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The Pacific Visa quotas need to be strategic

Ten countries should be considered for quotas: PNG, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste & Vanuatu (currently very limited access to Australia); Kiribati, Tuvalu & Nauru (climate-affected atolls); Fiji, Samoa & Tonga (good access to Australia via New Zealand) 

Australian Visa

| DevPolicy Blog | Edited extracts

CANBERRA - Australian foreign minister Penny Wong was putting it mildly when she noted “a positive response” to the new Labor government’s confirmation it would introduce a new permanent residency visa category for the Pacific.

Under the Pacific Engagement Visa scheme commencing in July 2023, each year 3,000 visas will be issued annually via a lottery with country-specific quotas.

Naturally, there has been lots of interest in how the quotas will be set. Pacific Minister Pat Conroy has announced  visas will be allocated on a pro rata basis, which means that bigger countries should have a higher quota. Conroy also clarified that Timor-Leste will be included in the scheme.

But there is still plenty of detail to be worked out. The Australian government needs to be strategic and, therefore, selective in how it distributes these highly valuable visas.

Country quotas could be wasted if visas were offered to countries that already have full labour market access to Australia, France, New Zealand or the United States.

We should, on that basis, exclude from the scheme all Pacific territories (e.g. Tokelau, New Caledonia, French Polynesia), the independent countries of Cook Islands and Niue (that have automatic access to Australia through New Zealand passports), and the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau (that have unlimited access to the US labour market).

This leaves 10 countries that should be considered for quotas. They can be divided into three groups: Fiji, Samoa and Tonga (countries that have good access to Australia once they become New Zealand citizens); Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste and Vanuatu (countries with very limited access); and Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru (climate-affected atolls).

Lower bounds will be needed for the smaller countries. It would make no sense to include a country in the Pacific Engagement Visa and then allow, say, only one family to migrate each year. The visa should be meaningful for all countries invited to participate.

A lower bound of 50 could be considered, with the excess taken from PNG’s allocation (since PNG, the giant of the Pacific, will be the main beneficiary of the visa).

This table below shows a pro rata allocation across all 10 countries, and the same allocation with the minimum of 50 imposed. The table also presents New Zealand visa quotas for comparison.

Howes table 1So far, I have taken the simplest definition of ‘pro rata’, that is, relative to population. Given, however, that the Pacific Engagement Visa is an engagement visa, the countries’ existing diaspora in Australia should also be taken into account.

Pacific countries that have a large diaspora are more engaged than those that lack it. Indeed it is questionable whether new visas should be offered at all to the first group of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

These are the three Pacific countries with the largest diasporas already in Australia.

They already have good access to Australia (they are already ‘well engaged’) through their permanent residence access to New Zealand.

Fijians also utilise Australia’s skilled migration pathways. Fiji, Samoa and, to a lesser extent, Tonga are also the Pacific countries that seem most concerned with brain drain.

This logic can be made explicit by adjusting not only for population but for diaspora.

Table 2 has information about population and the Australian diaspora for the 10 countries.

The range is amazing: from a diaspora/population ratio of 38% for Samoa to the same ratio of only 0.2% for PNG, and less than 1% for Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Timor-Leste and Kiribati.

This additional information suggests some new rules.

I keep the minimum of 50 but now say that, to fulfil the new visa’s function of promoting engagement across the Pacific, no country with a diaspora/population ratio in excess of 10% should have a quota more than 50 (as such a country is already engaged).

Furthermore, any country with a ratio of less than 1% should have a quota of at least 100 (as such countries are currently highly marginalised), with this amount again taken from PNG.

The final recommended allocation, defined on this basis, is presented in Table 2.

Howes table 2The biggest beneficiaries from taking diaspora size into account are Kiribati (whose allocation doubles from 50 to 100) and Vanuatu (whose allocation increases from 70 to 100). The loser is Fiji (down from 210 to 50).

The point of this blog is not so much the specific numbers, but the underlying idea that Pacific Engagement Visa country quotas should be allocated strategically and, therefore, selectively.

While the government’s intention to distribute visas on a pro rata basis makes a lot of sense, it does not take us all the way.

In addition:

  • Countries that already have full labour market access to Australia, France, New Zealand or the US should not be included in the PEV – by definition, they are already engaged (integrated), either with Australia or with one of Australia’s close allies, and they don’t need more migration opportunities.

  • There should be a minimum quota size to make PEV participation meaningful for small countries.

  • Countries that already have significant labour market access to Australia and a large diaspora in Australia should receive only limited PEV slots.

  • Kiribati and Vanuatu should receive special treatment on the grounds of their tiny Australian diasporas and be given more slots than a pure pro rata distribution would dictate.

Stephen Howes is the Director of the Development Policy Centre and a Professor of Economics at the Crawford School. This research was supported by the Pacific Research Program, with funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The views represent those of the author only


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