Australia’s refugee and migrant programs are under the Budget microscope as the federal government seeks to rebuild after the coronavirus pandemic.
But advocates say it’s a move that could cause us more harm than good.
In a speech to Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry on Thursday, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg confirmed Australia’s population growth was expected “to slow to its lowest rate in over a hundred years”.
“The population will be smaller and older than previously assumed because of the sharp drop in net overseas migration,” he said.
Immigration Minister Alan Tudge flagged the size and composition of Australia’s 2020-21 migration and humanitarian programs would be different due to the impact of COVID-19.
These changes will be announced as part of the Budget process on October 6, he said.
Pandemic won’t stop immigration completely
Katharine Betts, adjunct associate professor of sociology at Swinburne University, said Australia’s closed international borders didn’t mean our permanent residency program had “ground to a halt”.
“There were people thinking that we can’t bring in immigration because of border restrictions, but there are a lot of people here already,” she said.
More than two million foreigners on temporary visas were registered here in June, federal data shows.
“If the government wanted to keep up a high rate of 200,000 migrants per year for a while, then there are plenty of candidates onshore,” she said.
Associate Professor Betts, vice-president of The Australian Population Research Institute (TAPRI), said the powerful “growth lobby” in Australia would continue fighting for mass migration despite the pandemic.
“People in property development and construction who make money out of population growth – they, along with universities – are putting pressure on the government to start things up as soon as possible,” she said.
How does immigration growth work
The COVID-19 pandemic has smashed Australia’s economy, leaving millions of Australian workers jobless for the first time in their lives.
With this in mind, our political leaders might adopt a populist ‘Australia-first’ approach to immigration to ensure jobs go to Australians first.
But the issue is more complicated than that, said Dr Liz Allen, a demographer at the Australian National University.
“Many Australians don’t realise migrants are supporting Australians in so many senses of the word,” she told The New Daily.
“Migration is an essential element of helping to address or minimise any adverse consequences of a structurally ageing population.”
At the moment, more Australians are leaving the labour force by retirement than those heading in after school, she explained.
“Immigrants help keep the economy going – they don’t just contribute by way of filling a job, but rather a migrant and their presence in the country help create other jobs.”
She said there was a “common myth” that migrants are stealing jobs from locals.
“Rather, they fill much-needed roles when it comes to skills, and of course they fill jobs the local population don’t want to do,” she said.
Refugees can help
With international borders closed and countries in lockdown, millions of refugees have been left abandoned with nowhere safe to go.
Many countries which had promised to take them in have since turned their backs – including Australia.
About 4000 refugees granted visas to settle in Australia have remained stranded offshore since March, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison sealed our borders.
Graham Thom, Amnesty International’s refugee advisor, said we should bring those stranded refugees in and use this lag in immigration to process the tens of thousands of asylum seekers on our waiting list.
“You’d think without an offshore humanitarian program, now would be the perfect time to get through that backlog,” he told The New Daily.
“Why don’t we at least allow these individuals to fill some of these crucial jobs that normally immigrants would fill, whether it be fruit-picking or other jobs, and if they do that then give them some sort of pathway to permanency?”
About 340 asylum seekers are still detained in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, he said.
Nearly 1000 are locked up in detention centres here, including about 200 in hotels such as the Mantra Hotel in Preston, Melbourne.
“We hear of Australians spending 14 days in hotel quarantine,” Mr Thom said.
“Try a year and see how your mental health would be faring, on top of six years on Nauru or Manus Island.”
He said the federal government should get these asylum seekers on bridging visas and allow them to work and help Australia recover from the pandemic.
“Instead of being a benefit to the economy, it’s actually a significant cost to the economy (keeping them detained),” he said.
Rethinking our approach
Alex Reilly, a law professor at The University of Adelaide, said Australia has so far managed to maintain its economic growth by bringing in migrants.
“Without migration, our level of economic growth over the last 15 years would be much lower,” he said.
“It’s been a really important economic lever for Australia.”
But does this mean we should roll out the red carpet to migrants as a way to bounce back from COVID-19?
Not necessarily, he said.
“If the Australian economy is going right down, then one argument might be ‘Let’s keep pushing immigration because bringing those people in might increase economic growth’, but it won’t do that if there aren’t enough jobs,” Professor Reilly said.
“I think, because we are now in a recession, there will be a natural lowering of the number of people we bring in through our permanent migration program.”