How Australia splits its migration intake between temporary and permanent visas

There are calls to reduce Australia's migration post-coronavirus, so what are the facts about the nation's temporary and permanent pathways?

Australia's net overseas migration is set to be slashed amid coronavirus travel restrictions.

Australia's net overseas migration is set to be slashed amid coronavirus travel restrictions. Source: Flickr

As Australia heads towards a post-coronavirus "new normal", debate has begun about the future of the migration program.

With net overseas migration expected to be slashed by 85 per cent as a result of coronavirus travel bans, migration experts say Australia is facing the biggest turning point in terms of its population since the Great Depression. 

Labor's Kristine Keneally has kickstarted debate, calling for a reduction in the migration intake once borders reopen, targeting temporary visa holders. 

So what is the difference between temporary and permanent migrants and what role do they play in Australia's economy? 

Temporary versus permanent migration by the numbers

Australia's migration program has become more dependent on temporary visa holders in recent years, while the number of permanent visas declines. 

Australia is home to 2.1 million temporary visa holders, including international students, short-term workers and working holiday-makers, as of April, compared to more than 1.78 million permanent residents.

Commuters are seen at Town Hall train station in Sydney, Friday, August 23, 2019. A train breakdown at Town Hall station is causing delays on the network. (AAP Image/Peter Rae) NO ARCHIVING
File photo Source: AAP

The maximum number of permanent visas issued each year was cut by 30,000 last year to 160,000 in a move tied to a federal government promise to reduce congestion in major cities. 

The new cap is in line with the number of permanent visas granted in 2018-19 which had already fallen to 160,323, down from a high of 190,000 each year from 2012 to 2014.

Meanwhile, uncapped temporary migrants numbers have increased from 1.6 million in 2011 to 2.4 million in December 2019. 

Migrants trying to access the permanent stream have been plagued by long waiting times as the number of visas issued has fallen. 

The federal government had hoped to push more migrants into the regions, launching two new visas in November last year requiring people to be based in regional areas for two years before applying for permanent residency. 

What does this mean for Australian workers?

Australia has the second largest migrant workforce in the OECD, second in number only to the US.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions has been warning of an “underclass of exploited temporary visa holders” even before the pandemic took hold.

Unions have accused employers of taking advantage of overseas workers, using them for cheap labor rather than hiring Australian workers.

Customers receive manicures at a nail salon in Townsville, Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt) NO ARCHIVING
Australia has the second largest migrant workforce. Source: AAP

But the federal government insists it has strengthened the labour market testing regime to ensure that Australians always get first priority for jobs. 

This included scrapping the 457 visa for temporary skilled workers and replacing it with what it calls a “more targeted program”. 

The ACTU has pushed for a greater prioritisation of permanent migration. 

What does this mean for visa holders?

Temporary visa holders have fewer rights than those with permanent residency - disparities that have been highlighted during the coronavirus pandemic.

Permanent residents and many New Zealanders have access to unconditional work rights and government payments including the new JobKeeper and JobSeeker schemes. 

But temporary visa holders do not, with many now facing financial hardship amid mass job losses forced by coronavirus restrictions. 

There's debate about the future of Australia's migration program.
There's debate about the future of Australia's migration program. Source: AAP

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has told temporary migrants who can no longer finance themselves to consider returning to their home country. 

While the federal government has made some provisions to allow those here longer than twelve months to access their superannuation.

It has maintained there is an expectation for temporary migrants to support themselves, however, some are eligible for special financial hardship payments.

The nation's peak-multicultural group FECCA is calling for a fast-tracking of applications for temporary migrants to become permanent residents.

"We need everyone to get the message that they are welcome in Australia and we need them more than ever to contribute to the economy," FECCA CEO Mohammad Al-Khafaji said.

Impact on the economy

With population growth of about 1.5 per cent accounting for most of Australia's economic growth in recent years, migration has been a driving force behind this, accounting almost two-thirds of the expansion.

Grattan Institute economist John Daley has told SBS News the contribution of migrants has boosted Australia’s overall economic growth by about one per cent per year.

This includes the contribution of some 570,000 international students, who inject about $39 billion to the nation’s economy annually.

Abul Rizvi, a former deputy secretary of the Immigration Department, said the expected hit to migration would hinder economic recovery efforts well beyond the health crisis. 

“To come out of that recession or depression is made all the more difficult if net migration falls,” he said. 

4 min read
Published 7 May 2020 at 6:05pm
By Tom Stayner