Experts in regional immigration in Australia and Canada said a tailored Scottish system could work – but only if the right jobs are available and the quality of life is high. They also warned that safeguards to ensure migrants remained in Scotland, such as linking visas to a Scottish tax code, would not necessarily prevent people moving elsewhere in the UK.
Nicola Sturgeon has proposed a “Scottish visa” to address falling birth rates and workforce skills gaps in the aftermath of Brexit, as the working age population is expected to decline over the next 30 years. She has stressed the visa would not be linked to specific jobs, with no sponsorship role for employers and no salary threshold.
However, Dr Lisa Denny, a research fellow in demographics at the University of Tasmania, said that regional visas were only effective “if they are attached to direct employment over a medium period, of two to three years”, while Canadian immigration expert Professor Mireille Paquet said a triple whammy of good jobs, good quality of life and low taxation were key to attracting and retaining migrants.
Dr Denny added: “If visas are not attached to a job, migrants have difficulty securing work and they are forced to move to where the jobs are – usually cities. While migrants may want to live in the regional area, they can be constrained by lack of employment and income options.
“Unless there are jobs or the opportunity to start their own businesses, or buy a business, or they can access social security, they will be forced to go where the work is to be able to afford to live. You can’t push migrants with skills and qualifications to an area where there are no employment opportunities for them.”
Australia operates a regional visa system, but Dr Denny said Tasmania in particular has found that a “huge number” of migrants who enter the country on such a visa are over-qualified for the jobs they end up doing, such as domestic cleaners, taxi drivers or kitchen hands. As a result they soon move on to other areas of Australia, and therefore ultimately have no impact on population numbers of the region into which they first arrived in.
She added: “While skilled migration is important for aspects other than population growth, it is a Band-Aid solution which fails to address the underlying causes. Unless greater effort is focused on industry development policy and job creation policy, then relying on migration as a solution to potential depopulation or economic downturn will be completely ineffective.”
The UK government has ruled out any devolution of immigration rules, but has since revealed its new points-based system, which has been heavily criticised for failing to ensure Scottish farmers, fisheries and other industries will be able to attract employees.
Prof Paquet, associate professor at Montreal’s Concordia University and author of Province Building and the Federalisation of Immigration in Canada, urged the Scottish Government to press ahead with its visa plan.
“These things don’t come easy,” she said. “The UK government has said it’s not going to happen, but that shouldn’t be the end. In Canada immigration is a shared jurisdiction and the provinces have a right to legislate on it as the federal government has entered into intergovernmental agreements, which set the terms of the programmes, including annual quotas, and demands of local labour markets.
“Each province gets to assess an applicant on the basis of their own criteria, but they are not responsible for issuing the visa, that is done by the federal government who runs the final checks, such as criminal and health checks, on the applicant.
“Some provinces can apply conditions, such as having a job offer, some do not and that’s down to the local labour markets.”
However, she said the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms means that provinces are unable to restrict immigrants to staying in the area to which their visa is granted. “It’s impossible to prevent people moving across the country,” she said.
The Scottish Government has proposed working with the UK government to “design, develop and evaluate pilot schemes to encourage migration to rural areas”.
Prof Paquet agrees pilots need to be run. “This is the main concern: how do you get people to stay, how do you create conditions to make them stay? There has to be a good quality of life for people. Good jobs, good schools and low taxation, things like that.
“Some people leave the provinces where they applied for a visa because they can’t find work, or because they’d far rather be in a more urban place than a rural one. And if Canadians won’t stay in some regions, why would we expect others to live there? Scotland may have a similar problem.”
She added: “Others move on because they only applied through a particular province because they thought their application would be dealt with faster, and they had no intention to stay there – that is one of the major criticisms of the system.”
She points to Manitoba as a success story in regional immigration, “because they put a lot of money into ensuring people would stay because of a good quality of life and lots of labour market opportunities. That needs to be a focus for any country looking to attract people.”
Also important, she said, is engaging the residents of the areas in which the government hopes immigrants would choose to live.
“Communities which end up receiving immigrants need to be involved in the process for it to work. It’s very powerful when this happens because they are able to give a positive message to immigrants about their areas and society. And it makes people more likely to stay if they feel welcomed.”
She added: “It’s important to keep on pushing the UK government on this. Yes, there are issues which will have to be ironed out – and pilot projects can help – but there’s a lot of value in a regional immigration system.”