28 March 2014
Indian migration to Australia: puzzles & potentials

Indian migration to Australia: puzzles & potentials

Indian migration to Australia has a deep history, and is now flourishing. Looking ahead, the potential benefits to Australia are enormous.

Indian migration to Australia has a deep history, and is now flourishing. Looking ahead, the potential benefits to Australia are enormous.

Early Indian migration to Australia

Migrants from the Indian sub-continent may have arrived in Australia some 4,000 years ago, according to recent genetic analysis. The peopling of Australia by aboriginals did not occur through only one wave of immigration "out of Africa" about 40,000 years ago, as once thought.

Indian migration to Australia was also an early feature of the British colonization of Australia, due to both countries being British colonies. The first wave of Indian migration to Australia took place in the 1800-1860 period, with good numbers coming to work as laborers, domestic workers and camel-drivers. At the same time, the British also took Indians to South Africa, Mauritius, Trinidad & Tobago, Fiji and elsewhere.

Another wave of Indian migration occurred from 1860 to 1901, prior to the federation (and independence) of Australia in 1901. These migrants were mainly agricultural laborers to work sugar and banana plantations in southern Queensland. Some worked in the gold fields, while others were hawkers. They tended to settle in rural areas, rather than the city.

Woolgoolga, a town 500 kilometers north of Sydney, became an early center of Sikh migration to Australia. Still today, Woolgoolga has a large Sikh/Punjabi population, and is the site of Australia's first Sikh temple.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Indian Australian population numbered 6500-7000. But with the implementation of the "White Australia Policy", Indian migration to Australia ground to a halt from 1901 until the early 1970s, except for some cases of Anglo-Indians and people of India origin holding a passport of a third country.

Indian migration to Australia in recent decades

With the abolition of the White Australia Policy in the early 1970s, Indian migration to Australia gradually took off. There was a more than tenfold increase in Australia's Indian population, from 42,000 in 1981 to about 500,000 today. Some Indian Australians came from other source countries like Fiji and South Africa.

In 2011-12 India was Australia's most important source of permanent migrants, displacing China and the UK, accounting 16% of the migration program, or 29,000 migrants. Among the total Indian-born Australian residents at the time of the 2011 Census, 24% arrived between 2001 and 2006, and 45% arrived between 2007 and 2011.

The profile of Australia's Indian migrants these past few decades is quite different from the past, with a heavy concentration of doctors, nurses, engineers, IT specialists and teachers. Australia's health system would collapse (as would America's and Britain's), without the contribution of Indian migrants.

Indian Australians are spread out across the country, but with concentrations in Melbourne and Sydney. The majority are working age, and about 56% are male.

In multicultural Australia, Indians are themselves multicultural, in sharp contrast to the Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese. The most important languages spoken by Indo-Australians at home are in order: English, Hindi and Punjabi. Most are however multilingual. Their most important religions are Hinduism, Sikhism and Catholicism.

Indian migrants in Australia are high achievers -- like their counterparts in the US and Canada -- and higher achievers than Australians on average. About 80% have higher education, compared with 56% for Australia overall. Labor force participation is higher than the national average, and unemployment is low. Their average weekly income is $663, compared with the Australian national average of $577. In other words, Indian migrants are not a burden on the Australian community, they are an asset.

Indian Australian success stories

There are many Indian Australian success stories. Lisa Singh is the first Indian Australian federal politician. She has been a Tasmanian Labor Senator since August 2010 and is now Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney-General. Michelle Rowland is a federal Member of Parliament, and Shadow Minister for Citizenship & Multiculturalism. Peter Varghese is a diplomat and is now Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Neville Roach was Chairman and CEO of Fujitsu Australia, and is currently Chairman of the Advisory Board of Tata Consultancy Services in Australia and New Zealand. Professor Veena Sahajwalla is the winner of many awards like the 2008 New South Wales Scientist of the Year Award.

Marlene Kanga is President of Engineers Australia. Dr Harry Harinath was the Chairman of Cricket New South Wales. Lisa Sthalekar played for the Australian female cricket team. Aravind Adiga is a writer and journalist, whose debut novel, The White Tiger, won the 2008 Man Booker Prize. Pallavi Sharda is an actress and dancer, who is reportedly on the verge of Bollywood stardom.

Challenges facing Indian Australian migrants

Despite these success stories, Indians face many difficulties when they attempt settle into their new home. For example, Australia's policy focuses on skilled migration, and presents potential migrants with a skill occupation list. But by the time they arrive in Australia, there may no longer be shortages for certain skills! So sometimes a PhD ends up driving taxis.

Official recognition of qualifications is also a major hoop. And even when qualifications are recognized, local employers may have never heard of the relevant Indian university. The biggest bogeyman may be the need for local work experience. Many skilled migrants are invited to Australia, only to be told by potential employers that they don't have local experience.

Subtle discrimination is also widespread in the job market. Recruitment officers spot "ethnic applicants" by their names, photos or accents. Chinese try to get around this by adopting a Western name, a ploy which is anathema to Indians who are deeply attached to their own name.

Indian and other Asian migrants face similar problems in other migrant countries like the US, Canada and New Zealand. But Australia seems to be an even more difficult case, according to the Indian Consul General in Sydney, Arun Goel. As a result, some Indian migrants in Australia are leaving for more friendly destinations.

