Why aren’t there more immigrants in rural Australia

Should the question be why do so many people born outside of Australia live in Australian cities or why don’t more live in regional centres and small towns?

The attraction of cities is clear.  Job opportunities, friends and family who migrated earlier, and access to familiar cultural or religious institutions are more plentiful in urban areas.  As a special issue of the Journal of International Migration and Integration in 2006 explained, the concentration of immigrants in the major cities occurs in New Zealand and Canada, as well as Australia.

But are the barriers to moving to regional Australia even more profound than the pull of global cities?

Australia has had programs to attract immigrants to settle in regional areas since the late 1990s but they have been of limited success.  Pressure from capital cities, first Adelaide and most recently Perth have seen cities included as eligible ‘regions’.  Those destinations take a hugely disproportionate number of migrants intended for regional development.  Furthermore, migration expert Prof Graeme Hugo has shown that the majority of migrants who do go to the regions have left the regions within a few years and are living in capital cities (in International Migration and Integration, 2008).

The reasons immigrants give for not wanting to settle in the regions include those commonly expressed by city born and bred Australian born: limited prospects for jobs for spouses, good schools, good health care and appropriate, affordable housing.

But if Prof Hugo’s statistics are right, then even after immigrants have been convinced to move to the regions, retaining them is even more difficult.

The research done in Canada, New Zealand and Australia suggest integration into the local community is the key to retention.  And that is something that host countries and particularly smaller cities and towns, may not be very good at.

There isn’t a lot of research on immigrants’ integration in regional areas but as Drs Maryann Wulff and A Dharmalingam show, integration is critical to retention, and not done very well.   An Australian Bureau of Statistics study, that did not distinguish place of residence, found immigrants from countries from the five ‘main English-speaking countries’ of Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Ireland, United States and South Africa had high participation rates in the community.  But people from other countries participated far less.

I crunched the numbers from the 2011 Census and found evidence that integration, as measured by volunteering for a community group—already low for people from outside of the main English speaking countries–declined the farther from major cities.  Isolated from others from their home countries, immigrants in rural Australia are further isolated by not belonging to local groups.


As everyone who has run a volunteer program knows, people have to be personally invited to volunteer.  In a previous post I argued that rural Australia was missing out on the professional skills that immigrants bring to major cities.  We are also missing out on the more intangible gains of community participation by failing to welcome immigrants from around the globe.

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