Government and governance | Australia

29 March 2021

Despite 12 months of trying, many Australians are struggling to get back home, and the effects of COVID-19 also continue to impact those who choose to migrate to Australia, Marianne Dickie writes.

Of all migrants in Australia who have endured the COVID-19 pandemic, temporary visa holders remain the worst affected by border closures. This includes people here in Australia, as well as those stuck abroad or trying to return or enter for the first time.

Nevertheless, it appears the government remains committed to a temporary migration program post-COVID-19. Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressed the Australian Financial Review Business Summit where he declared that the government must keep an open mind on post-coronavirus migration, emphasising the need to ensure that temporary migrants can continue to fill the employment roles Australians don’t seem able to take up.

This announcement came a time when Australia is experiencing a steep downturn in migration which has caused concern for peak bodies representing universities, farmers, hospitality, and medicine.

As such, it could be a positive indicator to stakeholders that things will return to a ‘new normal’ where temporary workers can relieve the pressures they are facing, but the announcement still fails to acknowledge the failure of the government to support and encourage the two million temporary migrants still in Australia, along with those who have applied and waited many months offshore – alongside tens of thousands of Australians still stuck overseas – to enter Australia.

For temporary migrants, the past year has been one of ongoing hardship. The Senate Select Committee on Temporary Migration has received multiple submissions and heard evidence of the impact denying JobKeeper to temporary migrants has had on their lives.

This lack of financial support has driven many to destitution and overwhelmed charities across Australia. An inability to claim JobKeeper has resulted in the loss of employment for many in sectors such as hospitality – the very sectors the prime minister is now seeking to bolster with his allusions to a new temporary migration regime.

More on this: Improving Australian migration policy in the COVID-19 crisis

For the thousands of people who hold Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) and Temporary Protection Visas, the outcome has been disastrous. Unable to access JobKeeper, they have been forced onto a Special Benefit at the same rate as JobSeeker, but if they access this payment for more than 30 months, their eligibility to apply for pathway visa when they fulfill the conditions of the SHEV are affected.

Perversely those who are studying full-time are not eligible for Special Benefit, a factor that has driven many out of formal education, something that is also a requirement they need to fulfill in order to move onto a pathway towards permanent residency.

Asylum seekers who are awaiting a decision on their application for protection, on the other hand, are not eligible for any payments at all. With processing times for applications extending into years, at least 12,000 vulnerable people remain in a position where they have no access to financial support.

In a cruel twist of fate, even refugees granted a permanent visa offshore through the humanitarian program are not considered permanent residents until they have set foot onshore. This means that unlike all other permanent visa holders, they need to apply for an exemption to enter Australia.

Thousands of visa holders who were offshore when the borders closed, along with tens of thousands of Australians remain unable to return to their families, homes, and employment in Australia.

Decisions regarding who can enter Australia are still made by the Australian Border Force Commissioner who is operating outside of the Migration Act 1958, and while his guidelines for entry to Australia are now public, the processing and decision making behind the implementation of this criteria remains hidden.

The criteria for entry are determined under streams of skills or compassion. If one falls outside some of the strict descriptions of these two streams the Australian Border Force Commissioner will make ‘personally consider’ the application.

More on this: Drivers of migration

This includes those with critical skills, such as nurses, doctors, and medical specialists and students in their final years of study of medical degrees with a confirmed placement in an Australian hospital or medical practice.

However, medical students undertaking postgraduate medical studies with secured placement in hospitals from their first or second year of study are not granted an exemption.

Research students, even those who are well advanced in medicine degrees at Australian universities, are finding it impossible to gain an exemption to entry.

Gaining a temporary skilled visa is not an easy process, yet many of those who hold these visas have found themselves unable to return even though they were granted with the support of various state governments. These are people who left jobs and homes in order to start a new stage of their life in Australia. Many temporary migrants have limited time on their visas and now find they have wasted a year of that time trying to get back into Australia.

Since March 2020, these sought-after skilled workers have had their applications for an exemption to enter Australia repeatedly refused. Not all are first entry visa holders, many had gone offshore to visit family and found they could not return. Instead, they are left stranded offshore while their homes, even filled with all their belongings, sit empty.

In some cases, they find themselves separated from partners and children burdened by the expense of maintaining two households. Social media support pages have arisen where applicants trade stories of how they have submitting lengthy documentation to try and prove why they should be able to return.

These are the very temporary migrants the prime minister thinks he will be able to coax back to Australia in the future, yet temporary visas are just that, temporary.

The question the prime minister needs to consider is not how temporary migration can make up for labour shortages, but how Australia can renew any confidence in its migration program as the COVID-19 crisis eases, given how his government’s behaviour has so seriously undermined it

With The New Normal: In Focus section, Policy Forum is rebooting our coronavirus pandemic coverage to address the changing situation. We hope you find the discussion valuable, and invite you to join in the conversation.

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2 Responses

  1. Corin Willgrass says:

    In March 2020, after being granted 489 (4 year temporary skilled working visas a month earlier) my wife and I gave up our jobs and homes in the Middle East, sent our possessions to Australia via container ship, booked airbnb accommodation, hire car and flights (on what was my 50th birthday) before booking a flight back to the UK to say goodbye to family and friends. We had decided to “pop” back home prior to starting our emigration journey in Queensland and have been bouncing round the UK with 4 suitcases ever since! We have lived with 5 different family members all over the UK and eventually, after 3 failed exemption applications, decided to get temporary jobs while we wait for the Australian government to let us in. Our belongings are still in storage in Sydney (we obviously pay for the costs) and we still have no where permanent to live. Rubbish eh?

    • Lisa says:

      My heart breaks at all these stories of separation and financial and emotional hardship. My fiance lives in Australia and we cannot be together or get married until borders open, but there are so many situations worse than ours. I hope the Australian government can adopt more flexibility and accept those who have been vaccinated very soon so that some of these circumstances can have positive outcomes before permanent damage occurs.

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