Immigration policy and demographic change in Scotland: learning from Australia, Canada and continental Europe

Report by the independent, Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population situates Scotland's demographic circumstance in a wider context and looks at various international examples of immigration systems that have been designed to offset demographic challenges and other related shortages.

4. Lessons from the Case Studies

The report has analysed five case studies, which illustrate a range of immigration policies designed to address different types of shortages. The Canadian and Australian systems are explicitly oriented towards addressing aggregate, sectoral and geographic shortages, including through promoting settlement and retention in remote and rural areas. The Spanish and Swedish systems, by contrast, are more geared towards aggregate and sectoral shortages; but by building in more flexibility in terms of the occupations and sectors covered, and providing pathways to settlement, they can also contribute to addressing shortages in particular areas. 

In this chapter, we distil the case studies to draw some key lessons for Scotland and the UK in using immigration policy to address population ageing and decline.

4.1 The importance of job offers

As we would anticipate, immigration policies explicitly designed to address demographic challenges tend to offer more expansive rights packages, in order to encourage permanent settlement. This is most notably the case with Australian and Canadian systems, which tend to offer permanent residency from the outset.

However, while more expansive rights are often associated with recruitment based on human capital, both Australia and Canada have increasingly linked selection and recruitment to specific job offers. This ‘hybridisation’ of human capital and employer-led systems can help ensure entrants meet labour shortages in particular sectors or occupations. It also reflects the importance of employment opportunities for supporting labour market integration. Migrants with a pre-existing job offer avoid the challenge of navigating a new labour market on arrival, and there is a greater chance of aligning their skills and experience to suitable jobs. 

These considerations will be especially relevant where programmes aim to promote the longer-term settlement of migrants and their families. A specific job offer, together with active commitment of employers to retain workers in the medium to long-term, is likely to increase the prospects for settlement. As exemplified in the Canadian Atlantic Immigration Pilot, such programmes may be especially relevant for remoter areas that have traditionally struggled to attract and retain migrants.

4.2 Rights and Retention

One of the key challenges of immigration policies encouraging settlement (in particular areas) is to get the right balance between the rights and autonomy of migrants; while creating incentives for entrants to behave in the way intended by the scheme, in terms of their employment and location choices.

Even where entry is conditional on a job offer, over time, the requirement to stay in a particular job, sector, or region, necessarily weakens. Host countries need to provide more expansive rights as migrants become longer-term residents, and part of this will involve increased mobility rights – in terms of choice of employer, occupation, and location within the country. 

This creates a dilemma for programmes aimed at promoting settlement in specific areas. As suggested above, migrants need suitable job opportunities to make settlement viable. Specific job offers also ensure that selection/recruitment is based on a good match of profiles to jobs. And recruitment to a specific job may also increase the chances of staying in a particular area. At the same time, regions that have traditionally attracted fewer migrants may need to build in forms of conditionality around residency in the region, at least for an initial period of time.

Over time, however, these requirements need to loosen, to accommodate various forms of mobility. This is clearly important from a rights perspective. All of the countries examined offer expanding rights over time, in relation to employment, families, welfare, free movement within the country, and so on. Expanded employment rights are also important to enable migrants to respond to opportunities that match their skills and preferences. Being confined to a particular job or sector, or a particular region, may impede socio-economic mobility of migrants and their children. 

The systems examined in the case studies balance these considerations in different ways, through incrementally expanding rights and reducing restrictions on mobility.

  • Sweden: the first 2 years are linked to a specific job; followed by 2 years of more flexibility; and permanent residency after 4 years.
  • Spain: the first year is tied to a specific job, with increasing flexibility for a further 2 + 2 years, with permanent residency after 5 years.
  • Australian SSRM: 2 years residence in the region (including 1 year of employment), then permanent residency.
  • Canadian PNP (Manitoba): permanent residency from the outset, with no restrictions on movement.

It is worth noting that the new Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional visa in Australia (introduced in November 2019) will lengthen the period entrants are required to stay in the recruiting region, to 5 years. This approach assumes that people are more likely to settle once they have stayed over several years. Research suggests that settlement is especially likely once children are settled in school. 

4.3 Promoting settlement

Apart from measures to link entry and stay to particular jobs and locations, there are two further approaches to promoting settlement.

Firstly, some programmes build the goal of promoting settlement into their selection criteria. For example, the Manitoba points system gives weight to a variety of characteristics considered to increase the probability of settlement (including relatives and friends in the province, and previous work experience or education in the province). 

