Temporary migration figures: the quarter before COVID-19 hit

The Department of Home Affairs publishes quarterly snapshots of temporary entrants in Australia, showing numbers of visa holders by category at a point in time. The latest statistics are as at 31 March 2020, and with the most significant border closures not occurring until 20 March, these figures only show the early impacts of the pandemic: a much clearer picture will emerge from the second quarter figures to 30 June.

Nevertheless, the latest figures show an overall decrease in numbers in the quarter to 31 March 2020. While the COVID-19 pandemic had some impact on temporary visa numbers, there are other factors in play when comparing the data from the preceding December 2019 quarter.

The table below shows the March 2020 quarter snapshot compared with the previous quarter (as at 31 December 2019).

Visa Category 31/12/2019 31/03/2020 % change
Bridging 216,141 281,179 30.09%
Crew and Transit 23,748 26,252 10.54%
Special Category 668,687 672,432 0.56%
Student 480,543 567,924 18.18%
Visitor 635,109 206,025 -67.56%
Working Holiday Maker 141,142 119,266 -15.50%
Other Temporary 3,240 5,392 66.42%
Temporary Resident (Other Employment) 39,079 40,805 4.42%
Temporary Resident (Skilled Employment) 119,160 139,331 16.93%
Temporary Protection 16,509 17,223 4.32%
Temporary Graduate 89,324 96,819 8.39%
Total 2,432,682 2,172,648 -10.69%

Source: data.gov.au

This gives 260,034 fewer temporary visa holders in Australia at the end of March than there were at the end of December. This is a 10.7% decrease, whereas usually there would not be much of a change between the December and March quarters. We can assume that Australia’s COVID-19 travel restrictions have had an effect, with temporary visa holders no longer able to enter Australia and many international visitors returning to their home countries. However, the numbers show variation across different visa categories—while Visitor visa numbers are down, most other categories registered an increase, with some of the usual seasonal trends still apparent.


A comparison of Visitor visa holder numbers indicates a considerable decline over the first three months of the year, down by 429,084, or 67.6%. COVID-19 travel restrictions no doubt influenced this figure. However, this is not the only factor: the majority of Visitor visa holders come to Australia as tourists or to visit friends and family, and there is usually a peak in visitors over the summer and Christmas period, followed by a decline in the next quarter.

The chart at Figure 1 shows quarterly snapshot trends for selected temporary visa categories over the past three years. The regular Visitor visa peaks and troughs are readily visible, but with the most recent decline more prominent, with the summer bushfires possibly contributing to the result.

Figure 1: Temporary entrants in Australia (selected visa categories), quarterly snapshots March 2017–March 2020


Source: data.gov.au

It is not possible to detect from these early numbers, but as travel restrictions continue, other visa holders may move on to Visitor visas to remain legally present in Australia, as their original visas expire but they are unable to return home.

International students

International student numbers have increased since 31 December 2019, which reflects the fact that many return to their home countries over the holiday period, with ongoing students then returning to Australia in time for the start of the academic year along with newly commencing students. Many students would have arrived in Australia this year before COVID-19 travel restrictions came into effect. However, the arrivals peak does not appear to be as great as usual: the increase in numbers between the December and March quarters is usually around 40%, but this year it is only around 18%. This likely reflects the fact that some students were not able to arrive—particularly Chinese (PRC) nationals, who were the first to be affected by travel restrictions (1 February) and form the largest cohort of student visa holders. Other students may have also since returned home.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has also released data showing that in March 2020, 11,790 fewer students (-16%) arrived in Australia compared to the same month in the previous year. Note that this figure is from the Overseas Arrivals and Departures dataset, and counts number of arrivals in Australia rather than number of visa holders present in the country, so the two sources should not be directly compared. Short term arrivals overall have fallen by 60.3% since the same month the previous year, the largest decrease on record, with Chinese nationals marking the greatest decrease (-77.5%).

New Zealanders

New Zealand citizens can stay in Australia indefinitely on the Special Category visa. While New Zealand also has closed its border, it allows its own citizens to return if they wish to. Numbers of Special Category visa holders are usually relatively steady—there is a small seasonal dip in the December quarter as some go on overseas holiday or return to New Zealand. 

Temporary skilled workers

An increase in the Temporary Skilled Employment category (i.e. the subclass 482 Temporary Skill Shortage visa and its predecessor, the subclass 457 visa) likely also reflects a usual seasonal drop in numbers over the holiday period with an increase as activity resumes in the new year. The numbers for the most recent quarter are down somewhat compared with the same time last year, but the numbers present as at December 2019 were also not as great as in previous years, so it is difficult to determine trends without analysis of further program and labour market factors. For better visibility of the trends in this category and some of the other smaller temporary visa categories discussed below, a subset of the categories from Figure 1 is presented separately in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Temporary entrants in Australia (subset of selected visa categories), quarterly snapshots March 2017–March 2020


Source: data.gov.au

Working holiday makers

There was a marked decline in the number of Working Holiday Maker visa holders, down by 21,876 or 15.5% on the December quarter. There is usually a seasonal rise in numbers of working holiday makers through the warmer months, beginning in the September quarter, but the numbers since December have fallen earlier and more significantly than usual. Although there has been a downward trend in numbers of working holiday makers in recent years, it seems that factors including the combined impacts of COVID-19 and the summer bushfires may have hit this cohort particularly hard—stock numbers have not been as low since 2010.

Bridging visa holders

The number of people on Bridging visas has been trending upwards in recent years, but there has been a sharper rise in the last quarter. It is possible that more people are being granted Bridging visas as the COVID-19 restrictions leave them with fewer visa options; however, the data is only for the early in the period of the full travel restrictions, so there are likely to be other factors involved. The data does not give a breakdown of the types of Bridging visas. Given that different types of Bridging visas are granted for different purposes, it is difficult to state the reasons for the rise in numbers without further analysis.

Tags: Immigration


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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