In February 2017, Samiul Ahsan came to Launceston for the first time.
A brown-skinned Bangladeshi man in his late twenties, he had come to Tasmania to explore the option of living here as a pathway to permanent residency.
But after 24 hours, he had made up his mind to try elsewhere.
Mr Ahsan came to Launceston on a trial basis, to feel out potential job opportunities that would put his recently acquired Bachelor of Business (Accounting) from Monash University to good use.
But on his first night in the city, he was walking back to his hostel in Invermay after buying groceries at the Woolworths on Wellington Street, when someone yelled at him from their car window as they shot past.
“I was near a Harvey Norman, you know that intersection?” Mr Ahsan said.
“And then all of a sudden these people, this car came and they were driving past me and they yelled at me saying, ‘go back to your country’.”
It was the first time in his six years in Australia, all six spent in Melbourne, that he had experienced that kind of overt racism.
“It made me scared and sad at the same time,” he said.
“You know how Launceston is at night. It’s really quiet and there was nobody else around and I was … I was quite shaky and just, really sad, and scared.”
He continued on, and about half an hour later, someone yelled at him again from a car window: something indecipherable this time.
Mr Ahsan hurried back to his hostel, didn’t go out at night for the remainder of his three booked days in Launceston and never came back.
International migrants like Mr Ahsan are encouraged by the government to move to regional areas through the visa process. With two new regional visa classes coming in as of November 16, 25,000 places a year will be available for migrants looking to attain permanent residency through living and working in regional Australia.
It’s supposed to be a win-win. Areas like Northern Tasmania, with their ageing populations and dwindling townships, are boosted by the working age, tax-paying, economy-charging migrants. And the migrants achieve the legal guarantee of being able to live in Australia indefinitely: a permanent residency.
A federal government Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said the skilled visa program was designed to “support Australian businesses, strengthen our nation and support our economy and regional areas”, and that, “Having the right skills in the right areas to support regional businesses is essential to ensuring local communities thrive”.
“The government anticipates that many of these regional visa holders will choose to remain in regional Australia once they become permanent residents, noting that the provisional visa period will provide an opportunity for migrants and their families to settle and become part of the regional community,” the spokesperson said.
But what has happened so far in practice is that the migrants, once they have a taste of regional life, are fleeing back to the cities as soon as their visa allows.
According to research from the Australian National University, migrants are leaving regional areas at record levels. Looking at one age – 25-year-olds – the authors of the nationwide study found that international migrants to regional Australia, including Northern Tasmania, had dismal chances of settling down. Only 18 per cent of migrants from the UK, 21 per cent from New Zealand, two per cent from China, and seven per cent from India chose to stay longer than five years.
Edward Obi, population attraction coordinator with the Northern Tasmanian Development Corporation, has interviewed more than 100 international migrants to Launceston about their experiences.
He said the number one cause of migrants’ reluctance to stay was a perception of racism.
“Migrants talk about Tasmanians as racists, as prejudiced, and that’s why they leave as soon as they get [permanent residency],” he said. “Otherwise, everyone agrees that Tasmania is basically heaven.”
He said this perception sprouts from multiple roots. One is migrants who have experienced city-quality services thinking that, for example, not being able to find a rental property is due to discrimination – rather than being a barrier that all Tasmanians face. Another is basic cultural differences in what constitutes friendly behaviour.
Mr Obi believes the solution lies with government. He has been lobbying the Department of State Growth to establish a Welcome Centre.
“I tell you, it’s a rigorous and expensive process [to get a visa] – about $12,000,” he said.
“All they need is someone to say, ‘Hey, this is where the post office is. This is a number to call.’
“Nobody who has multiple degrees and $12,000 for a visa needs hand-outs. They just need information.”
In Launceston there is the Migrant Resource Centre but that is only for migrants on a humanitarian visa: refugees. A Department of State Growth spokesperson said there was a business and skilled migration program to connect migrants with services, that the department provided information to employers to help them employ migrants and that they were working with Mr Obi’s organisation, the NTDC.
But Mr Obi does not believe those efforts scratch the surface of what is required.
“Other regional centres are really upping their game when it comes to retaining the right people,” he said. “Right now, I can’t point to one program in Tasmania to retain the right people.”
Muhammad Noman Javaid, 27, from Pakistan, is one international migrant who is planning to stay.
He said that yes, he experiences significantly more racism in Tasmania than in Melbourne. And there’s also the lack of jobs: “I know people who are engineers, doctors, and they’re driving taxis or working on farms,” he said.
But he sees himself as part of a wave of migrants on the vanguard of opening Tasmania up to multiculturalism.
Mr Javaid is in the process of starting up a business – a convenience store – among other ventures, and said he wants to hire other migrants that want to stay in Tasmania beyond the three years required to attain permanent residency.
“It’s not [Tasmanians’] fault – they haven’t seen other nationalities before,” he said.
“They are used to seeing, like, one kind of race, or maybe two or three but they would be coming as a tourist and then, they’re gone. But now they’re staying. So, I know where they’re coming from.
“But things will change. In the next generation or two, everyone will be mixed. That’s what’s happened everywhere. It’s Tassie’s time now.
“And it will be a good change, the economy will grow, and the locals need to understand that [with migration], the economy will definitely grow.
“For me, I’ve had the best experiences and the worst experiences of my life in Tasmania.”