Opinion article

COVID-19 crisis: How temporary migrants are being left behind

CEDA Senior Economist, Gabriela D'Souza, says that the COVID-19 crisis has left thousands of temporary migrants in limbo. She argues we need a strong policy response to give certainty and security to Australia's migrant population. 

Australia’s migration system accords different rights to migrants than residents and citizens. While there are good reasons for this in ordinary circumstances, it has left many temporary migrants exposed to the economic consequences of the corona virus crisis. Any comprehensive policy response must account for the safety and security of Australia's migrant population.

Australia is home to 2.4 million temporary migrants, of which approximately 553,000 are students, 142,828 are temporary skilled migrants, and 135,000 are backpackers. It is unclear how many will still be living in Australia at the end of March as more universities shift to online learning, and more countries start to impose self-isolation requirements on residents and citizens who are returning home from overseas. 

With the downturn in the airline industry and the drastic reduction in flights, at least some proportion of these students and other temporary migrants will be stuck in Australia indefinitely.

The situation for temporary migrants

All of this will leave many temporary migrants stuck in limbo. International students can currently only work 40 hours a fortnight at a time when most universities are moving their classes online. What’s more, migrants who are laid off have no access to benefits and currently have a 60-day period during which they have to find a new job before they are deported.  

Minister for Home Affairs, the Hon. Peter Dutton, recently declared that international students currently enrolled in nursing degrees and international students working at the major supermarket grocery chains would no longer have their working hours restricted to the usual maximum of 40 hours a fortnight.

Yesterday, the government announced temporary relief for newly arrived migrants by waiving this waiting period for now but still more needs to be done. As of January 2019, changes were introduced that made it much harder for newly arrived migrants to receive benefits. Before January 2019, new migrants had to wait at least two years to receive most benefits; the changes introduced in 2019 have increased that waiting period to four years.[i] This policy has left many of the migrants who lose their jobs in the downturn without a safety net.
Of the almost 2.6 million people who are currently employed without leave entitlements, 30 per cent of these are migrants (i.e. people who were not born in Australia) who are still likely to have limited access to our safety net.

The situation is different for migrants on the new provisional regional visas. The conditions of these visas stipulate that migrants wishing to attain permanent residence have to be employed in a regional area for at least three years, earning above a certain threshold during that time. 

Migrants facing financial hardship who are not accessing other benefits can receive a special benefit, but the legislation states that this amount cannot exceed the Newstart allowance amount. Now that we are considering increasing benefits to those who have lost their jobs, shouldn't migrants who have lost their jobs be entitled to the same?

Another major consideration is that under normal circumstances, migrants on temporary work visas need to remain in employment to stay in the country. In the current environment, with travel restrictions, and mass layoffs becoming the norm, this policy has created a lot of fear and uncertainty. Those who have been laid off as a result of the crisis should be given the opportunity to stay through a short-term bridging visa until such time that this period of uncertainty is behind us.

In it together

Now is the right time to consider whether the restrictions that previously applied to migrants are suitable and responsible now that so many of us are struggling. If we are truly all in this together, Australia must extend a helping hand to migrants who have sought out our country as a temporary home.
We should consider allowing migrants enduring financial stress to access the same payments that are available to residents and citizens; removing the limit on the number of hours that students are allowed to work; and giving migrants leeway in overstaying their substantial visas by making them eligible for bridging visas. 

The migrants who cannot return home during this crisis are likely to feel isolated and alone – they should not also have to fear for their financial security. 

[i] There appears to be some leeway with this with the Special Benefit (the "payment of last resort") ie the payment that permanent migrants can become eligible for in the event of financial hardship but the amount paid here cannot exceed the Newstart/Youth Allowance amount. https://www.dss.gov.au/about-the-department/international/policy/social-security-payments-residence-criteria#7
About the authors

Gabriela D'Souza

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Gabriela D’Souza joined CEDA as Senior Economist in 2018 with eight years of experience in public policy. She has worked at some of Australia's most well-known and respected public policy think tanks and economics research centres. She has conducted research on a wide range of public policy issues including education, immigration, multidimensional disadvantage, and area-based measures of exclusion. Gabriela has a master’s degree in economics from Monash University and is an affiliate of Monash University’s Department of Business Statistics and Econometrics.