Fluid Security in the Asia Pacific – Design

The research will be conducted by applying a ‘mobilities lens’ (Urry 2008) to social processes that affect the security of individuals and communities. 

Research questions

  1. Under what circumstances, and to what degree, is cross-border mobility (both incoming and outgoing) perceived as a threat to the security of a nation-state? How are these insecurities manifest?
  2. How do different security domains (economic, legal, personal and socio-cultural) interact to influence individual experiences of insecurity amongst diaspora communities and mobile populations?
  3. What policies would enhance both the security of the host nation and the security of temporary non-citizens?


The model of fluid security we propose will be developed and tested through a carefully selected set of case studies, each of which matches a source country or sub-national region with a corresponding destination location in Australia.

Important contextual and policy information may be obtained through scrutiny of public documents, supplemented by interviews with key officials and NGOs. However, the key to our model is the incorporation of the lived experience of mobile populations. This requires qualitative empirical data to be collected in both source and destination locations.

This data will be collected through a series of cases studies which explore the security processes that drive and mediate mobility, and influence reception and inclusion, in four matched locations. The case studies have been selected based on the following criteria:

  • Representation in leading visa schemes: such as education, work, the new seasonal worker category, family reunion, and protection.
  • Nationalities that have maintained consistently high representation in immigration enforcement, visa cancellation and immigration detention.
  • Locations that will enable the identification of a range of security issues across the four identified security domains, and provide insights into contrasting local conditions across the Asia Pacific
  • Countries identified by the Australian government as key relationships in the Asia Pacific.

Case Studies

1. Tonga – Murray Basin

Tonga has been chosen as one nation that is part of a broader regional relationship Australia is actively seeking to build.

Links include participation in the Pacific Island Forum and various bi-lateral Defence initiatives.

Following political unrest in 2006 Australian Federal Police were deployed in Tonga in a peacekeeping role.

Tonga has been allocated 250 grants of New Zealand residency per year through the Pacific Access Category (PAC) agreement, which was introduced in the context of threats to Pacific islands arising from climate change, but which nevertheless targets skilled workers.

Australia has been reluctant to negotiate an equivalent deal, although the Minister for Immigration is considering ways to assist climate refugees from the region.

The Tongan economy is heavily dependent on remittances and tourism. After China, Tongans were the most frequently detained nationality in Immigration detention in 2006-7.

Following the recent introduction of the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme, Tongans currently make up a significant portion of all Asia Pacific peoples travelling to Australia lawfully for short-term periods.

Many Pacific Islanders are recruited as agricultural labourers in the irrigation districts along the Victorian and New South Wales border, and Swan Hill (Vic) and Griffith (NSW) are official sites in the new pilot scheme. Their participation in these new schemes is of central interest to this study.

2. Samoa – Sydney

Samoans have not been included in the Australian seasonal work schemes, for reasons which have not been announced. Their opportunities for mobility within the region would therefore appear to be limited when compared with Tonga.

However far higher numbers of Samoans than Tongans (17,739 compared with 7,580 at 2006-7) are already resident within Australia.

Exploring the contrasting situations of these two Pacific neighbours, in terms of past immigration experiences and current access to temporary work opportunities, is of central interest to this study.

It is expected that Samoan nationals will also be encountered in the rural areas included in Case Study 1.

However the focus for this case study will be primarily urban populations in Sydney, which act as the gateway for the majority of Pacific Islanders entering through mechanisms other than the seasonal work schemes.

The city’s outer western suburbs host a number of well established Samoan communities, some of which have been the focus of media attention in relation to community safety issues that are of relevance to reception and inclusion aspects of this study.

Tongan populations are also expected to be encountered in this case study, introducing a comparative element.

3. Indonesia – Darwin

Indonesia has a significant relationship with Australia, as reflected by Prime Minister Rudd’s reference to the two nations as ‘inseparable partners’.

Since the Bali bombings, Indonesia has been seen as an important security partner in combating extremist Islamist groups. More than half of the 220 million population live below the World Bank defined poverty line.

Serious environmental degradation problems include large scale burning to support local agriculture, commercial logging by multi-national companies and longstanding transmigration projects aimed at transferring populations from the crowded central islands of Java, Bali and Madura to outer islands.

Thousands of these transmigrants are considered to be potential environmental refugees. Ethnic tensions arising from conflicts between transmigrants and indigenous populations, and organised separatist movements have been widespread, the best known of which are West Papua, Aceh and East Timor.

The Australian/Indonesia relationship is dominated by the Bail Process and Joint Committee on People Smuggling and People Trafficking, reflecting the identification of Indonesia by Australia as an important partner in the control of irregular migration and illegal fishing.

The increasingly bilateral nature of this relationship has yet to be explored in relation to the experience of mobile populations moving between the two nations. Sections of the population rely heavily on remittances from overseas workers, largely women, however Australia is not a major destination for registered overseas workers.

Indonesians who are long term residents in Australia have low rates of citizenship – 48% in 2006 compared with an average 76% – the reasons for which are worthy of further exploration. Currently Indonesians, are the third largest group of non-citizens detained in Australian immigration detention facilities.

Since Indonesia shares a significant sea border along the northern coastline of Australia which has been the historical focus of security concern, Darwin will be included as the study location within Australia.

The fieldwork in Indonesia will centre around Kalamantan, one of the largest transmigration locations, to explore the implications for regional mobility of conflict and environmental degradation arising from internal relocation.

4. China – Melbourne

China is a key trading partner for Australia, and Chinese students and business travellers are a significant and growing proportion of temporary migration into Australia.

There is also a history of Chinese citizens seeking asylum on the grounds of China’s One Child Policy and suppression of dissent. Despite rapid economic growth in recent decades there is growing inequality and it is estimated that 100 million people continue to live in “absolute poverty”.

The Three Gorges Dam project has been identified by NGOs as a key site of environmental degradation, and estimates of people internally displaced due to climate change range from 30 to 72 million.

Large scale internal migration to urban areas is occurring for a range of mainly economic reasons, putting strains on infrastructure. Low lying Shanghai is recognised as one of the world’s ‘mega-cities’ that is threatened by rising sea levels.

Chinese nationals are the most represented national group in Australian immigration detention facilities, indicating considerable unmet demand for temporary or long term stays. Melbourne hosts a large Chinese-born population. 

There has been some significant enforcement activity in Melbourne around short stay visas, fraudulent activities by providers of education to Chinese students, and police activity around Chinese transnational crime.

For this reason, Melbourne will be chosen as the receiving location within Australia. Fieldwork in China will be focused on Shanghai, and will concentrate primarily on travel to Australia on student visas, focusing on selected industry sectors such as hairdressing and nursing, which offer graduates a good chance of qualifying for extended settlement in Australia.

Data collection

Across the four regional relationships of Australia/Tonga, Australia/Samoa, Australia/Indonesia and Australia/China we will develop a data set documenting the experiences of individuals who have or will come to have a non citizen immigration status, including descriptions of:

  1. Security processes that drive mobility from the country of origin (reasons for leaving);
  2. Security processes that mediate mobility (official regulation, markets and opportunities);
  3. Security processes of reception and inclusion in Australia (policies, social networks and experiences of diaspora).

Security processes will be further categorised along the four dimensions, described previously, which collectively constitute a ‘matrix of security’: security of immigration status; economic status; identity; and personal safety.

Not every security domain will be comprehensively explored within each case study, since this would create a huge array of research conditions. Instead, the dimensions that are most relevant to any given study location will be highlighted.

The interactive effects between security domains will be a primary focus. A central research hypothesis is that for mobile actors, insecurity in any of these areas increases the vulnerability and insecurity across other areas.