territory, home to some of the nation’s most remote localities, which double as hot destinations for fly-in-fly-out employees from big cities.

Alice Springs — or Mparntwe, to use its Indigenous name, from the Arrernte people — is infamous for its transience. The town’s work force comes and goes at a jarring speed, with veteran status typically awarded to those who reach a meager two-year milestone. In hospitals, courts and cafes, the standard out-of-state employee stays no more than a few months.

But when it comes to migrants from overseas, it’s a very different story. Andrew Taylor, a demographer at Charles Darwin University, said that not only are they much less likely to leave town than Australians from other states, but they attract more people from their communities to come and stay.

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