New migrants granted permanent residency after January 1, 2022, will also be forced to wait four years for most social security payments.
That cost-cutting measure is set to net the government $671.1 million in savings over five years that “will be redirected by the government to fund policy priorities”.
The migration program will be kept the same as last year, at 160,000 places, with 79,600 places for skilled migrants and 77,300 for family reunions.
Australia’s humanitarian intake will remain at 13,750 places, after being slashed by 5,000 places last year.
The government will also spend $464.7 million over two years in its onshore immigration detention network and to extend use of the North West Point Immigration Detention Centre on Christmas Island, “as a result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the ability to remove unlawful non-citizens from Australia”.
‘Gradual’ return of migrants mid-2022
The government predicts “a gradual return of temporary and permanent migrants” from the middle of 2022, with international students expected to return under “small phased programs” in late 2021.
“The rate of international arrivals will continue to be constrained by state and territory quarantine caps over 2021 and the first half of 2022, with the exception of passengers from Safe Travel Zones,” the budget papers said.
Migration researcher Shanthi Robertson, from the University of Western Sydney, said some might be surprised to hear border closures will extend well into 2022, but “it’s not unexpected considering the slowness of the vaccine rollout here”.
The border closures mean migration numbers are expected to keep going backwards.
Net overseas migration is predicted to fall by 97,000 by June, a larger drop than the expected 72,000 decline.
The budget forecasts migration will fall by a further 77,000 people in 2021-22, but predicts a surge to 235,000 in 2024-25.
The lack of migration will impact on our population growth, according to Gabriela D’Souza, senior economist at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA).
“It was pretty disappointing – it’s obvious that the government population growth forecast takes into account the fact that we won’t have very much migration in the next couple of years,” she said.
That means “we’re missing out on key talent” and businesses are missing out on workers, she said.
“Our quarantine capacity is just not up to the level where we can take in that volume of people … they’re just going to let the states take care of that.”
“The estimates for population growth are now 0.1 per cent this year, and that’s quite devastating, [since] it used to be 1.5 per cent.”
He-ling Shi, associate professor of economics at Monash University, said Australia must have moderate population growth to ensure long-term economic development.
“The long-term trend is obvious that Australia hopes to attract more immigrants, especially more highly-educated talents. I am glad to see this has been reflected in this budget,” Dr Shi said, pointing to a $550 million package to attract people from overseas by cutting red tape and changing tax rules.
Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (FECCA) chief executive Mohammad Al-Khafaji said “it makes sense to not open up the international borders at this stage given that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic”.
But he added it was important to make sure the country was ready to reopen and “welcome skilled migrants to make sure that they start to stimulate the economy”.
Closed borders add to anxiety
Some migrants living in Australia said the uncertainty over borders put them on edge.
Elena, who also moved here from China and declined to give her surname, worked as a nurse in a GP clinic during the pandemic.
She is here on a two-year post-study temporary graduate visa, but it is due to run out in September.
Although she has applied for a skilled migration visa, she hasn’t been approved yet.
“I was hoping the quota for skilled migration program would increase a bit. Now knowing it is exactly the same like last year, I think it might have a big impact on me,” she said.
“I am not the only one to face the expiration of my temporary graduate visa soon.
“I don’t know what to do. Should I go back to study or something else? I really don’t know what I am going to do.”
Jack, who originally comes from China and also asked his surname not be used, said his parents have applied for a family reunion visa.
He has been waiting for approval for two-and-a-half years and feels the border closures could draw that out even further.
“The impact to our family reunion application is enormous. I understand a very few applicants have got approved because they are overseas during the pandemic,” he said.
“I feel we are robbed of two years’ time.”
Sean Dong, a registered migration agent based in Melbourne, said while international students were now being permitted to work more hours in hospitality, that pool of workers was shrinking.
“Now many Chinese students have chosen the UK and Canada as a study destination while Australia is losing many Chinese international students,” he said.
“But if the border reopens in 2022, I would say that there will definitely be a rebound. As for whether it will surpass the level pre-pandemic, it is hard to say now.”
Four-year wait for benefits a blow
People newly arrived in Australia will now have to wait four years instead of two before they are eligible for benefits including carers payments, parental leave pay and family tax benefits A and B.
There was already a four-year waiting period for other welfare payments, such as JobSeeker and Austudy, and the government said the decision would fund other policy priorities.
Cassandra Goldie, from the Australian Council of Social Services, said the decision was concerning.
“That is a big cut to social security. We cannot leave people who are newly arrived in Australia in destitution,” Ms Goldie said.
Dr Robertson, from University of Western Sydney, said the move would affect new migrant families, particularly those on low incomes.
“A lot of onshore migrants have already been in Australia for a really long time before they get permanent residency. So they’ve often been living in Australia and paying tax without access to benefits,” she said, adding many worked in the health and aged-care sectors.
Mr Al-Khafaji, from FECCA, said he was disappointed by the waiting period measure.
“We know that many people in Australia will be struggling to find a job in the middle of a pandemic. We’re not out of this yet,” he said.
“The government has to make sure that it looks after its most vulnerable members of the community.”