Warnings Australia's first recession in 29 years could stoke anti-immigration attitudes

Migration analysts have warned anti-immigration attitudes could intensify as Australia enters its first recession in nearly three decades and job opportunities are reduced.

Petros Gyftopoulos

Petros Gyftopoulos, right, escaped Greece's recession following the Global Financial Crisis. Source: Supplied

Migration analysts have urged Australia to resist pressure to cut its immigration intake fuelled by the country entering its first recession in 29 years. 

Mass unemployment triggered by such an economic shock has historically aggravated anti-immigration attitudes across the world with analysts wary Australia is not immune to the threat.

Economists widely define a recession as two consecutive quarters of GDP contraction, with .  

A report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development on Wednesday found Australia's economy could contract by 6.3 per cent if there was a second wave of COVID-19 infections, but that it has been relatively spared from the impact compared to other countries.  

For Melbourne-based Petros Gyftopoulos, the economic threat a recession poses is all too real, having lived through his home country of Greece descending into its worst financial crisis in living memory.

Petros Gyftopoulos.
Petros Gyftopoulos. Source: Supplied

“We started seeing the economy going from bad to worse every single day,” he told SBS News.

“I have now the same feeling as I had back then, exactly what you see more jobs that are getting lost, businesses starting to close down. It is like in repeat - the same story."

Mr Gyftopoulos is a chemical engineering graduate who made the decision to migrate to Australia in 2013 for better career opportunities. The 35-year-old now co-owns craft beer brewing company Fall and Rise but says seeing Australia facing a recession has forced him to again reconsider his future.

“Definitely I am worried – I am worried a lot,” he said. “I’m not willing to go through that again. I know a lot of people that are considering to go back.”

'People look for someone to blame'

has shown a clear pattern of increased feelings of group threat towards migrants coinciding with an economic downturn, and academics say the same could happen in Australia. 

Western Sydney University immigration analyst and associate professor Shanthi Robertson warned it is easy to turn migrants into “scapegoats” for job losses in an environment of economic uncertainty.

“We do have to watch out for a simplistic kind of discourse that sees cutting migration levels as the solution to any kind of economic problem ... to make sure that there is no kind of stoking of xenophobia and no kind of stoking of racism,” she said. 

“It's pretty complacent to think that we have a completely safe and positive multicultural society at this moment in history."

Almost 600,000 Australians lost their jobs between March and April, driven by the economic impact of coronavirus-forced shutdowns. It has taken the unemployment rate to 6.2 per cent, with almost 823,000 Australians officially out of work, according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data.

Monash University emeritus professor Andrew Markus has helped oversee social cohesion mapping conducted by the Scanlon Foundation for more than a decade. His work tracks changes in Australian attitudes towards immigrants and asylum seekers. 

He said economic recessions can intensify calls to cut immigration and provoke anti-migrant attitudes.

Researcher Andrew Markus, from Melbourne's Monash University
Researcher Andrew Markus, from Melbourne's Monash University Source: SBS News

“There is a simplistic perception that every immigrant that comes into the country takes away one job – the reality is much more complex," he said. 

“If unemployment remains high it will be very difficult for government to resume the immigration program as we had it in the past."

Mr Markus said Australia’s last recession in the early 1990s was no exception, warning then negative attitudes increased to 70-75 per cent.

“The past record in this area is that when there are economic problems some people in the community will look to ethnic minorities and immigrants as a source of blame,” he said.

Permanent vs temporary migrants

Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge has warned it is too early to speculate about the future of the immigration system with border closures to international arrivals still in place because of COVID-19.

The federal government has predicted Australia’s overseas migration intake will shrink by more than 85 per cent on 2018-19 level next financial year.  

But University of Sydney immigration analyst and associate professor Anna Boucher said the government is already confronting pressure to reduce the migration intake once borders reopen.

Immigration Minister Alan Tudge speaks to the media  at Parliament House in Canberra.
Acting immigration minister Alan Tudge speaks to the media at Parliament House in Canberra. Source: AAP

“There is definitely pressure already - you can sense that politically – but I think it’s going to be a question of more targeting than cutting,” she said.

“If you go cutting migration, that in itself can have negative effects.”

Deloitte economist Chris Richardson has estimated the suspension of the immigration system could result in an up to $40 billion blow to the economy.

Associate professor Boucher said given the economic contribution, any significant changes to the migration system were unlikely to take place.

"There will be debate around the ratio between temporary and permanent [migration]," she said.

“[But] I really do believe that we are not going to see abrupt changes to migration in the medium to long term – I just don’t see that as likely at all."

In recent years, Australia's migration program has become more dependent on temporary visa holders, while the number of permanent visas has declined. 

Labor's Kristina Keneally has called for a reduction in the migration intake when borders reopen, particularly in relation to temporary visa holders. 

Associate professor Robertson said there will continue to be skill shortages, reliant on migrant workers to fulfil.

"Those kind of debates about where migration needs to be targeted have to be taken into account - not just a kind of slash and burn kind of mentality," she said. 

"[But] if public attitudes turn to be a little bit more anti-immigration because we are in a recession, then obviously the government is going to respond to that."

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6 min read
Published 11 June 2020 at 6:02am
By Tom Stayner