Recommended Sponsor - Buy Original Artwork Directly from the Artist

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Florence Monique Boulard, Senior Lecturer in Humanities and Education, James Cook University

In recent weeks, New Caledonia has been wracked by the worst unrest on the island in 40 years, making headlines around the world. Hundreds of Australians were trapped in the French territory, unable to return home until French troops restored order.

However, despite its geographical proximity to Australia, New Caledonia (also known as Kanaky to the Indigenous Kanak population) rarely enters into the imagination of everyday Australians.

One of us, (Florence), emigrated from New Caledonia to Australia 20 years ago. I’m often struck by how confused some Australians seem when I tell them there is a French-speaking island less than a two-hour flight from Brisbane.

This is not surprising, given that in Australian schools, the Pacific Islands remain a topic studied only at the discretion of educators. Given the ever-increasing presence of Pacific Islanders in Australian culture, sport and society, this lack of awareness about our neighbours needs to be rectified.

What our research found

Kanak people have a long history in Australia due to the infamous practice of blackbirding, also known as the Pacific labour trade. Thousands of Kanak people were among those shipped from across the Pacific to work in the sugarcane plantations in Queensland from the 1860s onwards.

Research on contemporary Pacific mobility tends to focus on just a few countries, particularly New Zealand, Vanuatu, Tonga and Samoa. As a result, we know little about the cultural diversity of other Pacific migrant communities in Australia, including those from Kanaky-New Caledonia.

As scholars researching Kanaky-New Caledonian migration patterns, we have seen a significant interest in Australia as a destination in recent years.

According to the 2021 census data, there were 1,378 people living in Australia that year who were born in Kanaky-New Caledonia.

Visitor numbers are much bigger. Data from the Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies New Caledonia showed that in 2023 more than 40,000 New Caledonians had visited Australia. That compares with around 32,000 who went to France and 12,000 who travelled to New Zealand.

Our research shows that for some residents, these trips to Australia are more than a holiday – they prompt many to imagine a life in this country. For example, one participant in our study explained:

We were hearing a lot about Australia. We came with some mates. We had a great time. […] Then I came back and when I told my wife about the experience, she said that she wanted to go with her girlfriends. She went. She came back and she said it is so great there, let’s go back.

It took this family ten years, but they achieved their dream of moving permanently to Australia.

In addition, a Facebook group called “Calédoniens en Australie”, created during the height of the COVID pandemic, also highlights this increasing desire to come to Australia. Many of the 13,600 members are regularly seeking advice on how to migrate.

However, interviews we conducted in 2023 revealed a number of challenges for these prospective migrants:

  • having French qualifications recognised by Australian employers
  • demonstrating advanced English language skills for the visa
  • the need for a skilled immigration agent.

That same research participant from above explained:

It cost us so much. We put all our savings into this. We had to do so many tests. Language tests. Medical tests. […] We began talking about this in 2003, started the paperwork in 2004 and we got granted Australian citizenship in 2013.

Many potential migrants are driven by the prospect of better economic or educational opportunities in Australia. With the political instability in the territory in recent years, Australia is perceived as a safe option, too.

As another participant in our study suggested:

I’m still scared for [my dad] sometimes because you don’t know what’s gonna happen in ten years or 15 […] I feel like it would be so much easier if there was at least the structure [to migrate] in case something is happening. For example, if my dad had to be kicked out of the country, who knows? I want to be able to get him into Australia but it’s not possible […].

Limited pathways

Despite Australia’s deepening security and defence links with Kanaky-New Caledonia, emigration remains an unreachable dream for most residents of the island.

Kanaky-New Caledonia was reinstated to the Australia Awards scholarship program in February 2023 after a ten-year absence, but this is currently limited to just five students per year. And the list of countries eligible for the new Pacific Engagement Visa does not include Kanaky-New Caledonia.

Read more:
Is it time for Australia to reassess its position on France’s role in New Caledonia?

One can only hope the Australia-France roadmap agreement, launched in December 2023 to deepen cooperation between Australia and France on defence, security and critical minerals, will also provide easier migration pathways between Kanaky-New Caledonia and Australia.

Even in the worst news stories, there is always a ray of hope. While the world has been looking at Kanaky-New Caledonia for all the wrong reasons, the recent unrest at least provides an opportunity to shift Australia’s attention to its neighbours in the Pacific region.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. New Caledonians are looking to Australia as a safe haven. But for most, migration remains out of reach –