Migration—issues for Australia’s migration program

Harriet Spinks, Social Policy

Key Issue
Australia has a long tradition of immigration, and has for many years welcomed permanent migrants from all over the world under its managed migration program. Recent years have seen significant growth in the numbers of temporary migrants coming to Australia through uncapped, demand-driven programs such as the 457 visa program. There is an increasing trend for these temporary migrants to eventually settle here permanently.

Australia has a long history of welcoming migrants, and has for many years run a highly managed permanent migration program, with annual quotas for both skilled and family reunion migrants. In 2016–17 the migration program planning level is for 190,000 places; where it has been for the last five years. Around two-thirds of the permanent migration program is set aside for skilled migrants, with the remaining third allocated to family reunion migrants. There is a separate quota for the humanitarian program, discussed elsewhere in this briefing book.  

The last two decades have seen significant growth in the numbers of temporary migrants coming to Australia, the majority as either temporary skilled workers or overseas students. This growth in temporary migration has led to what is perhaps the most significant shift in immigration to Australia in the last 60 years—a move to what is frequently termed ‘two-step migration’. Under this process, migrants come to Australia initially on a temporary visa and then later (potentially after many years) transition to permanent residency.

Temporary and two-step migration

Most of Australia’s long-term temporary migrants come here as temporary skilled workers (on the subclass 457 visa), overseas students, or working holiday makers. Unlike the permanent migration program, for which annual quotas apply, temporary migration categories are uncapped, demand-driven programs. This means that numbers fluctuate each year according to the number of people wishing to come to Australia and the number of overseas workers needed by Australian business to fill local labour market gaps.

Figure 1: Visa grants to 457 visa workers, overseas students and working holiday makers, 1996-97 to 2014-15

Figure 1: Visa grants to 457 visa workers, overseas students and working holiday makers, 1996-97 to 2014-15

Source: J Phillips and J Simon-Davies, Migration to Australia: a quick guide to the statistics, Parliamentary Library, 2016; J Phillips, Working holiday makers in Australia: a quick guide, Parliamentary Library, 2016.

Immigration Department statistics indicate that increasing numbers of temporary migrants are transitioning to permanent residency. Figure 2 shows the numbers of permanent skilled visas granted each year, over the last ten years, to people who were offshore (outside Australia) at the time of visa grant, and people who were onshore (in Australia on a temporary visa). During this period the proportion of permanent skilled visas granted to people already in Australia on a temporary visa has grown significantly.

Figure 2: Permanent skill stream visa grants to offshore and onshore applicants, 2004-05 to 2014-15

Figure 2: Permanent skill stream visa grants to offshore and onshore applicants, 2004-05 to 2014-15

Source: Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Report on the migration program (various years) and Population flows (various years).

Policy considerations

This two-step migration process has many potential benefits, and has been encouraged by successive governments as a means of allowing Australia to ‘try out’ potential migrants before allowing them to stay permanently. For the migrants, it offers the chance to test out life in Australia before deciding whether to make a permanent move.

However, there are also potential problems with this process. There is evidence that temporary migrants are vulnerable to workplace exploitation. The report of a recent Senate Standing Committee inquiry into Australia’s temporary work visa programs found that exploitation was a serious problem for temporary migrants, and made several recommendations aimed at improving the protection of temporary migrants in the workplace. The Government had not formally responded to the report prior to the election.

The growth in the number of temporary migrants coming to Australia has also caused concern in some quarters about the impacts on the local labour market. Further concerns relate to the settlement and integration of temporary migrants.

Recent reforms to the 457 visa program include those made in response to a 2014 independent review, which was tasked with investigating ways of improving the program’s integrity while minimising the compliance burden on participating businesses. The government agreed to most of the review’s recommendations, and has implemented several of them to date.

It is likely that temporary migration, and in particular the 457 visa program, will continue to be the subject of debate and reform, in response to ongoing concerns about how best to balance employers’ needs for migrant workers, with the protection of both local and overseas workers. 

Further reading

H Spinks, The temporary work (Skilled) (subclass 457) visa: a quick guide, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016.

J Phillips, Working holiday makers in Australia: a quick guide, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016.

J Phillips and J Simon-Davies, Migration to Australia: a quick guide to the statistics, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016.

 

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