For the last two years, migrant movement into Australia has changed dramatically in light of COVID.  The Department of Home Affairs, Australia’s government agency in charge of migration, has executed constrain strategies that has altered the migration program to now reflect the following:

THE PRESENT

  • Only essential workers/high skilled workers and returning nationals can travel through borders.
  • Onerous quarantining for incoming passengers which is expensive and stifling business travel.
  • Processing visa for offshore international students has come to a halt.
  • Implemented quick fix-it solutions like the COVID subclass 408 visa to assist stranded migrants living in Australia.
  • Relaxing visa conditions for onshore students/working holiday makers so they can work in  COVID affected industries.
  • Stronger border closure has added an extra layer of requirements to enter and exit (i.e., travel exemptions), only adding to the anxiety of traveling in and out of the country.
  • Tourism is non-existent.
  • The General Skilled Migration program is partially operating and is unlikely to return to pre-COVID planning levels for many years.
  • World-event driven visa concessions are being given to groups of people that need refuge (e.g., Hong Kong and Afghan nationals).

Many neighboring countries continue to grapple with high COVID infections rates daily.  This, coupled with the uneven distribution of vaccines, means that countries, including Australia, will be reticent to open their borders too early in fear that their own public health systems will be overwhelmed. 

Australia has the advantage of being a borderless country and benefited from a hardened approach to border closure.  However, this will have to come to an end soon.  The full impact of this is still unknown, but what we do know is that it has had long lasting negative effects on families who have been separated, debilitated businesses and excluded migrants and Australians who are stranded overseas.

THE FUTURE

Australian migration has always been dynamic in nature but COVID has been an unprecedented event that has shifted the entire paradigm of migration policy making forever.  It is likely that public health will now underpin decisions on ‘who’ gets a visa and ‘who’ will be disqualified from entering the country.

In navigating this uncharted territory, M Legal’s lawyers believe that having the foresight to be able to spot trends will improve advice to clients and an ability plan for their futures. 

In future gazing, we have identified a number of themes that we see as shaping Australian migration over the next few years (and some may even remain in place for the long-term):

1.       Can’t travel spontaneously

It is an evident reality that travelling cannot be as straightforward as it once was. Specifically, individuals will now need to consider pre and post departure requirements that are involved with travel. This includes the necessity of being vaccinated, being tested prior to departure and upon arrival, and having to quarantine. 

We are expecting that some of these measures will continue to be in place for the long haul and will become accepted as the normal travel routine.

2.       Travel Bubbles

Travel bubbles are being created through bi-lateral arrangements formed by governments, such as Australia and New Zealand, facilitating easier travelling.  Over the coming months, Australia will be creating more of these bubbles with ‘low-risk’ countries that have high vaccination rates as a way of easing back into international travel.

3.      Vaccination Passports (Digital)

Vaccine passports (and/or certifications) are an option that many countries are considering to adopt, if not have already adopted.  Australia is one of these countries, with various states such as New South Wales and Victoria opting to implement this strategy. Vaccine passports will be the universal stamp of approval that aims to verify whether you can travel.  However, it may be a little while before the system can be trusted as governments figure out how to iron-out kinks like data privacy and security.

4.  Some restrictions remain

Governments will continue to encourage COVID etiquette such as the use of masks and social distancing, to minimise the risk of outbreaks in Australia.  We expect that the messaging around this etiquette will relax only when Australia hits its vaccination targets in due course. 

5. Reduced quotas

The pandemic has had significant impacts on migration with the Net Overseas Migration forecasting that there would be a substantial drop in migration levels to such an extent that it would be negative.  Accordingly, Australia will become even more selective, favouring individuals who will accelerate the process of the economic recovery by placing greater value on higher education levels and entrepreneurial abilities.

 6.       Stricter visa regimes

The pandemic has only intensified the difficulties in securing visas globally.  It has also cemented in many people’s view, which countries are likely to take care of its citizens during a global crisis and lead through a pandemic well.  In an effort to monitor migrant numbers, the regulatory visa framework is only likely to tighten further, making it more challenging for migrants to find a visa pathway over the coming years.

7.       Longer processing timeframes

Visa processing timeframes for applications will be lengthier.  For this reason, it will be paramount to understand how to expedite applications and be across the right short term and long term strategies to set the right expectations and work towards your migration goals.

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Co-written by Sofia Maniam and Priscilla Shibu