20 December 2021
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As part of its planned Migration Program,
the federal government allocates places each year for people wanting to migrate
permanently to Australia. ‘Migration Program’ refers to the number of visas
issued for permanent residence in skilled, family and special eligibility
categories. Temporary entrants are not included in Migration Program figures.
New Zealand citizens on a Special
Category visa and entrants under the permanent Humanitarian
Program are also not included.
The focus of the permanent Migration Program has changed
since 1945 when the first federal immigration portfolio was created.
Australia’s immigration policies have changed from attracting migrants (primarily
from the United Kingdom) for the purpose of increasing Australia’s population,
to attracting workers and temporary migrants in order to meet the labour market
needs of the economy.
This quick guide briefly outlines the current Migration
Program settings and discusses shifts in numbers and focus since 1945. Some
impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Migration Program are also identified.
This publication is focused on permanent migration and so does not discuss the
range of temporary visa programs available, other than in the context of the
links between temporary and permanent migration.
Migration Program statistics from 1984–85 to 2020–21 are
provided in the Appendix.
Australia’s Migration Program
Australia first established
a federal department dedicated to immigration in 1945. Since then, more than
seven million permanent migrants have settled in Australia through either
the Migration Program for skilled and family migrants or the Humanitarian
Program for refugees and those in refugee-like situations.
By 1945, the government was keen to boost the Australian
population in order to stimulate post-war economic development and to increase the
numbers of people able to defend the country in the event of another war.
The intention was to increase the population by 1 per cent per annum through
immigration, which alongside natural increase would achieve an overall annual
growth rate of 2 per cent. As a result of the post-war government’s new focus,
the proportion of the Australian population born overseas rapidly increased
from 9.8 per cent in 1947 to 21
per cent in 1971. This figure has continued to grow, to just over one quarter
(26 per cent) of Australia’s resident population born overseas according
to the 2016 Census data.
Over the years, Migration Program planning numbers have
fluctuated according to the priorities and economic and political
considerations of the government of the day. For the last ten years, planning
figures have fluctuated somewhere between 160,000 and 190,000. Between 2013–14
and 2018–19 the planning level was 190,000 places each year, but this was
reduced to 160,000 in 2019–20. For the 2021–22
program year the planning
figure remains 160,000. (It is worth noting
that since 2015, the government has considered the Migration Program planning
level as a ‘ceiling’ rather than a ‘target’.)
Current program settings
The permanent Migration Program is currently organised into four
the skill stream, for people with skills in demand in Australia,
designed to boost productivity and fill skills gaps in the labour market
the family stream, for family members (excluding child visas,
which are a separate stream) of Australian citizens and permanent residents
the special eligibility stream, for those in special
circumstances who do not fit into other streams, particularly former permanent
residents returning to Australia (this stream is very small, with only a few
hundred visas granted annually in recent years)
the child stream, for dependent children of Australian citizens
or permanent residents. This stream is demand-driven, and so is not capped, but
at around 3,000 places each year.
The skill stream and the family stream account for the majority
of visas granted under the Migration Program. See the Appendix for visa grant
statistics by stream from 1984-85 onwards.
there were 160,052 visa grants under the Migration Program. Table 1 shows the
breakdown by stream and category.
Table 1: Migration Program visa
grants by stream and category, 2020–21
|| Visa grants
||Business Innovation and Investment
Source: Department of Home
Affairs, 2020-21 Migration Program Report, (Canberra: Home Affairs,
2021); Parliamentary Library.
The skill stream of the Migration Program is designed to
meet Australia’s economic and labour market needs through the admission of
highly skilled, economically productive migrants. It currently includes the
- Employer sponsored category, for those who have an
employer willing to sponsor them. The relevant visa subclass is the Employer
Nomination Scheme visa (subclass 186).
- Skilled Independent category, for skilled workers who do
not have an employer sponsoring them. Migrants are selected on the basis of
their occupation, age, skills, qualifications, English language ability and
employability. The relevant visa subclass is the Skilled
independent visa (subclass 189) – points tested stream.
