A group of globe-trotting friends in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Britain have banded together as a lobby group and created an online petition aimed at eliminating immigration controls between the four Commonwealth countries.
They seem to have struck a nerve. Their petition at cfmo.org — they call their group the Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organization — has drawn more than 70,000 signatures since its launch at the beginning of March.
“The initial group was just me,” said James Skinner, a 27-year-old paralegal, originally from Britain and now based in Vancouver. “But it branched out to a lot of my friends … one member in each country that we’re campaigning for, and there’s a bunch of people behind the scenes as well, working the social media site, the email and the campaigning.”
Skinner moved to Melbourne, Australia, in 2011, got a job, made friends and thought he’d have a long-term life there until his temporary work visa expired.
“I joined sports clubs, social clubs, wanted to stay there,” he said. “Basically, the immigration process was just far too difficult. There were people there that I met who also wanted to stay, also from Canada and the U.K. They had the same trouble as me and had to leave everything behind.”
Skinner’s next stop nearly two years ago was Vancouver, where he was struck by the city’s similarities to Melbourne. His immigration ride has gone smoother in his new home. He has a two-year working holiday visa and is awaiting a ruling on whether he qualifies to stay here permanently as a skilled worker.
“The permanent residency application is going through, but it’s tricky,” he said. “Even though I’ve been accepted for a permanent residency pool, the Canadian government will only take a certain number of applicants from that pool every year. There’s no guarantee as to when I will be accepted. If I’m not accepted before my two-year visa expires, I’m going to have to go home, rethink everything through again.”
His experiences and those of the people he’s met gave rise to the idea of petitioning the four governments to eliminate immigration barriers between them.
The change.org website where he launched the petition doesn’t give statistics regarding the location or nationality of petition signatories.
But Skinner said his group has had “hundreds” of emails from people telling their own stories of immigration hurdles.
“We’re pretty new, but it’s grown fantastically in the last two months,” Skinner said. “I lived in Melbourne before and, like I said, when I arrived in Vancouver I thought, my God this place is so similar. This deserves to be thought about.”
A University of B.C. law professor who specializes in immigration issues said Skinner’s idea wouldn’t be that hard for governments to put into action, given the substantial freedom of movement that already exists among the four countries.
“Among such similarly situated economies with very similar immigration regulation frameworks, the kind of free movement that is characterized, for example, by the European Union countries might in fact be quite feasible,” said UBC’s Catherine Dauvergne.
Anyone who skis in B.C. might be forgiven for thinking that free movement between Australia and Canada is already a done deal among lifties and bartenders. But many of those workers are here on temporary terms.
“I don’t really see it as high on the government agenda because there’s such open mobility among these countries already,” Dauvergne said. “These are countries where it’s pretty easy to get temporary foreign work permission or to travel as students.”
For those immigrants who can demonstrate their ability to succeed economically in a new country — going from grad school to a job, for example — “the odds of staying are good,” said Dauvergne.
On the other hand, she said, “If you never get off the ski slopes at Whistler, someone is eventually going to say, ‘Go back.’ ”