Migrants' home connections the untapped resource in Australia's global relations

15 August 2012

Australia needs to harness the powerful relationships of its migrant communities with their homelands and build stronger economic, social and political links abroad, a national research project has argued.

A consortium* of university researchers and organisations from the Macedonian, Italian, Vietnamese and Tongan communities, led by Associate Professor Danny Ben-Moshe, from Deakin University's Strategic Research Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation investigated the ties migrants have with their homelands.

They called for governments to develop better policy and planning to harness the potential capacity of these communities to nurture closer economic, social and political links.

The report - Diasporas in Australia: Current and Potential Links with the Homeland - was funded by the Australian Research Council and is the most comprehensive study undertaken on diasporas in Australia.

It highlights how the migrant experience has changed from one of leaving the homeland and severing physical ties to an experience where migrant communities are increasingly transnational and connected to international networks of migrants from their homelands in third countries.

Lead author of the report, Associate Professor Danny Ben-Moshe, from Deakin University's Strategic Research Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation said the findings were very, very powerful.

“The flow of people, information and ideas is extensive and ongoing and as such diasporas are potentially important vehicles for international trade, cultural exchange, public diplomacy and, more broadly, brain circulation,” he said.

“Yet for these potential social, economic and political benefits to be harnessed there needs to be a more strategic policy approach.”

Associate Professor Ben-Moshe said the migrants interviewed for the study expressed a desire to act as a 'bridge' between Australia and their homelands in the development of diplomatic, trade and professional relationships, but these links are currently weak and underutilised.

“Overall, the research reveals that contemporary migrants in Australia are strongly connected to homelands and are increasingly transnational in their orientation,” he said.

“This is a departure from earlier generations of migrants where migration was largely a one-way process of emigration and settlement and being part of a diaspora inferred a sense of permanent departure and severance from the homeland, with a real and figurative distance between the two.’’

Associate Professor Ben-Moshe said transnational needed to be the new term to describe these communities given the ongoing and multiple ways they maintained contact with their homelands through travel, new media and greater professional mobility and retirement options.

Associate Professor Ben-Moshe said each of the migrant communities interviewed had its own distinctive characteristics depending on migration circumstances and homeland conditions.

Dr Joanne Pyke from Victoria University said a distinctive characteristic of the Vietnamese Diaspora was the very strong and continuing identification as Vietnamese and to Vietnamese language and culture, while simultaneously having very low formal engagement with their Homeland.

“At the same time, the constituency of the diaspora is changing with the most recent wave of temporary migrants and international students,” she said.

“It is possible that these new members of the community may lead to enhanced ties between the Homeland and Diaspora as the mix of migration circumstances changes within the Diaspora.”

Dr Steve Francis, from Deakin University, said the Tongan Diaspora remained deeply Tongan in terms of identity, family connections, religious practices and community involvement.

“The connections are strong and the Tongan Diaspora population in Australia ‘carry Tonga with them’,” he said.

“This is despite having left the Homeland where they are unlikely to return to live, or for many second generation Tongans, never having visited. “

Professor Loretta Baldassar, from the University of Western Australia, said the Italian Diaspora features strong and enduring identification with Italy across the several Italo-Australian generations.

“In addition, our findings show that a new wave of temporary migrants is currently having an impact on the character of the Italian diaspora”, she said.

“Their migration is strongly driven by the current economic crisis in Europe and disillusionment with Italian domestic politics.

“Arriving as international students, on working holidays or short term business visas, these recent arrivals are young and often single, highly mobile and extremely technologically literate.

“These attributes arguably make the term ‘migrant’ less pertinent to describe them as they appear to be very much transnational actors, strongly connected to both their home and host societies.”

Mr Ordan Andreevski said the members of the Macedonian Diaspora were comfortable in, and have a sense of belonging in both Macedonia and Australia, with both countries featuring strongly in their personal identity - transnationalism is a prominent feature of Macedonian life.

“Our findings indicate that the Macedonian community expects the Australian and the Macedonian governments to put in place funding for innovative and robust collaborative projects that support economic, social, cultural and research links between Australia and Macedonia,’’ he said.

“Overall, it is clear that it is the private considerations of family ties, and personal identity that drives diaspora relations, rather than more public concerns of business and professional exchange.

“At the same time, the diaspora is also driven by political concerns relating to the recognition of the Macedonian community within Australia and the desire to strengthen diplomatic relations between the two countries. ’’

Professor Graeme Hugo, from the University of Adelaide, said each of the diasporas were strongly linked to their homeland identity through connections with family networks, the maintenance of the homeland language and religious and cultural practices.

“Social media and the growth of new forms of temporary migration such as travel undertaken for international education and working holidays has made this possible,” he said.

“But as diaspora members increasingly utilise and rely on communication technologies and travel to stay connected to homeland networks, access to safe and reliable ICT and travel is fundamental to the maintenance and growth of their networks.

“Other important factors include flexible citizenship, visa and employment policies that facilitate transnational connections and strong language policy that supports the maintenance of their homeland language.”

Professor Terri Joiner of Monash University observed that there was limited business and professional engagement between the diaspora and homelands despite an expressed interest by the diaspora to be involved.

“The findings across each diaspora demonstrated a clear capacity gap between actual activity and desired activity and that there are barriers to international engagement for each of the diasporas,” Professor Joiner said.

“While the diasporas are under performing in terms of their engagement with the homelands and serving as a bridge in bilateral relations between Australia and these countries, the desire and potential for the diasporas to be much more actively engaged with their homelands and advancing bilateral relations is very strong.

“There is a role for both home and host country governments to create an enabling environment for greater diaspora participation.

“Overall, membership of a diaspora was an important and strong feature of family, identity, social connections and travel patterns and behavior for all four of the diasporas investigated.”

*The universities of Adelaide and Western Australia and Monash and Victoria universities.

News facts
  • Result of a three year project involving almost 3000 surveys
  • The most comprehensive study undertaken on diasporas in Australia
  • Policy implications for thinking about role of diasporas in Australian foreign policy

Media contact

Associate Professor Danny Ben-Moshe
Principal Research Fellow, Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation
0418 517 395

Sandra Kingston
Deakin Media Relations
0422 005 485

Deakin University acknowledges the traditional land owners of present campus sites.

15th August 2012