Noncitizens Down Under: How Migrant Belonging is Changing in a Nation of Immigrants

Noncitizens Down Under: How Migrant Belonging is Changing in a Nation of Immigrants

Shanthi Robertson 

In 2011, an Australian federal court ruled that the owners of a popular Melbourne dumpling restaurant must pay $AU200 000 in unpaid wages and superannuation to Chinese immigrant chef Chang Chang. Sponsored by the restaurant under the 457 temporary skilled worker programme, Chang had worked 13-hour days for an illegally low wage. Aware he was being exploited, he waited three years until he was able to secure permanent residency before taking legal action. In 2009, accounting graduate and Indian national Nitin Garg was fatally stabbed in a Melbourne park while walking to his job at a fast-food restaurant, in one of a chain of attacks on Indian student-workers in Melbourne and Sydney across 2009 and 2010.

The stories of these two men, both noncitizen workers seeking out permanency, speak to a wider picture of how immigration in Australia is changing, and how forms of ‘noncitizenship’ are central to these changes.

Australia has long been considered a ‘nation of immigrants’, with more than 25% of its resident population born overseas (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2013). It is also often seen as an exemplar of successful multiculturalism, with 85% of Australians agreeing multiculturalism has been good for the nation (Monash University 2014). But the emerging phenomenon of noncitizen residents presents some new challenges. Historically, Australian immigration policy tended to emphasize permanent settlement, with the majority of migrants granted permanent residency (PR) upon selection or arrival, and full citizenship through naturalization the normal end result.

Since the 1990s, however, there has been an expanding population of legal noncitizen residents, like Chang and Garg, living and working in Australia, largely through the expansion of temporary visa schemes. At the end of 2013, there were nearly 1.4 million noncitizen residents living in Australia (Department of Immigration and Border Protection 2013). This includes a range of categories — employer sponsored temporary migrants (457 visas), international students, graduate workers (485 visas), tourist-workers (on working holiday visas), and New Zealand citizens, as well as their spouses and dependents.

The transition from a ‘nation of immigrants’ to a ‘state of transience’ (Walsh 2014) has had several complex effects on migrants’ social and political belonging, which I have been unpacking, since 2005, in my ongoing sociological research on the migration pathways of different kinds of temporary migrant arrivals to Australia.

Noncitizen migrants in Australia play diverse roles in the labour market — including professional occupations, retail and hospitality work, skilled trades, low-skilled work in cleaning or agriculture, and sex work. Those on ‘skilled’ visas do not always occupy skilled roles. In fact, many of the migrants picking fruit or driving taxis in Australia have tertiary qualifications or in-demand skills. Nitin Garg and Chang Chang are quite typical examples here — Garg was a graduate of a local university but was doing unskilled work in the fast food industry, while Chang, as a chef, was on a skilled visa but was forced to work in virtual servitude.

Many noncitizens are hoping to eventually achieve Australian permanent residency, although not all actually desire permanent settlement in the traditional sense. Rather, obtaining Australian PR or citizenship can be a passport for temporary migrants to ongoing circularity between Australia and their countries of origin, or onward mobility to a third country.

It’s increasingly common for migrants who arrive on temporary visas to ‘churn’ across different temporary visa statuses over extended periods of time, with little certainly as to whether PR and then citizenship will eventually be achieved. As ‘noncitizens’, these migrants legally reside and pay tax in Australia for extended periods of time but do not have access to voting rights, nor to many social services, including government subsidized health care and education.

These new migration processes have changed both access to and values around citizenship. There are few guaranteed pathways from a temporary to a permanent visa in Australia. Instead, the pathway from noncitizenship to citizenship depends on meeting ever-changing migration criteria around skills, qualifications, language capabilities and work experience. It can also depend on migrants’ capacity to pay agents and brokers to assist them in securing visas and jobs, or on their ability to obtain sponsorship from an Australian employer. Citizenship is thus becoming increasingly ‘contractualized’ – meaning that the boundary between noncitizen and citizen is less about belonging and civic participation and more about the fulfilment of particular economic criteria.

On an individual level, this contractualized approach to citizenship can mean that seemingly minor immigration policy changes (such as changes to thresholds in the ‘points systems’, updates to national lists of priority skills, or changes to language requirements) can radically alter the fates of noncitizens and thwart their long-term migration goals. Falling into ineligibility for permanence can happen to individual noncitizens — see for example, the story of nurse Claire Hewitt, who was denied a permanent visa after being injured in a workplace accident (Mares 2013). Or, it can happen to particular groups en masse, sometimes even after their applications for permanent residency have been lodged — see for example, the fate of a group of student-migrants in 2010 (Verma 2013).

