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International movements collapse as visa processing hits record lows

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The Department of Home Affairs appears to have virtually ceased or suspended processing visa applications

Processing of both temporary and permanent visas appears to have all but ceased, even ahead of the pandemic, writes Abul Rizvi.

WHILE MEDIA attention last week was understandably on the unemployment statistics, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) also released the first in a series on monthly international movements into and out of Australia.

Source: ABS Cat 3401

As expected, net movements of people on visas fell sharply in March to negative 145,260 and then again in April to negative 52,790. That was after a large influx of students, offset by the departure of tourists, in February, leading to a net positive movement of people on visas of 127,970 (see Chart 1 above).

Source: ABS Cat 3401

In terms of people on permanent visas, the standard pattern of net negative movement in December and net positive movement in January and February continued. The net movement of people on permanent visas fell to 26,380 in March and 2,630 in April (see Chart 2 above).

Total arrivals on permanent visas was a record low 3,820 and departures was also a record low of 1,190.

As most of the arrivals in April would have been processed in earlier months, the very low permanent arrivals figure in April suggests the Federal Government has virtually ceased or suspended processing visa applications from offshore applicants for permanent visas. That may also include applicants for spouse and dependent child visas, which the Government is not legally permitted to limit.

There does not, however, appear to have been any formal announcement or formal legal instrument issued to cease offshore visa processing. Those now seem to be viewed by Home Affairs as unnecessary.

Source: ABS Cat 3401

Temporary visa arrivals fell from 907,850 in December 2019 to 303,880 in March 2020 and a record low of 1,650 in April 2020. Temporary departures also fell from 802,300 in December 2019 to 475,510 in March 2020 and a record low of 57,060 in April 2020 (see Chart 3 above).

The above charts do not include the movement of Australian citizens.

Australian citizen arrivals fell from over 1.16 million in January 2020 to a record low of 15,060 in April 2020. Australian citizen departures also fell from over 1.05 million in December 2019 to just 3,480 in April 2020 (see Chart 4 below).

The net excess of Australian citizen arrivals over departures was 11,580 in April 2020.

It should be noted that in terms of net overseas migration (that is, longer-term movements), Australian citizen departures have generally exceeded Australian citizen arrivals by over 10,000 per annum.

Source: ABS Cat 3401

If departures exceeded arrivals at the rate they did in April for the remainder of 2020 and the first half of 2021, net overseas migration would likely fall significantly further than the 85 per cent fall in 2020-21 forecast by Prime Minister Morrison.

The key will be how quickly and how well the Australian economy recovers compared to New Zealand in particular if trans-Tasman travel is initially permitted and subsequently, other major source countries of migration to Australia.

As was the case after the Global Financial Crisis, because Australia’s economy recovered more quickly and more strongly than most of the OECD, net overseas migration to Australia also recovered more quickly.

That was at least until the austerity budget of 2014 which pushed up the unemployment rate and pushed down net overseas migration, even though the migration program was delivered at record levels.

Abul Rizvi is an Independent Australia columnist and a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration, currently undertaking a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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