- Regional category, for skilled migrants who are willing to
live and work in a designated
regional area. Relevant visa subclasses include the Skilled
Employer Sponsored Regional (Provisional) visa (subclass 494), Skilled
Work Regional (Provisional) visa (subclass 491), Skilled
Regional visa (subclass 887) and Regional
Sponsored Migration Scheme (subclass 187) (which is only available to
eligible temporary skilled visa holders transitioning to a permanent visa). The
two provisional skilled visas (subclass 494 and subclass 491) will lead to
eligibility for a Permanent
Residence (Skilled Regional) visa (subclass 191), which will commence in
- State/Territory nominated category, for those who have relevant
skills in an occupation in demand in a particular state or territory and are
nominated by that same jurisdiction. The relevant visa subclass is the Skilled
Nominated visa (subclass 190). Each state and territory determines its own criteria
for nomination, and is allocated
a certain number of places each year.
- Business Innovation and Investment Program, which
encourages successful business people to settle in Australia and develop new
business opportunities. Relevant visas subclasses are the Business
Innovation and Investment (permanent) visa (subclass 888) and Business
Innovation and Investment (provisional) visa (subclass 188).
- Global Talent Visa Program, for people who are highly
skilled in one of ten target sectors, and can demonstrate they are internationally
recognised as outstanding in their field. The relevant visa is the Global
Talent stream of the Global
Talent visa (subclass 858).
- Distinguished Talent category, for people who have
an internationally-recognised record of outstanding achievement in a
profession, a sport, the arts, academia or research. The
relevant visa is the Distinguished Talent stream of the Global
Talent visa (subclass 858).
There is some overlap in these categories—for example,
applicants in regional category visas may be nominated by a state or territory,
or sponsored by an employer. For most of the above visa categories, prospective
skilled migrants to Australia must first submit an expression of interest via
website and wait for an invitation to apply for a visa. For many visas,
applicants must also have an occupation on the relevant skilled
occupation list. The lists aim to identify occupation gaps in the
Australian labour market which could be filled using skilled migration, where
Australian workers are not available. The combined Skilled Migration Occupation
List is revised periodically by the National
Skills Commission. It includes a Short-Term Skilled Occupation list, a
Medium and Long-Term Strategic Skills List, and a Regional Occupation List with
specific occupations for the regional visas. A Priority
Migration Skilled Occupations List was introduced in September 2020 as a
temporary measure to facilitate entry of workers in critical sectors in
response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the last two decades, changes to the skill stream of
the Migration Program have been designed to shift the balance of the program
away from independent skilled migrants, who do not have employment arranged in
Australia prior to migration, towards sponsored skilled migrants, and those in
the business and global talent categories. Each year the Australian Government
sets priority categories for the skill stream, and in
recent years the Business Innovation and Investment, Global Talent, and
Employer Sponsored categories have been identified as the top three priority
Innovation and Investment Program offers visas to people who can demonstrate
a history of business success and innovation, and are able to make certain
investments in Australia’s economy. Visa holders in this category must first
obtain a provisional visa, and then transition to a permanent visa after making
the required qualifying investment or meeting the relevant business operation
requirements. The Global
Talent Program was introduced
in 2018–19 as pilot scheme, offering a pathway
to a permanent visa after an initial temporary visa for three years. In 2019–20, there were 5,000 places available under the scheme.
the program grew to 15,000 planned permanent places. In 2021–22, the Business
Innovation and Investment and Global Talent Programs combined are expected to comprise
over a third (36 per cent) of the total skill stream of the Migration Program. In
2020–21, the Employer sponsored
category accounted for 30 per cent of the skill stream, while the Skilled
Independent category accounted for 9 per cent. This represents a notable change
from 2000–01, when 50 per cent of skill stream visas went to the
Skilled Independent category, and 17 per cent went to the Employer Sponsored
The family stream of the Migration Program provides for the
migration of immediate family members of Australian citizens, permanent residents
or eligible New Zealand citizens. Family members admitted under this stream
include partners, parents, orphan relatives, aged dependent relatives and carers.