My own research on migrants who transition across temporary visa statuses has further found that noncitizen status affects many different aspects of people’s lives. Romantic relationships may be accelerated so that spouse visas can be obtained. Having children may be delayed, because of the higher costs of healthcare and education for noncitizens, as well as concerns about raising a family in a situation of immigration uncertainty. Noncitizens on bridging visas (often while in the process of transition from one visa to another) can be unable to care for ailing parents overseas or attend family funerals because of restrictions on their right to travel. For many, passions, interests and established career trajectories are put aside for career pathways that can garner immigration outcomes.

Apart from the impacts on individuals and families, there are also broader questions around the collective political belonging and activism of noncitizens. Noncitizens in other contexts globally, such as asylum seekers or undocumented workers, have often lobbied governments to acknowledge their rights. Examples include the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act in the US, a proposal for young undocumented migrants to access pathways to permanent residency, or the Sans-Papiers (‘without papers’) movement in Europe, which has lobbied for the labour and human rights of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. These kinds of movements, however, have been slow to emerge in Australia. This may be because, unlike ‘paperless’ migrants in the EU or US, who have mobilised under the political identity of ‘undocumented’, different categories of legal noncitizen in Australia often have little common ground politically. Any movements to claim further rights tend to be fairly localized and focused on a particular noncitizen group. For example, in 2006 international students in the states of Victoria and New South Wales lobbied for the same public transport concessions as local students, and in 2011 New Zealand citizens living in Queensland campaigned to be eligible for government disaster relief after flooding and a cyclone. There has been, however, little collective politicization around a noncitizen or a temporary migrant identity, perhaps because of the great diversity of experiences, vulnerabilities, concerns and claims among the noncitizen population.

Students and graduate workers, for example, are unlikely to feel support for the ire of New Zealanders at being left out of new bonuses in unemployment benefits, when students and graduate workers are not eligible for any benefits at all. Similarly, temporary workers in skilled trades and professions in urban centres are unlikely to find opportunities to interact with those doing agricultural work in remote areas, despite the fact that both groups are subject to labour exploitation on the basis of their visas.

Despite the strong presence of ethnic lobbies and advocacy groups throughout Australia, developed over the course of nearly 40 years of official multiculturalism, it has also been difficult for noncitizens to mobilize from an ethnic base. Ethnic lobbying in Australia tends to be based on a settler paradigm — lobbing for the recognition of full members of an established multicultural society to practice their culture without harm or derision, and for government-funded services to meet the specific needs of various ethnic groups. Because they lack full membership and are overall ineligible for most government support services, noncitizens often fall outside of this type of ethnic politics.

However, there have been some successful moments of political lobbying involving collectives of noncitizens. The taxi driver strikes in Melbourne in 2008 after the stabbing of an Indian driver led to legislative change within the taxi industry, and brought public attention to noncitizens’ contributions as labour. Anti-violence and anti-racism protests in 2009 in the wake of a series of street attacks on Indian students, including the murder of Nitin Garg, rallied thousands of Indian noncitizens, but also many citizen supporters, who were members of the ‘settled’ Indian community as well as the Anglo-Australian majority.

As the noncitizen population ‘down under’ continues to grow, Australia’s identity as an ‘immigrant nation’ will continue to evolve, and we may see even more emerging solidarities and political movements around noncitizens’ rights and belonging.

For more on this research, see Robertson, S. (2015) Contractualization, depoliticization and the limits of solidarity: noncitizens in contemporary Australia. Citizenship Studies 19 (8), 936-950.


Shanthi Robertson is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. Her research interests are broadly around the social and cultural consequences of globalisation, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, with a specific focus on labour mobility, transnational migration, citizenship, cultural diversity and urban contexts. She has published in several high-ranking migration studies, ethnic studies and urban studies journals, including Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Ethnicities, Citizenship Studies, City and Community and Population, Space and Place. Her first book, Transnational Student-Migrants and the State: The Education Migration Nexus (2013) won the 2014 Raewyn Connell Prize for the best first book in Australian sociology. Twitter: @ShaKRobertson