SYDNEY – Australia’s strict border closures have ended its usual massive influx of migrants and prompted the federal government to grant an “amnesty to migrants”, especially to those whose visas have expired.
In the last full fiscal year before the pandemic, from mid-2018 to mid-2019, there were 537,800 migrant arrivals, including around 160,000 skilled workers and 346,000 people on temporary visas, including short-term workers and international students.
But the flow came to a screeching halt last year as Australia imposed some of the world’s toughest travel restrictions.
In May of this year, for example, there were only 10,100 arrivals on temporary visas.
The lack of migrants has resulted in labor shortages in various sectors, including hospitality and agriculture.
A recent survey by Business NSW, which represents businesses in the most populous state of New South Wales (NSW), found that 42% of businesses believed skills shortages were causing a “significant” toll, including including the loss of customers.
NSW Chief Government Economist Stephen Walters said the loss of new migrants and international student arrivals was having “profound” effects on the state’s economy .
“The cost is substantial,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“People have been one of the main engines of growth in our economy over the past decade.
Mr. Shekar Mani, director of Saravanaa Bhavan, an Indian restaurant chain, told SBS News last month that a lack of workers had forced the company to abandon plans to open new outlets.
“Before Covid-19, we planned to open two more restaurants, but for now we have decided not to do so because the company has been hit hard by the pandemic and the staff shortage is affecting our operations,” did he declare.
“We are not able to find qualified personnel even if we pay them more.”
The lack of migrants has prompted calls to allow temporary visa holders who are already in the country to stay and to grant visas to those whose visas have already expired, provided they pass health and legal tests. character.
Farmers have been among the vocal sectors calling for amnesty for undocumented workers, as they rely heavily on short-term foreign workers during picking seasons.
Australia currently has between 60,000 and 100,000 undocumented workers.
A report released earlier this year by the National Agricultural Labor Advisory Committee, a body that advises the federal government, said the pandemic offered a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to grant visas to undocumented workers, especially since some may avoid getting the vaccine for fear of being punished. to be in the country.
Several deputies from the Rural Nationals, the smallest party in the ruling Liberal-National coalition, backed the calls.
But the Home Office rejected amnesty proposals for undocumented workers, saying it would create “perverse incentives” and encourage violations of migration laws.
So far, the federal government has made it easier for some temporary visa holders to stay.
Some foreign workers in the tourism and agriculture sectors were able to extend their visas for up to 12 months.
International students working in industries such as elderly care, agriculture, tourism and hospitality have been allowed to work more than the usual limit of 40 hours per fortnight.
But there are calls to go further. The Australian India Business Council has reportedly called for a fast track to residency for temporary workers and skilled migrants from India, which has been the biggest source of migrants in recent years.
According to a recent Parliamentary Library article, Australia offered amnesties for visa overruns or irregular arrivals in 1974, 1976 and 1980.
There had also been relaxation of visa rules for people captured in Australia during crises in their home country.
Famously, Australia allowed some 42,000 Chinese students and other Chinese migrants to stay in the country following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.
But the newspaper noted: “A look back at the history of policies shows that Australia has provided very few examples of migrant amnesty, whether for people in the country in an irregular situation, visa overruns. or people working in violation of their visa requirements. “