Politics Analysis

COVID visa stream to be closed at long last

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Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil made the announcement that the COVID visa stream will soon come to an end (Image by Dan Jensen)

The Albanese Government has announced that from 2 September 2023, the COVID visa stream (by far the largest segment of subclass 408) will be closed to new applicants.

That is not before time as this visa stream, which now has well over 120,000 people on it, has created a policy mess that will take a long time to resolve.

At the time of announcement (31 August 2023), totally new applicants for this fee-free visa stream were given a little over 24 hours to apply in order to limit a further surge in applications. People already holding a COVID stream visa have been given around six months to apply for a further one if they need more time to sort out their affairs. They can then either depart or apply for some other type of visa. From February 2024, this visa stream will be closed to all new applicants.

The expectation is that in about 12 months there should be no one left on this visa stream.

It could be argued this fee-free visa stream should have been closed to new applications as soon as international borders re-opened in early 2022. Given the extent of labour shortages in 2022, it was perhaps understandable this visa stream was not closed to new applications in 2022. But with the boom in net migration in 2022, particularly students and working holidaymakers, why didn’t the Government close this visa steam to new applications early in 2023?

The only reason I can think of is that it is taking much longer than normal to reach an agreement amongst ministers to policy action, even on a policy matter where the action was relatively simple and obvious.

The effect of not acting sooner is highlighted in Chart 1 and would have contributed to a lower level of net migration departures in 2022-23 (and hence record net migration). I wrote on this earlier this year.

(Graph supplied)

The Government is giving COVID stream visa holders time to sort out their affairs before their visa expires — this is sensible. It will be hoping the bulk of COVID stream visa holders either depart Australia (thus reducing net migration in 2023-24) or apply for another student or skill visa.

Those who have a skilled job and a reasonably high salary will be able to apply for either an employer-sponsored visa or a skilled independent visa. Some may also apply for a state-nominated visa although the reduction in the allocation for such nominations in 2023-24 may limit these opportunities.

Some may also apply for a student visa with a view to doing a Certificate III course in aged/disability care or nursing support in order to access the new Aged Care Labour Agreement. The challenge will be whether they can afford the tuition fees while being limited to working 48 hours per fortnight and whether an aged care provider will give them a job — that may depend on the quality of some Certificate III courses in the view of aged care employers.

The risk the Government will be keen to avoid is that a large portion of COVID stream visa holders may be unable to find another visa option and cannot afford to depart. That creates the risk of another surge in asylum applications and/or overstayers. There are reports the Government is developing a strategy to address ongoing growth in unmeritorious asylum applications.

It will want to get a wriggle on doing so.

Dr Abul Rizvi is an Independent Australia columnist and a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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