Australia

With borders closed, Australia's permanent visa places are set to be filled by those onshore

Jeanne Arona is now a registered nurse at a Sydney aged care home. Source: SBS News

More people are expected to leave Australia than arrive this financial year, but the federal government still expects to issue 160,000 permanent visas. Some migration experts say the COVID-19 pandemic makes the task of attracting overseas workers almost impossible.

Jeanne Arona came to Sydney six years ago from the Philippines. 

The 25-year-old had plenty of countries to choose from when considering where to begin her studies in nursing but Australia topped the list.

"I do believe that there's a lot of opportunities for registered nurses in this country given the healthcare system that we have and the support that people offer in this country and as well as the level of education that they offer," she told SBS News. 

She finished her degree at the University of Technology Sydney in 2016 but despite the country crying out for registered nurses, it wasn't easy finding a job. 

"It's a struggle to get in because it's very limited, the opportunities for international students, because they consider your visa," she said. 

She's now on a four-year sponsored visa with aged care home Uniting the Marion and hopes to stay in the country permanently. 

Priority skills

The federal government recognises registered nurses as one occupation that can't be filled domestically so it has given it priority status for overseas applicants, allowing fast-tracked temporary visas and travel exemptions. 

It's one of 17 occupations added in September to the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List, which also includes chief executives and managing directors, construction project managers, mechanical engineers, doctors, psychiatrists and IT professionals.

The expanded list has been welcomed by some in the business community who are keen to see the economy bounce back after COVID-19.  

CEO of Australian Industry Group, Innes Willox said: "This has to be a skills-led recovery and there are obviously millions of people internationally who have the skills that we want and need in Australia." 

Being on certain skilled visas can later lead to being eligible for permanent residency. 

Workers seen at a construction site in Sydney in 2019
Construction project managers are also on the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List.
AAP

But former Immigration Department deputy secretary Abul Rizvi said while it is good in theory, it is not so great in practice amid a pandemic.

"Given the overseas arrivals cap, the issues with COVID-19 and international people movements, it is inevitable that those positions will have to be filled by people already in Australia," he said. 

Borders closed

The federal government expects two-thirds of permanent visas this financial year to go to people already in Australia on temporary visas and the lack of new migrants is set to hurt the national bottom line. 

Chief economist with the Centre for Economic Development of Australia, Jarrod Ball said: "This is no doubt a seismic impact on the economy for the next couple of years."

The federal budget revealed there will be one million fewer people in Australia than was anticipated with population growth falling from 1.6 per cent to just 0.2 per cent this year.

Net overseas migration is forecast to fall into negative territory for the first time since World War II, with a return to positive levels in 2022-23.

But it's a prediction some have questioned. 

"That forecast, from where I sit at the moment, looks extraordinarily optimistic," Mr Rizvi said. "I think the government will have to revisit that number down the track." 

The government has stuck to its annual migration cap of 160,000 places per year despite that cap not being reached in 2019-20 with 140,366 places filled. In 2018-19, migration totalled 160,323. 

Mr Willox says the reality is for migration numbers to return to pre-pandemic levels, Australia's international borders need to be re-opened.

"While we have international borders closed and Australia shut off from the world, obviously people aren't going to either want to come here or be able to come here and this is the key, we need to open up as quickly as possible."

"Migration is a lifeblood for business and that's why we need it to get moving as quickly as possible."

But economists say Australia also needs to be positioned as an attractive destination for skilled workers through welfare support. 

"It's not too late to provide some kind of support to temporary migrants who provide a big net fiscal benefit to the federal budget in the good times, and those good times have lasted for the last three decades continuously,"  Mr Ball said. 

"I think it's important to give back given that long record of contribution to the federal budget."

As for Jeanne, she wants to stay long-term in Australia in a job she says isn't for everyone, but is one she loves. 

"It's not about what nationality you're in, it's about, really, if you're built for the job," she said. 

"If you like the job, if your heart's in the job, then you'll go for it."

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