A Senate inquiry is examining the potential challenges facing migrants through new regional visa pathways encouraging them to settle in rural areas.
Migrants are being encouraged to settle in rural areas under new targeted visa schemes, but there is uncertainty over whether the plan could help or hinder regional migration.
Business and community stakeholders have brought attention to the potential challenges posed to migrants and examined the visas' provisional nature, in submissions to a Senate inquiry on the matter.
The regional visa pathways to be introduced in November are aimed at getting skilled workers to fill skill shortages and boost rural economies in the regions.
The Rural Councils of Victoria represents 37 districts in the state and is a strong supporter of the measure.
It says stagnating populations are posing a ‘threat’ to many rural economies, in its submission to the inquiry.
“The concern has been about how can we attract people, how do we get the story out there that there are opportunities,” Rural Councils of Victoria Chair Mary-Ann Brown told SBS News.
“The conversation with prospective migrants is to really try to determine their interest in living in a rural or regional area.”
The provisional regional visas would require skilled migrants to live and work in rural areas for three years before becoming eligible for permanent residency.
The Morrison government's plan includes 23,000 places under two visa streams sponsored through employer, government and family pathways.
Immigration Minister David Coleman told SBS News the economic benefits these skilled migrants bring to regional communities are clear.
“We want skilled migrants to settle in regional areas long-term and want to ensure they are not disadvantaged compared to permanent migrants in our major cities,” he said.
“This Government will continue to back those migrants who commit to living and working in regional areas, to support local economies and contribute to regional communities."
The Bill outlining the proposal is yet to be debated in the Lower House, but the Australian Chamber of Commerce has raised concerns the strategy could backfire.
“The key concern will be in a country as large as Australia, the ability for new migrants to find those jobs will be challenging,” its submission reads.
“The visa may not tether migrants to the regions and will potentially disadvantage regional migration further.”
The business group is warning the “wait time” for permanent residency designed to encourage migrants into the regions could have the reverse effect.
“This creates a level of uncertainty which may prove to be an impediment to attract migrants to the regions,” its submission reads.
“Talented migrants looking for opportunities may choose the metro areas under a different stream that grant immediate permanent residency.
The visas would replace the previous Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme, which allowed skilled overseas workers to live in Australia permanently.
However, despite their provisional nature, the new pathway would regard applicants as Australian residents in line with the same rights as permanent visa holders.
This includes allowing access to social security payments, tax benefits, disability services, paid parental payments and Higher Education Support.
But a submission made on behalf of nine prominent universities from across the nation is calling for more reform to the legislation.
The universities are urging help be afforded to visa holders with regard to pre-primary, primary and secondary education costs, on top of access to Higher Education Support.
“With annual school fees costing an average approximately $7,500 per year, per child, this cost represents a significant financial burden to the household of new skilled regional visa holders,” its submission reads.
“We respectfully submit that … new skilled visa holders [are treated] as if they were Australian permanent residents in relation to payment of schools fees for enrolment in public schools.”
The Rural Councils of Victoria has also cautioned changes to the visa intake should be made in tandem with all levels of government to ensure access to “essential support services” for migrants.
“Sufficient funding from both state and federal levels of government needs to be provided for housing support, education and training services and community assistance programs,” its submission reads.
Ms Brown, who is Mayor of the Southern Grampians Shire, said there are currently “no settlement services” on hand in many regional areas to support new migrants.
“What you find in rural communities is that people step up to the plate, they don’t always expect that services are going to be provided from other levels of government,” she said.
Ms Brown cited a “language cafe” where migrants can practice their English, one on one language tutors and a buddy system to help families integrate as evidence of this in her community.
“If these programs are managed well communities embrace that opportunity to be exposed to different cultures.”