Secondly, the Canadian Atlantic Immigration Pilot includes a number of features to promote retention once nominees have arrived, working closely with employers and local organizations to develop a package to facilitate settlement. A crucial part of this is the close cooperation with designated employers, who commit to supporting the longer-term settlement of entrants. 

4.4   Regional differentiation

Four of the schemes we examined offered scope for differentiating entry criteria according to regional needs. This was achieved through regional/provincial points systems in Australia and Canada, and through differentiated shortage occupation lists for provinces in Spain. In Australia and Canada, there was further differentiation within provinces, states or territories, with remote and rural areas subject to distinct programmes. In both cases, this reflected particular concerns about declining population in these areas, and a desire to avoid the over concentration of migration in urban areas. Criteria for admission into these remoter areas were less stringent. For example, the Australian Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional visa was open to a far wider range of occupations than the case for non-regional visas. 

In both Spain and Sweden, while the programmes did not build in differential thresholds for remote areas or regions, they were nonetheless open to employees at any skill or salary level, or employed in any occupation. As such, these schemes allowed employers in remoter regions to recruit workers to a range of jobs that might otherwise not have met skills thresholds. And indeed, data from the two programmes suggests that there was substantial recruitment of workers at lower skills levels. The flexibility of these entry requirements, combined with their offer of pathways to settlement, may be well suited to addressing geographic shortages in rural and remote areas. However, there may be greater challenges in enforcing such schemes, as outlined below. Figure 4.1 sets out different types of differentiation which may help address geographic shortages.

Figure 4.1: Addressing Geographic Shortages through Differentiated Schemes

Direct differentiation

  • Region has a distinct scheme
  • Single national scheme includes regional variation in entry criteria:
    • Lower salary or skills threshold
    • More extensive list of occupations
    • Different points weighting
  • Single national scheme includes variation in stay/settlement criteria
    • Longer stay for particular region/s
    • Lower thresholds for settlement for particular region/s

Indirect differentiation

  • Single national scheme covers occupations/skills relevant to regional shortages
  • Single national scheme builds in pathway to settlement

4.5 Enforcement

The various schemes carry different challenges in relation to implementation and enforcement. We can group the main issues as follows:

  • Complexity: The more complex the scheme – for migrants, employers, and others involved in enforcement – the more challenging the scheme can be to enforce. Thus, for example, schemes that offer multiple different routes, or incremental adjustments of rights, can be more challenging for employers and migrants to navigate, and for public authorities to manage. It is noteworthy that countries with more complex and variegated schemes, such as Australia and Canada, accept this complexity as a price worth paying to ensure diverse needs and goals are met.
  • Sponsorship: More flexibility for migrants – whether in terms of moving jobs and occupations, moving in and out of work, or internal mobility within the country – can create more challenges for a sponsorship-based system. One way of addressing this is to enlist closer cooperation of employers, as with the Atlantic Immigration Pilot ‘designated employer’ system. 
  • Vulnerability: Schemes that are not directly linked to employment can create greater risks for migrants, who may find themselves slipping into irregular status (as has occurred in Spain, for migrants who are temporarily out of work); or even into destitution, if they do not have recourse to public funds. The Swedish case is instructive here, as entrants may have gaps of up to 3 months between jobs; and they may access welfare support after 1 year. Schemes with more expansive rights from the outset can avoid this vulnerability, through offering longer-term residency and access to welfare and social support.

There may also be particular challenges associated with recruiting migrants into lower-skilled jobs. Such jobs are often (though not always) more vulnerable to changing economic cycles and higher risk of unemployment. This was a challenge in the case of the Spanish Catalogue, where the 2008 economic crisis triggered large-scale unemployment, including of recently arrived migrants. However, we should note that many high-skilled jobs are similarly vulnerable to economic cycles; and, conversely, many low-skilled jobs are not – for example many jobs in the public sector, health, or social care. 

Finally, some sectors associated with lower-skilled work may be more prone to informal and precarious work, and thus exploitation by employers. For example, construction, hospitality and catering, agriculture, and domestic work have often been associated with informal work and non-compliance with labour standards. 

For these reasons, immigration schemes accommodating lower-skilled occupations and encouraging longer-term settlement may need to build in additional measures to ensure compliance, especially on the part of employers; and to promote attractive and sustainable employment opportunities. Again, the Canadian Atlantic Immigration Pilot offers some useful lessons for working with employers to ensure the right conditions are in place.



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