How Australia's coronavirus crisis could reshape the treatment of temporary migrants

Various groups and peak bodies have made submissions to a parliamentary inquiry examining Australia's temporary migration program and its impact on the economy.

Passengers waiting to board a Jetstar flight at Sydney Airport.

Passengers waiting to board a Jetstar flight at Sydney Airport. Source: AAP

There are calls to make migration a critical focus of Australia’s coronavirus recovery and better support visa holders left exposed during the pandemic. 

The pushes have been made in new evidence to a Senate inquiry examining Australia's temporary migration system and its impact on the economy. 

Submissions to the inquiry, established before the coronavirus pandemic, have been dominated with accounts of how it has rocked the nation's migration program.

The Settlement Council of Australia, the peak body for migration settlement, has used the inquiry to call for a reassessment of the migration program’s future. 

“It is inevitable that it will be some time before the migration program will resume at its prior scale due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the council wrote in its submission to the inquiry. 

“In the intervening period, there is an opportunity to reconsider the policy settings applying to temporary migration.” 

Temporary migrants’ role in rebuilding the economy 

The nation’s net migration rate is set to crash 85 per cent this financial year alone. The steep decline is forecast to strip as much as $50 billion from national income this year and next. 

The economic impact has been profoundly felt in the nation’s tertiary education sector due to its reliance on international students.

International education is estimated to be worth some $37.6 billion to the economy and to support nearly 250,000 jobs.

Universities Australia said in its submission it remains confident temporary migration will continue to make an important economic contribution to the recovery. 

"This contribution will be critical to Australia’s post-COVID-19 pandemic economic recovery,” it wrote.

The peak university body said assertions that temporary migration leads to job displacement among local workers are not supported by facts.

“Calls for the post-pandemic economic recovery to focus on Australian workers and limit the number of temporary visa holders … have been redoubled in some quarters,” it wrote.

“However, experts are predicting that migration will be a critical component of the post-pandemic recovery."

Migration program of 'significant benefit'

The National Farmers Federation has also delivered a submission to the inquiry, backing the importance of the temporary migration program.

The farming sector is facing labour shortages tied to the downfall in migration numbers, which usually help sustain the agricultural workforce.

“The implications of the regular influx of temporary migrants ceasing to show up within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences are dire,” the federation wrote.

“It is critical for agriculture that the government continue to support and improve upon its temporary migration programs to keep large swathes of our sector productive and regional communities prosperous.”

The NFF says the program could benefit from more employer flexibility, support services for migrants, and by expanding programs targeting seasonal and Pacific workers.

“An investment in expanding and streamlining temporary migration programs would be of significant benefit to Australia’s national interests,” it wrote.

How the migration program should look post-COVID? 

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

The nation is home to more than two million temporary visa holders compared to more than 1.78 million permanent residents.

The Settlement Council of Australia’s submission has warned against an "over-reliance" on temporary migration moving forward.

“Permanent migration, and clear and transparent pathways to permanency for temporary migrants, facilitate improved settlement outcomes,” it wrote.

The group has also called for more funding for settlement services providing support to temporary migrants.

Calls to provide more security to vulnerable migrants

A number of submissions to the inquiry concern challenges faced by temporary migrants in Australia that have been exposed during the coronavirus pandemic.

There is a widespread push for government income support to be made available to temporary migrants, who have been generally excluded from welfare programs.

Advocates warn many migrants are facing destitution due to their over-representation in low-skilled workforces heavily impacted by COVID-19. 

In a submission to the inquiry, Amnesty International said the current temporary visa regime has left visa holders with uncertainties around work, health, study and their family situation.

“The COVID-19 crisis has been particularly difficult for temporary visa holders,” Amnesty wrote.

“As many temporary visa holders face job losses and financial hardship due to COVID-19, they do not have access to any form of financial safety net.”

The federal government has told temporary visa holders facing financial distress to consider returning to their country of origin.

In its own submission to the inquiry, the Department of Home Affairs said it has made a number of changes to temporary visa arrangements in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This includes a series of changes to enable temporary visa holders to work and remain in critical sectors, including health and aged care, disability services, agriculture and food processing and child care.

Home Affairs has also applied flexibility for visa conditions and sponsorship requirements for those impacted by COVID-19 and established a new temporary activity visa for those facing expiring visas, it said.

The Select Committee on Temporary Migration will deliver a report on the findings of the inquiry in December.

Published 12 August 2020 at 3:15pm
By Tom Stayner