Strict requirements for permanent residency and a lack of government support during the coronavirus pandemic has prompted some temporary migrants in Australia to look elsewhere to build a life.
Husband and wife Ákos Percsy and Marina Áng have spent almost four years fighting to build a life in Australia, serving drinks and stocking supermarket shelves.
But after being left out of the government's COVID-19 support as temporary migrants and unable to secure a clear pathway to permanent residency, they’ve decided to give up on their Australian dream in favour of what they see as a more welcoming life in Canada.
“We paid for school, we worked here, we paid the taxes, we did everything right, we didn’t ask for any money … we cost zero money to the government but we paid a lot,” Melbourne resident Marina told SBS News. “They are just using us.”
More than 500,000 temporary visa holders have left Australia since the beginning of the pandemic, according to government figures, but even more are considering moving due to narrowing permanent residency pathways, long wait times for visas, and the lack of government support during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Europe and Canada are emerging as sought after destinations due to a perceived more welcoming attitude to temporary visa holders, according to migration agents.
Ákos and Marina moved to Australia from Hungary in 2017 under the belief they would be able to access permanent residency through the skilled pathway. Ákos is a qualified accountant, which Australia lists as a sought after occupation.
But despite each holding a master's degree when they arrived - and Ákos completing a second master's in Australia - they were unable to find work in their professions. To make ends meet, former journalist Marina, 35, picked up hospitality work, until finally obtaining an office job in January 2020, while Ákos, 39, worked nights at Coles.
Then, the pandemic hit and Marina’s shifts were reduced to only one day a week.
In April, shortly after the federal government’s JobKeeper payment was announced, the unemployment rate sat at 6.4 per cent - up from 5.2 per cent the same time the previous year - with temporary migrants often among the first to lose work because they were not covered by the wage subsidy.
A nationwide survey of temporary visa holders by UnionNSW, published in August last year, found 65 per cent had lost their job at the height of the crisis and 39 per cent didn’t have enough income to cover basic living expenses.
At the time, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “If they [temporary visa holders] are not in a position to be able to support themselves, then there is the alternative for them to return to their home countries.”
“That sentence from Scott Morrison was the point where we realised that we cannot rely on the government,” Marina said. “I lost all my hope”.
While currently in Australia on a Temporary Graduate (485) visa, following the completion of Ákos’ degree, the couple says there is no longer a pathway to permanent residency for them after the requirements for a Skilled Independent (189) visa were increased.
They have though been accepted for permanent residency in Canada, where they will be moving in 2022 after a short stint in Hungary to visit family.
“When we were accepted it was like, 'wow, there is a country that really wants us, without actually knowing us,'” Marina said.
“There is a country where if we move there, we don’t have to leave, it’s not temporary anymore, we can build a life there.”
It was like, 'wow, there is a country that really wants us, without actually knowing us'.
- Marina Áng, 35, on Canada
Australia does not offer automatic progression from temporary to permanent visas based on time spent in the country, instead setting specific requirements for permanent residency. Despite this, many migrants use temporary migration programs to enter the country, before applying to stay permanently.
In the 2019-20 financial year, 64 per cent of permanent visa applications were made onshore, according to government figures.
“The previous structure of our migration program meant that people coming through on a temporary visa were often on a pathway to permanency,” said Carla Wilshire, the chief executive of the Migration Council Australia.
“As we move out of COVID-19, one of the things we have to consider is how the impact and issues within our temporary visa cohort will impact our overall migration outcomes.”
The government has repeatedly said its current migration program is aimed at attracting the “best and brightest” to Australia, with a Department of Home Affairs spokesperson telling SBS News there is a “high level of demand” for the country’s skilled migration programs.
They pointed to the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Indicators of Talent Attractiveness, which says Australia, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, and Switzerland are the “most attractive OECD countries for highly qualified workers”.
But national president of the Migration Institute of Australia John Hourigan said Europe and Canada have become the “preferred place of residence” for many temporary migrants.
“Expensive fees, very long processing times, no assistance during COVID-19 with JobKeeper or JobSeeker; they were just left on their own, even though they had been paying taxes here, they’ve been paying their education fees, their living costs,” Mr Hourigan said of many temporary migrants' experiences in Australia.
“What they are seeing, particularly the young and the skilled, is all these obstacles placed in front of them before they can achieve the visa that they want.”
By comparison, he said, Canada and parts of Europe “have active immigration programs” and are perceived to be more welcoming to migrants.
Canada has steadily increased its migration levels since the 1980s, with plans to welcome 401,000 permanent residents in 2021 - it’s highest intake in more than 100 years and more than double Australia’s planned intake of 160,000 in 2020-21.
Around 37 million people live in Canada, compared with 25 million in Australia.
The Canadian government has also extended financial assistance to temporary visa holders.
Earlier this month, the country invited more than 27,000 temporary migrants with at least one year of Canadian work experience to apply for permanent residence in a bid to boost the country’s economic recovery.
A survey of 6,000 temporary migrants published in October last year by academics at the University of NSW and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) found 74 per cent of Temporary Graduate visa holders, like Ákos and Marina, were less likely since COVID-19 to recommend Australia as a place to study.
The survey also found hundreds of respondents had felt let down by Mr Morrison’s comments regarding temporary migrants during the pandemic, describing them as “offensive”, “utterly distasteful”, “chilling” and “frustrating”, while many said they felt they were only being used for their contribution to the Australian economy.
“A taxpayer for over five years, I feel as though I am more or less disposable to this country and government, and am seriously considering leaving,” said one British woman on a skilled visa.
As a result of the international travel ban brought on by the pandemic, the Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said the government’s priority has been to ensure temporary migrants who are unable to leave the country are able to extend their visas to remain lawfully in Australia.
A free “COVID-19 pandemic event visa” has been made available to temporary migrants whose visa is expiring, they said, and “special arrangements have also been made to enable temporary visa holders to work and remain in critical sectors”.
“All of these measures have been implemented in line with key principles to protect the health of Australians, safeguard job opportunities for Australians, support critical sectors and assist with the economic recovery post the virus,” they said.
An inquiry into Australia’s skilled migration program by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration is currently underway to determine whether Australia’s program is internationally competitive and what changes, if any, are needed as part of the economic recovery from COVID-19.
But for people like Ákos and Marina, it’s too little, too late.
“For a long time we expected good intentions from this government, and we tried to be as genuine as possible,” Ákos said.
But now, Marina added, “we don’t feel anymore that we want to contribute to this country, because we don't feel we are welcomed and respected by the government".