There is no skills test or language requirement for family migration as there
is for skilled migrants, however applicants must meet specified health and
The family stream comprises three
Until 2015, child category visas were also counted within
the family stream of the Migration Program, however these are now counted
separately and are not subject to planning levels or caps. Relevant visa subclasses
in the child category are Adoption
visa (subclass 102), Child
visa (offshore) (subclass 101) and Child
visa (onshore) (subclass 802).
The largest category under the family stream is the Partner
category, which comprised
94 per cent of the family stream in 2020–21 with 77,372 visa grants. This
compares to 4,500 visas in the Parent category and 496 visas in the Other Family
category for the same period.
Capping and queuing
Some family stream visas are subject to a process known as ‘capping
and queueing’. Under section 85 of the Migration Act 1958
(the Act) the Minister may determine the maximum number of visas which
may be granted in each financial year in certain visa classes. If a visa class is
‘capped’ then once the number of visas granted that year reaches the determined
maximum number, no more visas of that class may be granted in that year. Remaining
visa applications are then ‘queued’ for processing in the next financial year.
All Parent and Other Family visa subclasses are currently
capped and queued, and demand for these visas significantly outstrips supply, resulting
in very long processing times for these visas. At the time of writing, the
Department of Home Affairs web site states that new applications for
Contributory parent category visas are estimated to take at least 64 months to
be released for final processing, and new applications for non-contributory
Parent category visas will likely be queued for at least 30 years before being
released for final processing. This difference in processing times is due to more
places being allocated to contributory Parent category visas than to
non-contributory ones—there were 3,600 contributory parent visas granted,
compared to 900 non-contributory visas in 2020–21.
While the contributory Parent and Aged Parent visas, have a shorter waiting
time, they also have considerably higher visa
application charges than the non-contributory visas, at around $48,000 for
the former compared to around $6,500 for the latter.
Section 87 of the Act prevents Partner and Child visas from
being capped. However, Partner visas are still subject to planning
levels, and the Department states
that there is ‘scope in administering the program to consider planning levels
and prioritise processing accordingly’ (p. 29). Consequently, there is a
significant ‘pipeline’ of Partner visa applications awaiting finalisation and
it can take up to two
years for an application to be finalised. The Government has responded to
concerns over delays in Partner visa processing by making more places available
in this category over the last two years (see below).
The use of planning figures and processing priorities to
limit the number of Partner visas available each year has been criticised by a former
senior Immigration Department official, and by Labor
MP Julian Hill, as being unlawful on the basis that it operates as a de
facto cap on Partner visas in breach of section 87 of the Act. Issues relating
to the cost, fairness and timeliness of processing of Partner and other family
visas are currently the subject
of a Parliamentary inquiry, which is due to report in March 2022.
Trends in the Migration Program
Balance between skill and family
The emphasis of Australia’s Migration Program has changed from
its original focus of attracting migrants to increase Australia’s population,
to an emphasis on attracting skilled migrants to meet Australia’s labour market
needs. This has resulted in notable differences in the balance of the program
between the skill and family streams.
Historically, more permanent migrants arrived under the
family stream than the skill stream, but since the mid-1990s the balance has
shifted markedly in favour of the skill stream. In 1996 the Howard Government explained
the reasons for this shift:
The Government has revamped the Migration (Non-Humanitarian)
Programme to improve the focus on Australia's social and economic needs ... While
maintaining an ongoing commitment to family reunion, the 1996–97 Programme of
74,000 incorporates a significant shift towards skilled migration. Skilled
migrants make a particular contribution to Australia's economic development and
their representation will be increased in the Programme.
