Australia’s permanent migration intake has fallen to its lowest level in at least 10 years as the coronavirus pandemic causes visa processing delays and major disruptions to international travel.
New figures reveal the number of permanent visa approvals reached 140,366 in the 2019/20 financial year to 30 June.
The number of approvals falls well below the government’s planning ceiling of 160,000, and is down from the 10-year average of 175,000 permanent visas each year.
By comparison, there were some 160,000 permanent visas issued in the last financial year before the coronavirus pandemic.
Australian National University demographer Liz Allen said COVID-19 had caused major disruptions to international travel, as well as visa processing delays and a decrease in applications.
“It’s definitely a marked reduction on the number of visas granted for permanent migration,” she told SBS News.
“It’s certainly not surprising that we would see a reduction in the number of people that would be coming to Australia given COVID.”
The permanent migration intake covers skilled migration pathways, family migration pathways, and a small number of special eligibility visas.
Abul Rizvi, a former deputy secretary of the immigration department, said a large number of permanent visas were being granted to people who were already living in Australia.
The latest figures showed 90,499 people had their visas approved while they were in Australia, compared to 84,260 the previous year.
Mr Rizvi said this reflected the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on inbound travellers and requirements for visa holders to attain qualifications locally.
“The vast bulk of the 2020/21 migration program will be to people already in Australia unless there is a substantial change to the situation with the overseas arrivals cap,” he told SBS News.
‘This is a low program’
The new figures showed 70 per cent of permanent pathway visas had been granted through the skilled stream.
Last week, the government announced a new priority skill list to lure specific temporary migrants to Australia, including nurses, doctors, construction managers and software engineers.
Those who fall under the 17 designated categories will be prioritised for a travel exemption allowing them to enter Australia, but will still be required to complete the 14-day supervised quarantine at their own expense.
Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge said the make up of next financial year’s migration program would be announced as part of the budget process in October.
“The size and composition of the 2020/21 migration and humanitarian programs will be considered in light of the developing COVID-19 situation,” he said in a statement.
The coronvirus crisis has kick-started a debate about Australia’s migration intake and whether – amid surging unemployment and a crushing recession – it should be changed once borders re-open.
University of Sydney immigration analyst Anna Boucher said the coronavirus crisis would force the government to closely evaluate its priorities for the migration program’s future.
“They have to balance a mix of social, economic and political considerations, which is always the case – but is obviously amplified right now,” she told SBS News.
“The government will have to strike a balance between those challenges in the budget.”
The federal government has forecast an 85 per cent drop to its net overseas migration intake this financial year.
Migrant and refugee settlement agency AMES Australia said a reinstated migration program could drive recovery from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We know that long-term economic success relies on a vibrant migration program, so you would want to be able to see that if not next year, then the year after,” chief executive Cath Scarth said.