Pacific Islanders and leaders welcome new Australia visa lottery scheme

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Standing just off the dusty main street of Solomon Islands’ capital Honiara, 22-year-old Tiphany Maena is about to set off on a new adventure.

Next month, the mother of two from the country’s western province will hop on a plane and head to Queensland, joining thousands of Pacific Islanders working for the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme.

She’ll be picking fruit and sending money back home. The problem is she’s leaving her family — and her two children — behind.

But if she’s lucky, this might all change, permanently.

The federal government on Thursday announced legislation for a new visa allowing up to 3,000 people from the Pacific region to migrate to Australia as permanent residents each year.

And for Maena, it would be life changing.

“’ll apply, definitely,” she said.

“It would mean I could take my family and stay there for good — I’d love that.

“In Solomon Islands there isn’t enough money, there’s more opportunities and better education over there [in Australia].

“But I think there should be many more, 3,000 spots isn’t enough. I think there’s going to be so many people apply and so many will miss out.”

Under the scheme, citizens from around the Pacific can apply with the winners selected in a so-called “visa lottery”.

If their name is drawn, applicants will then have to secure a work offer from an Australian employer to be eligible.

They will also have to pass a health check and a character test, and be able to speak some English.

The scheme, which the government hopes to have up and running by July, is only open to people between the ages of 18 and 45.

The visa plan was broadly welcomed across the Pacific on Thursday, with leaders generally backing the move.

Speaking to the ABC in Suva, Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka said he welcomed the visa as it was “open directly to the people” and not a “government-to-government” deal.

However, he raised concerns about its impact on the local labour market in Fiji

“We need to look at the whole process of providing employment for our people,” he said.

“And I think [these schemes] will be detrimental to our economy.”

Pacific experts also warned if word spread across the region — and it was expected to — there could be many disappointed Pacific Islanders.

Griffith University Pacific Hub project lead Tess Newton Cain told the ABC’s Pacific Beat programme the Australian government needed to get out and spread the message to make sure there was no confusion.

“I think there will need to be quite a lot of work done in Pacific Island countries to ensure that everyone understand what this is,” she said.

The scheme is modelled on a New Zealand immigration program, which also has a ballot system.

In Suva, Vaine Kuila, who lived and worked in New Zealand on that system, said the move by Australia sent a good signal.

“I strongly believe it’s high time Australia steps up and makes us understand that we truly are a Pacific family,” she said.

Kuila runs commercial poultry farms and knows the labour situation in the Pacific well.

Although she said it was undoubtably a very good opportunity, like Rabuka she believed there was a danger it would contribute to a drain Fiji’s skilled people.

SOURCE: ABC/PACNEWS