Economics and finance, Government and governance, International relations | Australia

4 May 2020

With so many left stranded in Australia during the COVID-19 crisis, the government has hurried to find solutions to visa issues, but their policy is a disaster for temporary migrants, Marianne Dickie writes.

Before February 2020, the Australian economy relied heavily on temporary migration. Since then, the need to address the changed circumstances of thousands of migrants remaining in Australia has led to responses from the Department of Home Affairs that have been fast-paced and appear designed to help as many temporary migrants as possible.

However, the reality is that for the majority of temporary visa holders, the intent of these changes is to ensure that they can remain here lawfully and that their presence would continue to benefit Australians, regardless of their circumstances.

A timeline of the crisis can show what visa holders have been through.

By 6 February, people holding a Temporary Skills Shortage (482) visa who were offshore found they could not return, despite their applications previously moving toward permanent status. Onshore applicants previously banned from applying for a different visa were asked to apply to the Department of Home Affairs for an exemption.

By 17 February, visa conditions were relaxed to allow those holding Working Holiday (417) and Work and Holiday (462) visas, to assist with bushfire recovery. The range of work they could now undertake was revised to include volunteer or paid work and construction work in a disaster area. Working in a bushfire area would then count for second or third-year grant of the visa where applicable.

More on this: The coronavirus crisis: how did we get here, and what should we do next?

By 25 March, the government introduced a four week travel ban preventing all Australian citizens and permanent residents from leaving Australia, by air, sea or outgoing craft or vessel.

At this time, those on student visas who worked in supermarkets were informed they could work longer for their existing employers in their existing roles, and aged care facilities were invited to seek approval to employ student visa holders for longer than their usual visa restrictions.

By 4 April there were 203,000 international visitors in Australia, 565,000 international students, more than 672,000 New Zealanders in Australia, 139,000 temporary skilled visa holders, on either a two year or four year visa, about 118,000 people in Australia on a Working Holiday visa and around 185,000 on various temporary visas remaining in Australia.

As part of the government’s stimulus, visa holders were granted permission to withdraw $10,000 of their Australian superannuation for this financial year and visas for those still employed could be extended, and businesses were now allowed to reduce the hours they provided to their employees holding skilled visas without breaching their sponsorship obligations.

When the government announced it would provide businesses affected by COVID- 19 with a subsidy to continue paying employees, it was also revealed the only temporary visa holders eligible for JobKeeper were specific categories of New Zealand citizens.

For those who had been laid off and could not find new sponsors the government was less obliging and the message was unequivocal: go home. International students were encouraged to withdraw from their superannuation and to lean on their families for support.

More on this: COVID-19: The Scythe and the Hammer

On 8 April, the prime minister announced a new visa would be made available to temporary migrants unable to leave Australia.

In reality, it was an adaption to a visa subclass that operates through range of streams to allow temporary workers such as entertainers, religious workers, or yacht crews, to come to Australia for specific periods.

The legislative explanatory statement for the new visa stream makes it clear that the purpose of the visa is not to assist migrants, but to respond to workforce shortages. This is not unusual. The policy aim of skilled migration has always been to fill gaps in the workforce.

The new visa is restrictive and punitive. Described by Home Affairs as a ‘visa of last resort’, this new stream is aimed at temporary migrants who would have departed Australian under normal circumstances but cannot do so due to global travel restrictions.

As hopeful as this sounds, it has limited application. In order to access the visa, people must have held a visa that expired no more than 28 days ago or hold a visa that will expire in no more than 28 days. Importantly, they must not be able to reapply for their current visa or any other temporary visa. There is no need to obtain a sponsor and no application fee.

Migration specialists have grappled with how useful this visa category will be for their clients. Of particular concern was the description of work that applicants could do. The legislation, being an adaptation of a visa designed for those working for an event, requires an applicant to remain in Australia to undertake work directly associated with that event.

The legislative instrument defines this event as ‘the COVID-19 pandemic’. The explanatory statement lists work in areas associated with the event as ‘areas including but not limited to, agriculture, aged care and public health.’ A solution put together so haphazardly it is reminiscent of poorly written computer code.

The vagueness surrounding the areas a person can work in without a sponsor has resulted in a slapstick response. Initially, the department failed to update online application forms to remove the mandatory need for a sponsor. As a result, there were anecdotal accounts of applicants who lacked a sponsor, nominating the Australian Government or Minister Peter Dutton.

Then, reality set in, and on 22 April the department issued advice to migration law practitioners that their clients could not continue to do so and must amend their application accordingly.

Applicants must now prove they have ongoing employment in critical sector such as agriculture, food processing, health care, aged care, disability care, or childcare, and must provide evidence of qualifications and evidence that an Australian citizen or permanent resident cannot fill this position.

Consequently, applicants who apply for the visa but have no actual work will be granted the visa without work rights. This allows them to remain in Australia lawfully but prevents them obtaining work, regardless of the type of work it is.

Anyone who then works without specific permission faces a visa cancellation and return to unlawful status. All applicants will also remain liable for health care costs during their stay in Australia, which could be up to 12 months.

A policy response to the needs of temporary migrants in this time of crisis that prevents access to financial support and removes the ability to find work will do nothing for the economy, or the millions of temporary migrants struggling to support themselves.

For those temporary migrants remaining in Australia, the message has been very clear. Unless you already have a job or can be deployed into critical areas, Australia no longer needs you and will not help you. The reputational damage to Australia that will come from this message will be long lived and hard to overcome.

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