Experts Slam 'Discriminatory' Regional Migrants Plan

Immigration and infrastructure experts have rubbished the government's thought-bubble to force migrants into regional areas, saying the plan is unnecessary and could even harm both citizens and cities.

Population minister Alan Tudge, who PM Scott Morrison said would be the "minister for congestion-busting", outlined scant detail of a plan that would see many new arrivals to Australia barred from living in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane.

Instead, their visa conditions and "incentives" would compel them to live in regional areas, or at least smaller cities like Adelaide or Hobart, for several years after they move to Australia.

He outlined concerns that Australia's growing population, which included 162,000 new permanent migrants last year, was putting strain on commute times, hospitals and schools, and housing.

Tudge resisted numerous questions asking for detail on how the government would compel migrants to settle outside the major cities, how many people this plan would include, and whether regions would receive increased infrastructure funding or jobs to handle an influx of arrivals.

READ MORE: Aussie Outback 'Needs People' Amid Warning Of Population Decline

It was also not clear whether this proposal would include international students, despite this group growing by tens of thousands in recent years, or refugees.

Migrant groups 'cautious'

But Carla Wilshire, CEO of the Migration Council, said there are important reasons why new migrants need or want to move to big cities, including family ties and access to vital cultural services.

"I'd be cautious about anything that creates a significant or burdensome compliance regime, or changes the fundamental character of Australia as a welcoming community," she told ten daily.

Wilshire said many migrants are granted visas because of the skills or qualifications they can bring to Australia, and forcing them to live in a regional area could negate that benefit to the country.

"Generally speaking, an increase of population in regional areas is a positive, but we need to consider the skill sets that will work for them. We must also be cautious of the issues around hospitals, schools and community groups needed to help people integrate and fully participate in society," she said.

Kon Karapanagiotidis, of Melbourne's Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said the idea showed "no vision" around investment in infrastructure.

(Getty Images)

"What's driving this is populism and reactive immigration policy," he told ten daily.

"It's ill thought out and discriminatory, to say 'if you fall into these categories, you have to live outside big cities'. Imagine telling Australians that unless you're highly skilled, you can't live in the big cities?"

Migrant resettlement agency AMES Australia said settling people in regional areas could be a good idea, provided there was appropriate support.

"When well-facilitated, it can make a significant contribution to the economic as well as the cultural social fabric of regional communities," CEO Cath Scarth said in a statement.

But, Scarth said, it's not just about employment.

"It’s also about amenity and having the wherewithal to settle families successfully. So that means opportunities for families and particularly young people in terms of education and social and economic participation."

'People might not want to come'

The government has the power to put restrictions on visas to compel people to live in certain areas, or to block them from attaining citizenship or residency if they could not prove where they had been living, said Professor Alex Reilly, director of Adelaide University's Public Law and Policy Research Unit.

But such a program would be pointless without further investment in job creation in the regional resettlement areas, he said.

(Getty Images)

"That's the elephant in the room. You can manipulate where they live, but if they don't create jobs, migrants wont come at all," he told ten daily.

"There's a big lobby here [in Adelaide] trying to get more migration. But the thing is, are the jobs here? It's all very well to funnel migrants to other parts, but it's completely ridiculous if they're going to Melbourne and Sydney if that's where the economic opportunity is."

"Migrants don't mind coming to Adelaide, but they don't come here because there's no jobs."

Reilly was also concerned that migrants coming under the skilled program might be forced into menial jobs because their regional area may not have opportunities for their expertise, or that people would simply leave their initial settlement area and move back to a larger city once their period of living restrictions is over.

All this could add up to making Australia a less attractive place to live, he feared.

"If you can't come to Melbourne and Sydney, if we cut out the two main powerhouses of the economy, people might not want to come," he said.

(Getty Images)

But rather than debating the particulars of the proposal, some dispute there is even a problem at all.

Chris Johnson -- CEO of the Urban Taskforce, an organisation representing Australia’s property developers -- said migration was only a small component of the issues around congestion and infrastructure in Australia, and that the country actually needed more people living in cities, not fewer.

His group wants to see Sydney grow from a five million population to an eight million population, and compete with global cities like London, Paris and New York.

"Even if immigration is trimmed back, it won't do a lot for growth of the city," he told ten daily. "But the city can handle it. We need to switch gears to a more urban way of living. These tensions are from a change of culture in the city."

(Getty Images)

Johnson also wanted to see government respond to the 'growing pains' by investing in better public transport, supporting high-rise living, and

"People living in urban environments use cars less, walk to work. You rethink your lifestyle," he said.

"The reality is Sydney is one of the best places in the world, for jobs, lifestyle and tourism. Why turn that off? Why tell people we don't want you?"