In contrast to Australia, America (and the UK) recognizes that high-skilled Indian migrants are a powerful source of entrepreneurship and economic growth, notably in Silicon Valley, says Arun Goel. The newly appointed Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, is just the latest in a long line of successful Indian business leaders in America.

The list of Indo-American university presidents and deans, scientists and mathematicians, other scholars, and media and cultural figures is too long to mention. The case of Raghuram Rajan, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, now Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, on leave of absence from the University of Chicago, shows the tight connections between American and Indian leaderships.

For its part, Canada has a solid list of super-rich Indo-Canadians like Steve Gupta, Surjit Babra, Ramesh Chotai, Vasu Chanchlani, and Barj Dahan, as well as many members of parliament. The long list of British Indians includes Lakshmi Mittal, billionaire and Founder of Mittal Steel, and Freddie Mercury, former lead singer of the rock band Queen. And one of the finest cricket captains England ever had, Nasser Hussain, was born in Madras (now Chennai) to an Indian Muslim father and an English mother.

Less anecdotally, the "income premium" of Indian Americans is very much greater than their Australian counterparts. The average income of Indian Americans is $88,000 compared $49,800 for America overall and $66,000 for American Asians.

Indian students in Australia

India has become Australia's second most important source of international students, after China They currently number some 50,000. But they are very different from the Chinese, many of whom come to learn English.

These Indian students are a key part of Australia's booming education export industry. But all too often they are treated as "cash-cows", rather than potential assets for the country.

In the US most foreign students receive some kind of scholarship, something which is much more rare in Australia. They also make a major contribution to American research in a wide range of fields.

In contrast to the US, there are much less opportunities for living on campus, with all of the natural support facilities. Indian (and other) students face an administrative nightmare on arriving in Australia as they try buy a telephone, get Internet access, find accommodation, open a bank account etc. Student cards (for discounts) are not available in New South Wales and Victoria.

In recent years, there have been incidents of assaults on Indian students. This has been attributed to various factors. Racist elements. Random incidents that can occur to anyone. The vulnerable and precarious life situations of many Indian students that make them soft targets. They are often obliged to take risky jobs, live in dangerous neighborhoods, and carry cash on their person. This initially resulted in a sharp fall in Indian students coming to Australia, although there has since been a rebound.

What is also true is that these incidents have provided a catalyst for both the Australian and Indian governments to invest more efforts in the bilateral relationship, according to Ruchir Punjabi, Managing Director of Langoor, a dynamic and successful Internet startup. One such initiative is the Australia India Youth Dialogue, of which Punjabi is the Founding Chair.

There is every reason to invest in the Indian Australian relationship. International students are ideal migrants for a country like Australia, which is seeking skilled migrants who can integrate easily into the economy. This is especially the case for Indian students who are the most fluent in English. Ruchir Punjabi is the perfect example of how a young Indian student can make a dynamic contribution to Australia's burgeoning IT-oriented creative economy.

But the reality is that foreign students are only allowed to stay and work in Australia for two years after finishing their course. After that time, they must go through the difficult process of finding an employer to sponsor them to stay or they must leave the country. This is reportedly forcing many students to return home and tell horror stories of their time in Australia.

Looking to the future

The current wave of Indian migration to Australia is only a very recent phenomenon. We are yet to see the full effects of the tenfold increase in the population of Indian Australians, these past three decades.

To date, the experience of Indian Australians in the job market, in their studies, and in their success in society is very positive. This is not surprising as Indians have a very strong presence in the skilled migration program, way ahead of China.

Indians may be Australia's most skilled, most successful and most middle-class migrant group. And the experiences of Indians in the US and in Canada suggest that the best may be yet to come in Australia. Indian Australians also have great potential to develop more trade and investment linkages, not only with India, but with India's global diaspora which now numbers 25-30 million.

The growing participation of Indian Australians in political processes will certainly ensure that their interests are increasingly taken into account. "Indians are inherently political", says Ruchir Punjabi. "They are very vocal on issues they care about", says Senator Lisa Singh. Harish Velji received the "McKell Award" for building bridges between the Labor Party and the Sub Continent community.

Australian politicians will have to pay more attention to Indian Australian electors. Already New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell has appointed an electronics businessman, Nihal Gupta, to chair of the government's Multicultural Business Advisory Panel.

And as the number of Indian Australian success stories multiply, this will be a source of inspiration and self-confidence for this new community.

But Australians cannot sit back, and take this for granted. They must go beyond the mantra of "cricket, curry and Commonwealth". There is much that can be done to improve the situation of Indian Australians, especially students, and to facilitate their integration into the economy and society -- for the benefit of the whole country. There is also much that can be done to strengthen the education relationship, in light of India's massive skills shortage.

Australia's current immense prosperity has been largely driven by a natural resources boom. Looking ahead, a new potential comparative advantage is the creativity and innovation blossoming from its multicultural society. This could and should be the next chapter in Australia's economic and social development. But leveraging the full benefits of multiculturalism will be a challenge, unless policies and attitudes change.


This article draws on information provided by Mr Arun K. Goel, India's Consul General in Sydney, and Mr Ruchir Punjabi, Managing Director of Langoor, on the occasion of interviews very kindly accorded ACI Executive Director, John West.


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: india, australia, indo-australians, migration, indian students in australia

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