Social science research on international migration and its significance for both origin and destination societies has grown rapidly since the late 1980s. Special research centres, journals and conferences have proliferated in Europe, North America and -more recently – in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Recently, migration and diversity research has become more closely linked with broader social theory. Similarly, understanding of the political and practical significance of human mobility has grown, and migration researchers have advised national governments and international bodies such as the Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM, 2003-5) and the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD, 2007 ongoing).

A curious aspect of this trend has been the relatively low profile of Australian researchers. Australian migration and multiculturalism research was highly developed and well-linked to policy formation from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. But Australian social-scientific concern with these issues appears to have declined – no doubt partly as a reflection of changing political agendas which led to the abolition in 1996 of the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research (BIMPR) and the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Several special university research centres quickly followed. Although some Australian researchers continue with important and innovative work on international migration and diversity, they play a limited role in national and international debates.

The central aim of the proposed ASSA workshop Rethinking Australian research on migration and diversity is to explore ways of strengthening Australian research in this important field, and to think through strategies for reconnecting it both to mainstream social science and to international debates. The precondition for this is to improve understanding of trends in human mobility and diversity for Australia, our region and the world, and to explore the tasks such trends are likely to create for Australian migration research.

Specific objectives are to:

  1. Examine trends in human mobility and policies at the global, regional, national and local level, and to explore consequences for Australia.
  2. Take up key social-scientific debates on such themes as solidarity and diversity, identity and belonging, multiculturalism and social cohesion, in order to explore their importance for contemporary societies.
  3. Analyse specific dilemmas of migration and diversity research – notably the tensions between policy orientation and social-scientific relevance; and between interdisciplinarity and disciplinary excellence.
  4. Think through strategies for improving the scientific quality, the institutional base, the connectedness and the relevance of Australian research on migration and diversity.

The main themes to be explored are:

Global and regional trends in international migration
International migration has grown considerably since the 1970s. Over 200 million people now live outside their countries of birth. The largest movement are from the Global South to the North, followed by South-South movements, and then by North-North mobility. International migrants represent only about 3 per cent of the world’s population, while internal migration – e.g. in countries like China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria – is much larger. However, international migration is highly concentrated, and has major effects on certain origin and destination areas. Regional blocs like the European Union, ECOSWAS and ASEAN pay increasing attention to economic, demographic and security aspects of migration, while international debates often focus on the relationship between migration and development. Another key theme concerns the impacts of the global financial crisis on migration.
Australia’s migration perspectives
Immigration has shaped Australia’s population, economy and society. Since 1947, Australia’s migration program has been planned and highly institutionalised, with an emphasis on permanent immigration: most immigrants have been expected to bring in family members and become Australian citizens. In recent years, the focus has shifted towards greater selectivity on the basis of employability and skills, with increased opportunities for temporary entry. Such policy changes reflect the effects of globalisation on economies and labour markets, as well as rapid improvements in transport and communications. The new situation makes it important for social scientists to re-examine long-standing ideas on the specific characteristics of migration and settlement processes in Australia and to link their research to international debates on globalisation and transnationalism.
Diversity and 21st century societies
Since the events of 9/11/2001 in the USA and 7/7/2004 in London, there has been a backlash against immigration and diversity. The result has been a public critique of multiculturalism and policies designed to propagate social cohesion and core values through citizenship tests, integration contracts and prohibitions of religious dress. In the social sciences this has led to debates about group versus national identity, and about tensions between diversity and solidarity. Australia has the highest level of ethno-cultural diversity of any developed country and has been highly successful in combining recognition of difference with participation in the economy and society. Social scientists need to explore how to reconfigure multicultural approaches to build up solidarity in a world that has become more mobile and more diverse. One of the most crucial sociological questions is “how can we live together?” This involves issues of political participation, social inclusion and national self-definition.
Advancing migration and diversity research in Australia
Australia, with its long tradition of managed migration and its multicultural population, should be a pre-eminent site for exploring the significance of migration and diversity for economics, politics and society. Australian researchers have made major contributions to scientific understanding and policy formation. It is important to think through ways of maintaining and enhancing this role. Strategies to be examined include: improving networking and cooperation among researchers; overcoming disciplinary boundaries to achieve more holistic understandings of migratory processes; connecting Australian researchers to international social scientific networks; and building partnerships between researchers and other stakeholders (including governments, business, labour organisations and migrant associations).