Meet the migrants to Australia who already live here

I have a theory. If you asked most people where Australia’s most recent permanent migrants lived before they received their visa, you would get answers ranging from traditional (read ‘white’) migration countries like the UK to emerging migration countries like India and China. However I don’t imagine many people would say Australia.

94,819 migrants applied for and were granted permanent residency visas in 2012-13 despite the fact they already lived in Australia. This was half of all permanent visas available for skilled and family migrants.

Various temporary visa programs in Australia have completely transformed our immigration policy framework since the 1990s.  As you can see, the number of total visas has slowly increased to 190,000, from 171,000 in 2008-09.  Back then 37 per cent of permanent migrants lived in Australia, now it’s half.  To understand the magnitude of this shift, twenty years ago the total number of permanent skilled and family visas was 76,300 and I estimate between 2-5 per cent would have already been in Australia.

Over 1.4 million people in Australia were temporary migrants at 30 June 2013 (I have taken out the 200,000 visitor visas which the department includes for its calculation of temporary migrants). For those counting at home, that’s about 6 per cent of the total population and probably between 8-10 per cent of the labour market (but this is hard to work out as we don’t know who works and who doesn’t).

The main temporary migration categories –  Students, Working Holiday Makers, 457 visa holders, post-study work visas and Kiwis – all include many people who likely want to have the option to live and work in Australia longer than their temporary visa allows them. As it’s easier to initially get a temporary visa, this is what happens. Once here, your employer can sponsor you permanently (if you meet the criteria) or maybe a family member sponsors you.  International students are more likely to apply for points-tested visas where they don’t require an employer to sponsor them.

These people aren’t going anywhere. They stay in Australia and as can be seen from the permanent visa data, transition across visas. It is not inconceivable that within a decade, upwards of 80 per cent of permanent migrants will simply be people who have already been in Australia for years. If you just look at skilled migration, the number is already 57 per cent.

From my point of view this is a great thing.  Temporary migration is fast. A working holiday visa is processed almost instantly. Kiwi’s turn up at the airport and have full work rights on arrival without the need for a formal visa application. 457 visas take on average between 10 and 25 days which means businesses can fill vacancies quickly. Permanent migration is slower. Much slower. It is also much more expensive. If you are unsure about migration, and many people are, then temporary migration allows the process to occur without the pain.

Yet this is only a good thing as long as the number of permanent places is near equal to the demand from people who have made their life here and decide to stay for the long term. I don’t think this is an immediate problem judging from recent figures. If that 1.4m becomes 2m within five years, then we’ll have a problem.  It may also become an issue if political parties decide to try and look tough on migration by reducing the allocation of permanent visas without also reducing the ability of people to receive temporary visas. Reducing the number of permanent visas is as simple as dropping a few zeros in the budget. Changing temporary visa regulations is difficult – just ask Brendan O’Connor.

While I don’t agree with the common perception of the poor, exploited migrant, I do think if people wish to live here permanently then they should be subject to the same laws and responsibilities as everyone else. The easiest way to do this is through permanent residency and ultimately citizenship. The ALP government (which I supported) did a good job of increasing the number of permanent places over time. Hopefully the Coalition do the same.

(See Migration Program 2012-13 for more information and source data)

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