Australia is one of the most multicultural countries in the world. One in four Australians were born overseas and 20 per cent of our population speaks a different language at home.
We are still welcoming migrants, too, with international immigration responsible for over half the population growth in Australia.
Since 2016, the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) has been looking at the population trends of migrants in regional areas and the contribution they are making to local economies and the fabric of communities.
Our Missing Workers Paper released last year highlighted the fact that international migration was the primary factor that helped slow population decline in 151 regional Local Government Areas between 2011-16. These 151 LGAs all recorded a drop in Australian-born residents but an increase in people born overseas.
To paint a picture of the diversity in regions, the RAI also looked at the areas that had a significant concentration of one particular ethnic group living permanently in a local community.
The analysis resulted in the release of our Top 60 regional ethnic communities, which included small towns in Western Australia through to Victoria and north to Queensland. Our results showed significant clusters in regional Australia of Filipinos, Taiwanese, Karen, Germans, Italians, Papua New Guineans, South Africans, Irish, as well as French.
Job opportunities are of course an important factor in these movements. Many of these people have been drawn by opportunities in the mines or in agriculture and related industries.
Just as migration is transforming the fabric of our metropolitan cities, regional towns are growing through migration and this is transforming their fortunes. This is no accident, and small town communities themselves are leading the way.
A good example is the revitalisation of the small town of Pyramid Hill in Victoria through migration of new residents hailing from the Philippines. For the first time in many years, this town of just over 500 people is seeing new houses built - to accommodate its new Filipino residents who now make up 25 per cent of its population.
At the local Catholic school, more than 75 per cent of students are Filipino and the town now has a local Filipino grocery store with 400 different grocery lines.
Also, in Victoria, Hindmarsh local government area now has a significant Karen population of more than 200 residents. Again, this is due to the efforts of the community of Nhill and the desire and needs of one local employer, Luv-a Duck poultry farm, to fill local jobs.
CASE STUDY: Bendigo
Young Karen people are using a video to reach out to others making the complex and sometimes isolating move to Bendigo. Lwe Pree, part of the group that spearheaded the video, came to Australia in April 2015 and said her first three weeks in Bendigo had been challenging.
"What was important for me when I first got here was getting support and getting to participate in community activities," she said. "It makes you feel like you are empowered, and that you get to do normal things. It stops you feeling like you can't do it or that you are alone."
She said the kind of supports provided by Bendigo Community Health Services and other groups were important for new arrivals, who often did not speak English and needed to adjust to a very different way of life.
- Words by Tom O'Callaghan
These significant changes in population and ethnic diversity don't happen by accident.
The change is being driven from within regional communities, by groups of locals who recognise that if they want their town to grow they need more people, if they want their businesses to succeed they need more workers and if they want their community to thrive they need to be open to change.
The change in our small towns is also being driven by migrants who see the opportunity that rural and regional Australia offers. These towns give migrants a viable pathway to owning their own home, a sense of community and in many ways, the prospect of a better life.
For many towns across Australia, international migration is now the first choice, not the last in addressing population decline.
Migrants are helping to fill the jobs that domestic workers are unwilling to take on. They are correcting aging population trends and they are ensuring important health and education services are being maintained for all residents in our country towns.
In Bendigo, research has found that in net present value terms, the total economic impact from the regional resettlement of the Karen migrants is estimated to have been $67.1million over a 10-year period. Furthermore, an extra 177 full-time-equivalent jobs were created in the local economy, as a direct result of the Karen resettlement.
At the RAI, we know that Regional Australia is changing, and with this transformation comes boundless opportunities - but also challenges.
The latest figures show we now have more than 44,600 job vacancies in regional Australia. The vacancy rate is increasing at a greater rate out here than it is in our metropolitan cities.
In some areas, regional migration is a solution to fill jobs. In July, the RAI, launched our much-anticipated regional migration toolkit - Steps to Settlement Success. This toolkit has been developed to help make it easier for communities looking to welcome migrants to their towns - to alleviate workforce shortages and grow population.
With the generous support of the Scanlon Foundation, the RAI's new toolkit gives communities a step-by-step action plan of how to work through the process. At its core, the new toolkit is based on interviews with community champions of regional settlement, many of whom initiated programs with little guidance on how to make it happen. It points out the 'pitfalls' to avoid, as well as the 'must-haves' in making migrant resettlement a success.
We hope the new toolkit will be a useful resource for those regional communities looking to welcome migrants, but more importantly keep them there.
Steps for Settlement Success is now available on the RAI website www.regionalasutralia.org.au.
Liz Ritchie is the co-CEO of the Regional Australia Institute.