In an exclusive interview with SBS Punjabi, Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge has said that unless more quarantine spaces are made available, Australian citizens, temporary migrants and international students stuck overseas due to COVID-19 pandemic won't be able to return to Australia. And he rejects that the introduction of an English language test for partner visa applicants is 'racist', 'discriminatory', or a new version of the White Australia policy.
Love, employment and the fate of thousands of temporary visa holders stuck outside Australia are in limbo, as the federal government remains reluctant to commit to a timeline indicating the lifting of the country’s hard international border restrictions serving as the key bulwark against the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an interview with SBS Punjabi, Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge said two things would need to change for Australia to reopen its international borders – the availability of a COVID- 19 vaccine and an agreement from states and territories to increase their quarantine capacity which currently allows up to 6,000 people to fly back into the country each week.
- Immigration Minister Alan Tudge addresses concerns of temporary visa holders including international students stranded in India
- 'Quarantine arrangements have become the bottleneck for all inward flow of people into Australia'
- 'There are no international flights coming into Melbourne because the Victorian Government has no confidence in running a quarantine system':
- International borders will remain shut until a global COVID-19 vaccine is found: Tudge
Temporary visa holders:
Addressing the plight of visa holders who remain stranded offshore after nearly eight months of the pandemic, Minister Tudge said the limited number of quarantine spots in each jurisdiction and none in Victoria has created a bottleneck for temporary migrants, preventing them from returning to the country.
“Its the quarantine arrangements that become the bottleneck for all inward flow of people into Australia whether they are Australian citizens, international students, permanent residents or other temporary visa holders - there are only so many quarantine slots available in any jurisdiction and zero in Victoria,” he said.
Mr Tudge said the federal government is pushing the states to ramp up their capacity for the inward intake of travellers to allow more people, including temporary visa holders to re-enter the country.
“The broader we can make that bottleneck by having more quarantine beds available the more opportunities there will be for people to come to Australia and the speedier it will be and of course the federal government is putting pressure on the state governments to increase their quarantine bed capacity but ultimately the state governments are the ones that are in charge.”
As things stand, nearly 200,000 of the country’s international students are stuck outside, of which about 6,600 remain trapped in India, anxiously waiting for the government to roll out pilot plans which are expected to pave way for a mass return of overseas students.
Reassuring international students who bring $39 billion to the national economy, Minister Tudge said the government is combing out the final details of the two initial pilots with Northern territory and the South Australia Government, expressing government’s willingness to revive and reopen the sector “in the not so distant future.”
International students have been very good for Australia they have been good for our economy and they have been good for our society because many international students stay and become fantastic citizens.
Commenting on the delay in the launch of the student return plans that were supposed to roll out in July, Mr Tudge pinned the blame on the “quarantine failures” in Victoria.
“I think but for the quarantine failures in Victoria I think we would have actually had those pilots up and running by now but Victoria which is actually the biggest source of international students of all jurisdictions doesn’t have any quarantine beds at the moment so nobody’s coming into Victoria – no international students, no migrants, no Australian citizens.”
New English language rule for partner visas:
In a new rule announced as part of the Federal Budget earlier this month, applicants and their permanent resident sponsors applying for a partner visa will be required to have functional-level English or will have to demonstrate that they have made reasonable efforts to learn the language.
Defending the requirement that has drawn widespread criticism from Opposition, industry insiders and applicants from India, Minister Tudge said the measure is in the interest of the migrants and would allow them to maximise their employment opportunities and contribute to the social fabric of the Australian society.
“Only 13% of people with no English in Australia are in a job and moreover it is so difficult in Australia to fully participate in our society if you don’t have at least a basic level of English so it’s in the migrants' interest as much as in the society’s interest for everybody to at least have that basic level of English and hence we are putting on this requirement that a person makes a reasonable effort to learn the language.”
Responding to the critics who have dubbed the policy “racist” claiming it would disintegrate marriages instead of promoting social cohesion, Mr Tudge said the government is only asking partner visa applicants to demonstrate reasonable efforts to learn the language and are not asking them to sit for “hard and tough” English language test a mandatory requirement for the skilled stream.
“Indian and Chinese are number one and two of that skilled program, which already requires an English language test but actually a hard and tough test for the primary applicant.
“I can reassure every single applicant that if they make a reasonable effort to do the free English language classes available to them, they will meet that hurdle with flying colours,” he added.
Australians stranded overseas:
As per the government estimate, nearly 30,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents are stranded overseas of which a majority remain trapped in India.
Addressing their plight, Mr Tudge said the government is doing everything in its capacity to facilitate their return as soon as possible, but people will have to wait their turn to get back in line with the states’ quarantine capacity.
“The issue and the bottleneck typically is actually the quarantine arrangements in Australia and the airlines will only put on the number of flights to fit that quarantine capacity.”
He said the bigger factor impeding the return of Australians stuck in India is the lack of quarantine slots available in Victoria – a state that is home to the largest cohort of Indian-Australians.
“Now Melbourne obviously has huge numbers of Indians and we presently have not a single quarantine bed open. Consequently, there are no international flights coming into Melbourne because the Victorian Government has no confidence in running a quarantine system,” he added.
Future of migration:
Minister Tudge said the country is poised to clock a negative net overseas migration for the first time in 75 years because of its strict border measures which will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
He, however, signalled that things could change in the advent of a vaccine or until the government enters into bubble travel arrangements with select COVID-safe countries.
“We are still going to have that strict border control for some time until there is either a global vaccine or until we have a bubble arrangement in place with individual countries where people are able to move freely between the two countries. So, it’s going to be difficult and that has big economic consequences for Australia.”
In a reprieve for prospective migrants to Australia in a post-pandemic world, Mr Tudge said that the country would always keep its doors open for people “who want to share our values and make contributions.”
We have been and we again will be one of the great migration destination countries in the world and the greatest multicultural country in the world and will always have open arms to people who want to come to Australia share our values and make a contribution and we have done that so successfully in the past and we do that again in the future
To hear the full interview click on the audio link above.
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