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'Everywhere else lost people': migrants moving out of regional Australia

Sydney Morning Herald logo Sydney Morning Herald 15/05/2019 Harriet Alexander and Matt Bungard
a man holding a dog: Ezekia Nitanga, 19, left, with his brother. Their family relocated to the New England region after failing to settle in Sydney. © Supplied Ezekia Nitanga, 19, left, with his brother. Their family relocated to the New England region after failing to settle in Sydney.

Migrants who settle in regional Australia are moving to the cities in increasing numbers despite government policies encouraging them to put down roots in rural areas.

More than 60 per cent of migrants from specific countries moved on from some regions over a five-year period, a study by demographers at the Australian National University has found.

Their analysis of 35 years of census data indicated that the Australian-born population was also migrating out of the bush, but the trend was more pronounced among Chinese and Indian-born immigrants and this appeared to be increasing.

"What we found was that the big capital cities - Sydney, Melbourne and Perth and to a certain extent Hobart - were quite good at keeping people but the places everywhere else lost people on average," ANU demographer Bernard Baffour said.

"The data showed recent government attempts to attract migrants to rural and remote Australia are not working. What we are seeing in the data is that the opposite is happening."

More than half of Chinese-born immigrants who lived in western Queensland moved out between 2011 and 2016, and around 60 per cent of people born in India exited the Murray region over the same period.

The government has introduced two new visas for skilled workers who live and work in regional areas for three years, which will nearly triple the number of places offered under the existing regional schemes.

The 23,000 new skilled regional visas, designed to disperse the population and relieve pressure on Sydney and Melbourne, will be available from November.

Monash Migration and Inclusion Centre director Rebecca Wickes said she queried the use of visas to encourage people into the regions because it was difficult to police and there were factors other than jobs which determined whether people would remain in a place.

Some of the places that hankered for migrants had high levels of unemployment, poor infrastructure, high rates of crime and teen pregnancy and no settlement services, and if they were to be made attractive to migrants they needed to be liveable for their existing residents.

"You have to have a welcoming community," Associate Professor Wickes said.

"You might have a job but feel completely isolated in the community."

For 19-year-old Ezekia Nitanga, the "super friendly" community was a major factor ensuring his move from western Sydney to the far north of NSW was a success.

The Burundi refugee moved to Sydney with his family when he was six, but they were never settled, moving from Mt Druitt to Canley Heights, Cabramatta and Wollongong.

"We got used to the cars and the pollution and the noise,” he said. But the family had been farmers in Burundi, and they yearned to return to rural life. Three years ago, they moved to Mingoola.

Now he is studying nursing at the University of New England in Armidale, though he has deferred in 2019 to help with the farm work, and will switch next year to biomedical science. He has no plans to return to Sydney.

Regional Australia Institute co-chief executive officer Kim Houghton said regional migration programs had been most successful in places such as Mingoola where the towns had partnered with a "matchmaker" in urban migrant communities and the migrants had moved of their own accord.

"We're not actually keen on encouraging new migrants to land in a regional area from the start," Dr Houghton said.

"You can see why the visa system has been designed around this incentive but I'm not convinced it allows for that stickability."

The ANU study, which encompasses two research papers, showed some migrant populations were more likely to re-settle elsewhere within Australia than others, with New Zealanders more fluid and Chinese immigrants most likely to stay still.

Perth was attractive to immigrants from the United Kingdom and Brisbane to New Zealanders.

For Chinese immigrants, Sydney was the preferred destination, while Indians favoured Melbourne.

Pictures: New Zealand's month in pictures

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