At a time when labor shortages are causing business headaches, migration levels remain well below pre-pandemic levels, writes Dr Abul Rizvi.
WITH INTERNATIONAL BORDERS now open for almost six months, new patterns of movement of people (long and short term) are emerging which will have longer term implications.
While global movements have steadily increased, we are still far from pre-pandemic levels.
The ability of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and the Australian Border Force (ABF) to effectively manage the international movement of people as we return to pre-pandemic levels must be questioned. It is reasonable to expect further massive gridlocks in the visa system and at our major airports over the next six to 12 months at least. This will be exacerbated by the huge budget cuts that were imposed on these two agencies in the March 2022 budget.
Given the dire state of the Commonwealth budget, there must be considerable doubt as to whether much of this can be rectified in the October 2022 budget alone. The challenges are immense and will take years to overcome.
Australian citizens’ movements
The opening of international borders has notably accelerated the movement of Australian citizens.
The total net movement of Australian citizens since November was negative 181,470, with particularly large negative movements in March (negative 26,940), April (negative 70,550) and May (negative 46,220).
Although the bulk of this outflow is likely to be Australian citizens taking vacations abroad that they have had to postpone during the pandemic, very strong labor markets in many countries will also have attracted Australian citizens to long-term overseas jobs.
New Zealand Citizens Movement
The New Zealand citizens’ movement is coming back faster.
The net movement of New Zealand citizens over the past 5 months was positive at 7,790. This is also likely to be mostly people on holiday. The long-term and permanent movement of New Zealand citizens to Australia is expected to remain subdued given New Zealand’s much lower unemployment rate (3.2% vs. 3.9%) and much higher participation rate. high (71% versus 66%).
Chinese Citizens Movement
The movement of Chinese citizens has been particularly slow to return. This is likely a mix of ongoing covid restrictions in China as well as diplomatic tensions.
The net increase in the movement of Chinese citizens in February 2022 was mainly the arrival of students from the 2022 academic year. There was little or no return of Chinese tourists.
Indian Citizens Movement
On the other hand, the movement of Indian citizens returned very quickly.
In May 2022, the movement of Indian citizens was not far from pre-pandemic levels. Since December 2021, the total net movement of Indian citizens has been positive at 85,610. This is by far the largest net inward movement of citizens of any country.
Nepalese Citizens Movement
With Nepal now our main source of international students, the movement of Nepalese citizens has almost reached pre-pandemic levels and will likely surpass it in the coming months.
The total net movement of Nepalese citizens since December 2021 was 21,800 positives.
Movement of Ukrainian Citizens
The war in Ukraine and the Australian government’s response to facilitate visitor visas for Ukrainian nationals has resulted in a sharp increase in the influx of Ukrainian citizens to levels far beyond anything we have seen in recent years.
The total net movement of Ukrainian citizens since December 2021 was 4,040. This figure peaked at 1,800 in March 2022 and 1,230 in April 2022. It fell back to 600 in May 2022, as departures of Ukrainian citizens began to increase .
Afghan Citizens Movement
The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and the Australian government’s response are highlighted in the increase in the net number of arrivals of Afghan citizens. The net movement of Afghan citizens since December 2021 was 1,930, significantly less than Ukrainian citizens. Note that Afghan citizens would mostly arrive on permanent humanitarian visas while Ukrainian citizens would arrive on visitor visas.
Movement of qualified permanent residents
The movement of qualified permanent residents is now about half the level it was before the pandemic began. There was significant negative movement in December 2021 as qualified permanent residents most likely took the opportunity to visit families when international travel was allowed.
Surprisingly, there was also a negative movement of qualified permanent residents in April 2022. Overall, since December 2021, the net movement of qualified permanent residents has been positive by 5,600. This is expected to increase over the next six months , as the balance of the migration program moves overseas and there is a 30,000 expansion of skill flow even though the overall program is maintained at 160,000.
Movement of permanent family migrants
The movement of permanent family migrants is also around half of pre-pandemic levels.
The net movement of permanent family migrants since December 2021 has been positive 190. Given the likely lower family flow in 2022-23, it is only expected to increase very gradually.
Movement of humanitarian migrants and other permanent migrants
This category includes both permanent humanitarian program visa holders and permanent migrants with returning resident visas.
The steady increase in movement in this category is likely dominated by returning resident visa holders visiting family abroad.
Movement of foreign students
The reopening of international travel was eagerly awaited by the international education industry.
A large number of foreign students granted offshore visas in 2021 accounted for a substantial share of arrivals from December 2021. The total number of arrivals from December 2021 to May 2022 was 180,900 with positive net movements of 119,130 .
We will likely see a significant increase in arrivals in June 2022 before the next semester.
Movement of qualified temporary entrants
The movement of qualified temporary entrants, given the state of the labor market, remains relatively moderate. This is probably the combined effect of poor visa design and slow visa processing. Solving this problem should be a priority for the new government.
Movement of Visitor Visa Holders
The movement of visitor visa holders seems to be coming back particularly slowly.
Part of this will be because tourists from China, our biggest source country for international visitors, are still severely restricted. The backlog of visa processing at the Home Office will also contribute. We may not see a substantial increase in visitor visa arrivals until December 2022.
Waiting for 2022
By the end of May 2022, international movements had only partially recovered and remained far from pre-pandemic levels. This is creating labor shortages at a time when there is still very significant fiscal and monetary stimulus in the economy.
A key question will be to what extent the increasing level of movement of people in 2022-23 contributes to the rapid increase in net migration projected by the Treasury. This should be accompanied by a rapid increase in the number of foreign students, an increased reliance on agricultural workers from the Pacific Islands, a rebalancing of the migration program towards the granting of offshore visas and a broader humanitarian program.
The gradual withdrawal of fiscal and monetary stimulus will likely coincide with a return to more pre-pandemic levels of movement of people.
There is a risk that a sharp slowdown in economic growth will make it difficult for newly arrived migrants to find jobs, noting that these migrants have to wait four years to access social assistance.
This would be another problem the new government would have to juggle.
Dr Abul Rizvi is an Australian freelance columnist and a former undersecretary of the Department of Immigration. You can follow Abul on Twitter @Rizvi Abul.
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