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Australia likely no longer key migration destination

16 December 2020
AI-driven study reveals unbiased insights
Save for India, people from other countries are lukewarm on migration to Australia, finds a study based on open-access web data. The study also reveals that while Australians are highly engaged in migration as a subject, they feel neutral about it in practice.

Australians and citizens of other nations feel generally neutral towards migration to Australia, a new study shows.

Conducted by migration expert Associate Professor Anna Boucher and Elisa Choy, Founder of AI-powered strategic market research company Maven Data, the study gauged the sentiments of both Australians and foreigners about migration to Australia.

The data, drawn from open-access internet sources globally, suggests that though Australians are highly engaged in migration as a subject, they are neither strongly opposed or in favour of it.

A similar finding applied to residents of other nations: other than India, the world feels largely neutral towards Australia as a major migration destination.

“In regard to China, this finding could also be related to the state control of the media,” Associate Professor Boucher, from the University of Sydney School of Social and Political Sciences explained. “Yet overall, our findings suggest that Australia is no longer seen as the key destination it once was, and that immigration may not rebound as expected or hoped after the pandemic.”

Policy implications

“Our research tells us that Australians are actively watching the government's next move on migration and expecting the government to demonstrate leadership in this area,” Associate Professor Boucher said.

“In terms of global views of potential immigrants into Australia, our data on India, the largest source country of migrants to Australia in 2018–19, should be highly interesting to government.

“Yet in general, the data suggests that Australia could be in trouble-migration-wise. Although last year, the OECD ranked us the top immigration destination for talent attractiveness, we may now face tough competition from other countries, like Canada. 

“Another finding from our research is that migrants overseas are often reliant on translations of government websites for information, rather than official Australian government websites in English. This means there is scope for the government to translate some of its online immigration sources into other languages, to increase information flow about Australia internationally.”

Who cared, and about what

The study showed that Australians are spending a lot of time on government websites reading about migration. “They are focused on fact-finding rather than forming or reinforcing opinions, which means the government has the power to shape opinion in this area in the coming months,” Associate Professor Boucher said.

Of all foreign nationalities, Indians were the most interested in Australia. Their central concerns related to visas, Australia's COVID-19 recovery, opportunities for migrants, and how migrant agents worked. 

Though Chinese speakers were not as engaged as Indians, their interest centred on Australia’s healthcare system, management of COVID-19, and the Australian government's relationship with China. 

Despite high numbers of COVID-19 cases in the US, Spanish speakers were more interested in the US as a potential immigration destination. “This is a key finding, as Spanish speakers are a potential source of increasing migration to Australia, given population growth in Latin America,” Associate Professor Boucher said.

Unbiased method

The researchers used an innovative research method – analysing online data using AI, rather than a traditional survey method for capturing migration sentiment, like an opinion poll.

“The fundamental downfall of traditional survey methods is that they are based on eliciting people’s opinions through interviews or surveys, which are inherently biased and not always reflective of their actual behaviour,” Ms Choy explained.   

“By contrast, when people engage with content online, in their natural environment, there is less scope to lie.”

Also, unlike traditional migration sentiment surveys, this study involved a large sample size.

For the first part of the study – what Australians think about migration, “we searched and extracted all the online content related to a narrative; everything publicly available online in websites, blogs and social media that related to migration,” Ms Choy said, outlining the methodology.

“We analysed this data using natural language processing – a branch of machine learning within AI – to contextualise it through emotion.”

The data was then categorised into one of four key engagement measures: 

  1. transformational: highly engaging, deeply relevant and has momentum and debate – will change the market. Around two percent of issues sit here;
  2. timeless: highly engaging, deeply relevant and have long term value as part of culture and society. Around seven percent of issues sit here;
  3. transient; and
  4. tribal: not engaging nor relevant and will fall away over time – ‘noise’. Around 93 percent of issues sit here.

For the second part of the study –what the world thinks about Australia as a migration destination, “we considered how people in migration source countries engaged with not just Australia and other English-language media, but also Chinese, Indian, Arabic, Vietnamese and Spanish sources, to capture public sentiment,” Ms Choy said.  

Declaration: No research funding supported this project. Maven Data paid for the data analysis. The University of Sydney Ethics Committee has approved this research. The researchers would like to thank Dr Lucia Sorbera, Chair of Arabic Studies at the University of Sydney, for her assistance with translation of their coding frame into Arabic.

Facts about migration to Australia

  • In 2019, Australia was identified by the OECD as one of the world’s most popular immigration countries.
  • Before COVID-19, it had one of the highest rates of migration as a percentage of the population of any democracies.
  • Migration has been identified in several federal budgets as crucial to the economic settings of Australia and key sectors, including housing, higher education and hospitality and tourism.

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