In 1996–97, skilled migration made up 37 per cent of the
Migration Program. The split between the two streams subsequently shifted in
favour of the skill stream, and has been roughly two-thirds skill and one-third
family. In 2019–20, the skill stream accounted for 70 per cent of the
total Program. However, 2020–21 saw a return to a more equal balance between
skilled and family migration due to a decision
by Government to attempt to clear a significant backlog in Partner visa
Figure 1: Migration Program 2011–12
to 2020–21, percentage of skill and family streams
Source: Department of Home Affairs, Report on the Migration Program, (Canberra: Home Affairs, 2011 to 2021
editions); Parliamentary Library.
The increase in places for Partner visas is also designed to
assist in meeting the Migration Program planning levels in the context of
COVID-19, by granting visas to people already in Australia on temporary visas.
This will somewhat alleviate the impact of border restrictions due to the COVID-19
pandemic, which have significantly affected the ability of new migrants to
This more equal balance has been retained in the planning
levels for 2021–22, although it is described
by the Department of Home Affairs as a ‘temporary measure’. When announcing
the 2020–21 planning levels the Government stated:
This will give more certainty to those wanting to settle in
Australia with their partners and plan for their futures. It will address
nearly all the present applicants awaiting finalisation of their visa. It is
expected that 75 per cent of Partner visas will go to those already in
It is important to note that reported totals of visas granted
under the Migration Program (both skill and family streams) include both the
primary applicant (that is, the person who applied to migrate) and secondary
applicants (the primary applicant’s dependent family members). Thus, while most
of the places under the Migration Program are allocated to the skill stream,
many people granted visas under this stream are in fact family members of
skilled migrants. Some of these family members may also have skills in demand
in Australia, but the visa application process does not require this (and many secondary
applicants are children). In 2019–20, less than half (46 per cent) of skill stream visas
granted went to primary applicants, meaning more than half of skill stream visa
grants went to secondary applicants.
Temporary to permanent migration
While fluctuations in the size and composition of the permanent
Migration Program are significant, arguably the greatest change in immigration
patterns to Australia in recent decades has been the growth of long-term
temporary migration. Temporary migrants do not comprise part of the Migration
Program, however temporary migration has increasingly become the first step
towards permanent settlement in Australia for many people.
This change has been facilitated by policy settings making
it possible for temporary migrants to transition to permanent visas, which
governments have at times encouraged as a means of optimising the skilled
migrant intake. In 2014, for example, then
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison noted that the
temporary skilled migrant visa program ‘enables us to handpick those migrants
for permanent residency who have already demonstrated their
ability to make a contribution - that is what our immigration program is
supposed to be all about.’
The growth of ‘two-step’ migration is
demonstrated by the changing composition of Australia’s permanent skilled
migrant intake over the last ten years. Figure 2 shows the numbers of permanent
skilled visas granted each year since 2004–05 to people
who were offshore (outside Australia) at the time of application, and people
who were onshore (in Australia on a temporary visa). As can be seen, the
proportion of permanent skilled visas granted to people already in Australia
has grown substantially. In 2004–05, onshore visa
grants made up around 37 per cent of all permanent skilled visa grants. By 2013–14 this was up to almost 60 per cent, then hovered at around 55 to
58 per cent for several years. In the last two years the rate has been higher
still, at around 70 per cent, pushed up by government efforts to deliver the
Migration Program during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Figure 2: Permanent skilled visa grants to
applicants by location (offshore and onshore), 2004–05 to 2020–21
Source: Department of Home Affairs, Report on the Migration
Program, (Canberra: Home Affairs, 2011 to 2021 editions); Department of
Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), Population Flows:
Immigration Aspects, (Canberra: DIBP, 2005 to 2010 editions); Parliamentary
Appendix: Migration Program
outcomes by stream, 1984–85
Sources: Department of Home
Affairs, Historical Migration Statistics and 2020–21 Migration Program Report.
- Excludes Child visas for comparative purposes.
- From 2015–16, Child visa outcomes (excluding Orphan Relative visas) are no
longer part of the managed Migration Program.
J Jupp, The Australian People: an encyclopedia of the nation, its people
and their origins, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 62.
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