Pandemic Borders: Opinion

Australia’s regions need a new immigration plan after the pandemic

A survey of international students and backpackers found that, since COVID-19, 60% were less likely to recommend Australia as a place to study or travel

Rebecca Wickes
11 May 2021, 12.00am
Migrants in Australia’s regional towns have faced many challenges since before the pandemic
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REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved
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With COVID-19 disrupting travel, shutting borders, and redefining what is essential work, Pandemic Borders explores what international migration will look like after the pandemic, in this series titled #MigrantFutures

Australia’s immigration policy is specifically concerned with using international migration to boost the economies of its towns, small cities and areas that lie beyond the major cities.

But the pandemic has revealed major cracks in the system and offered an opportunity to rethink the country’s migration policy and create the social and physical infrastructure needed to promote social and economic inclusion outside the larger cities.

Prior to COVID-19, there was a concerted effort to increase permanent migration to regional towns. Politicians argue that increasing migrant populations in these towns would be a ‘win-win’ for everyone. Increased migration is often described as a much-needed elixir that would breathe new life into local economies while simultaneously adding a cultural richness and diversity to the region.

But both temporary and permanent migrants in Australia’s regional towns have faced many challenges since before the pandemic and often find themselves socially, culturally and economically excluded.

Australia’s regions are quite different to its major cities. They are more ethnically homogenous and some have no history of cultural diversity. So while regional towns and small cities are touted as offering migrants a high quality of life and economic opportunities, the reality may not live up to the hype, particularly in a post-COVID-19 recovery and particularly for temporary migrants.

Precarious migrants

To entice permanent migration to the regions, a regional migration scheme provides a pathway to the increasingly elusive permanent residency in Australia by offering extra points that are crucial in the points-based residence permit system.

At the same time, the government has been following another pre-COVID strategy of increasing temporary migration to meet skill shortages, particularly in regional areas. The result is that temporary migration has increased substantially in the past 20 years with an average of 50,000 people per year arriving in Australia on temporary visas. A sizeable proportion of these are international students, those on working holiday visas, and temporary skilled migrants. It is unlikely this will change when borders open.

But COVID-19 revealed major cracks in the government’s plan for a large population of temporary migrants. While data do not provide a breakdown of temporary population loss in regional areas, across the country nearly 600,000 temporary visa holders left Australia in 2020. Many held temporary visas while waiting for permanent residency.

Those who remained struggled to find work or support themselves as they were excluded from any form of financial support from the Australian government. In direct contrast to countries such as the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada, there were no wage subsidies available to temporary migrants. Australia’s prime minister simply told those who could not afford to remain “to make [their] way home”.

Social inclusion in a post-pandemic Australia will be achieved only if there is a strong commitment by local authorities to support new arrivals

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a recent survey of international students and backpackers, migrant groups specifically targeted by the regional migration policy, revealed that 59% of their sample said they were less likely to recommend Australia as a place for study or a working holiday.

A report on the precariousness of temporary migrants during COVID-19 found that leaving migrants unprotected has both economic and social consequences, which spill across sectors, communities and migrant groups. For example, the report demonstrated the precarity of migrant workers in the care sector, who were not only exposed to health risks, but who did not have the financial security to isolate or access adequate housing and to allow for the containment of the virus spread.

Local challenges

The social and economic uncertainty in some regional areas – exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic – poses challenges for local governments as they attempt to increase migration. These challenges sit alongside ageing populations and regional economies under pressure as well as the reality that the vast majority of migrants prefer to live in capital cities where they can be close to services, employment opportunities and larger migrant communities.

A Welcoming Cities report, titled ‘Welcoming Regions’, written before the pandemic, detailed the necessary ingredients for successful settlement in regional towns and cities. These included the need for long term strategic consultation, planning and budgeting, appropriate matching of migrant skill sets with regional needs and the engagement of the local communities. These recommendations are now more pressing than ever.

Social inclusion in a post-pandemic Australia will be achieved only if there is a strong commitment by local authorities to support new arrivals and if the receiving community is ready to accept newcomers from culturally diverse backgrounds following a period of unprecedented upheaval, change and migrant population losses.

With borders remaining closed in Australia for much of 2021, this is a crucial moment for local, state and federal governments to pause and reflect on the current and future migration needs for regional areas.

The regional migration scheme cannot merely pick up where it left off. Currently, there is no comprehensive federal strategy on how migrant settlement, particularly temporary migrant settlement, should be rolled out in regional areas. This lack of strategic focus was problematic before the pandemic, and with regional areas feeling the social and economic shocks of lockdowns and border closures, a well thought-out plan to enhance settlement and increase social and economic inclusion is critical.

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