Australia Has a Plan to Keep Immigrants Out of Its Largest Cities

Ferries crossing Sydney harbor.
This city is full. Flickr/AussieJeff

Immigrants to Australia will soon find themselves excluded from Sydney and Melbourne, the country’s two largest cities. Instead, new arrivals will be confined for five years to rural, low-growth parts of the country—or so the government intends.

The proposal is part of “a decentralization agenda” announced by the country’s population and urban infrastructure minister on Tuesday. “Nearly all of the growth in Australia is into the three population centers of Melbourne, Sydney and Southeast Queensland. And that’s putting enormous pressure on Melbourne and Sydney particularly, and we see that in the congestion on the roads every day,” Alan Tudge told an Australian TV program.

Australia has been widely criticized for its treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, but it settled the secondmost refugees per capita in 2017, after Canada and Norway. Now the government wants to use migration policy to limit population growth in Sydney and Melbourne, each of which counts more than 4.5 million residents and has grown by more than 10 percent over the past five years. Three in four new arrivals in Australia settle in one of the three areas that would be off-limits to new migrants not sponsored by employers or reuniting with family.

These issues—bursting cities, uneven migration patterns—are not unique to Australia. China has sought to restrict domestic migration to Beijing and Shanghai, citing “big city diseases” like pollution, traffic, and competition for schools, apartments and medical services. In Canada, where immigrants have long clustered in just a couple of cities, province-based visas, meant to draw arrivals to lesser populated places like New Brunswick, now account for one in five immigrants.

In the U.S., virtually none of the country’s largest cities would have added population in the last few decades without immigrants. But the impact of new arrivals is felt in rural areas too: the majority of non-metropolitan population growth between 1990 and 2010 came from Hispanic migrants. The connection between immigrants and economic growth is complicated, but various politicians have floated the idea of revitalizing depopulated areas through immigration. Why not let Syrians settle Detroit? Or Fremont, Nebraska?

In the U.S., at least, where unfettered interstate travel is sacred, plans like Australia’s can provoke unease—even when they are framed, as they usually are, as bonus lotteries to offer green cards to those who wouldn’t otherwise have them. Shouldn’t new Americans be entitled to the same rights as everyone else, including the freedom to move? Why wouldn’t immigrants want to move to the same opportunities sought by native-born Americans? Then again, others point out, employer-sponsored visas like HB-1s already essentially constitute place-based immigration.

Some economists argue confining migrants to low-growth areas doesn’t make sense: Immigrants (and natives) should move to fast-growing regions with high-paying jobs, and those places should provide enough housing and transportation to accommodate them. (Even high-cost cities like New York continue to draw newcomers.) Cities, the thinking goes, function best at scale, strengthened by the increasing potential interactions between people and jobs. That’s little consolation for regions with little population growth, some of whom will pay you to move there.

In the same way that the U.S. helps settle refugees but doesn’t restrict their movement, Canada doesn’t actually make regionally-sponsored visa recipients stay put. In Australia, Roman Quaedvlieg, the former head of the country’s border police, argued that enforcing the new provision would be nearly impossible.

The Australian government hasn’t announced yet how to make sure new immigrants don’t do what immigrants have done for centuries the world over: Move to the big city.

Update, Oct. 10, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify that the restrictions would not be permanent.