2021 has thrown up a mixed bag for travellers, temporary visa holders and permanent resident hopefuls. Australia’s international borders still remain closed to many, leading to visa expiries and huge delays in visa processing. A limited border opening allowing international students and tourists from select countries to enter Australia was tentatively pushed back to December 15 due to concerns over the new Omicron variant.
In this newsletter, we summarise the latest developments in key business and family visa categories, as well as map out what to look out for in 2022. We hope our insights help you identify opportunities and better understand the challenges facing those wanting to live and work in Australia in the current policy climate.
Abacus Visa will be closed from 23 December 2021 and return to office on 6 January 2022. We wish you a happy holiday season, and look forward to working with you in the new year.
Linda McCreath Principal Lawyer & Managing Director Abacus Visa Immigration Lawyers
In 2021 and likely continuing into 2022, those who qualify as a high priority skilled migrant – including those sponsored in an occupation listed on the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL), are applying for a Global Talent Visa or are eligible investors under the Business Innovation and Investment Program (BIIP) – will find it relatively easier to enter Australia and secure permanent residency. Ministerial directions made clear the Australian government’s wish to attract people with either capital or advanced skills in occupations deemed critical to the country’s economic recovery.
For everyone else, long waits for visa approvals and strict COVID-19 travel restrictions will be the norm. Even in priority visa classes, onshore visa applicants continue to be favoured over offshore ones. The opening of the border to fully vaccinated, eligible temporary visa holders on December 15 will hopefully ease the bottleneck.
Global Talent Visa program: Still the best option for highly qualified skilled workers
For those with the right skills and an outstanding professional record, the Global Talent Visa program continues to be the best option for fast-tracked visa processing and Australian permanent residency. Covering ten target sectors – including resources, energy, agri-food and agtech, health, education, defence, space, digitech, and fintech – the program has expanded rapidly since its inception in 2019.
Recently, the government also loosened residence requirements for Global Talent visa holders applying for citizenship, to account for the significant international travel they undertake due to work.
Of the 9584 visas granted under the Global Talent Independent (GTI) program in 2020-21, around 80 percent of places were given to those already in Australia. Over half of the visa grants fell under ‘digitech’ and ‘health industries’.
Notably, the non-invite rate for Expression Of Interests (EOIs) increased from 41.6 percent in 2019-20 to 57.2 percent in 2020-21. This suggests the growing popularity of the program and a bigger pool of qualified applicants has led to a more selective process.
Professionals with skills in the key priority areas identified by the government should take advantage of the continued preference given to Global Talent visa applicants. However, applicants should be aware of the subjective nature of the EOI evaluation process, and that stricter standards are being applied to determine whether someone satisfies the key requirements, including what counts as ‘exceptional international achievements’ and being ‘an asset to Australia’.
Business Innovation and Investment Program: Simplified and quicker pathways to permanent residency
The case for investors and business executives choosing to do business in Australia has strengthened. Reduced wait-times for permanent residency, increased focus on investments in venture capital and private equity (meaning increased potential for returns on investment), and more leniency for meeting the requirements of a permanent visa have made applying for a BIIP visa more attractive.
The only catch is that visa holders will need to meet higher capital requirements – they must hold business assets of $1.25 million (up from $800,000) and have an annual turnover of $750,000 (up from $500,000) to prove their business acumen.
Business owners and investors considering making Australia their home will find a more favourable and efficient visa process than before. However, they should keep up to date on further changes to the CIF that the government has indicated may be implemented next year.
Temporary skilled workers: Limited occupations win priority processing and visa spots
Continued travel restrictions and COVID-19 measures have, naturally, increased the backlog of visa applications and nominations for temporary skilled workers. The government also designated certain occupations as more critical than others, and over 70 percent of skilled visa grants in 2020-21 went to onshore applicants. Ultimately, those who do not work in critical occupations (such as those whose occupations are on the Short-term Skilled Occupation List, or the STSOL) will continue to face much lengthier visa processing times into 2022.
On the other hand, after key business groups raised the difficulty of recruiting skilled workers, 22 occupations were added to the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL) this year, increasing the number of eligible occupations from 29 to 41. Among the new additions was the occupation of Chef, an important win for businesses in hospitality.
There have been media reports that the government is working on implementing new pathways to permanent residency for STSOL visa holders in critical sectors like health and hospitality. Plans to extend graduate visas for international students studying Masters by course work were also announced. However, it’s important to note that no details have been provided, and legislation will need to be passed to effect those changes.
While steps have been taken to address the bottleneck in visa and nomination applications, skilled workers whose occupations are not deemed ‘critical’ – and particularly those who are applying offshore – will continue to face delayed visa approvals.
Partner visas: Proposed new requirements stuck in limbo
Partner visa applicants (the Subclass 820/801 for those in Australia, Subclass 309/100 for overseas applicants, or Subclass 300 for prospective spouses) have always had to face significant scrutiny of whether the relationship between the visa applicant and their sponsor is genuine.
Since 2018, significant changes that would make it more difficult to obtain a partner visa have been suggested and/or put into motion. However, the government has yet to implement these changes, and it is uncertain when exactly it will do so. These changes include:
A separate sponsorship process, where a spouse must be approved as a partner visa sponsor prior to a visa application being lodged. Legislation enabling this was already passed back in 2018.
We already outlined in detail in a previous Newsflash how the proposed changes place new conditions on visa applicants and sponsors and would make an already lengthy visa application process more onerous. As we have been telling our clients since the changes were first flagged, partner visa applicants should initiate the visa application process as soon as possible before the changes take effect.
International students: Visa leniency and a tentative return to normal
There have been concerted efforts by the government to reopen Australia to international students, many of whom are studying remotely overseas and are uncertain about their prospects of staying longer term in the country. As mentioned, the date on which fully vaccinated international students can enter Australia was delayed until 15 December.
In positive news, recently announced rules means:
Temporary Graduate visa holders who were unable to enter Australia and whose visas expired on or after 1 February 2020 can apply for a replacement visa of same duration;
Masters by coursework students can stay in Australia longer for post-study work (3 years, instead of the current 2); and
time spent offshore and studying online will count towards qualifying for a Temporary Graduate visa.
However, these changes will only take effect if the relevant legislation passes.
International students have experienced a high degree of disruption to their plans to study and work in Australia due to COVID-19 restrictions – so while the latest proposed changes are a step in the right direction, students will need to wait for further confirmation of the government following through.
Looking ahead to 2022
Alongside widespread anticipation for borders reopening from 15 December to fully vaccinated Australian citizens and permanent residents, as well as eligible skilled workers, working holiday-makers, international students and a limited cohort of tourists, several overarching themes are clear as we head into 2022:
Immigration policy will continue to heavily favour immigrants with exceptional talent in technology and health, business investors, and those with occupations on the Priority List;
Uncertainty still hangs over partner visas (until proposed sponsorship and language requirements are confirmed) and international student visas (until proposed changes that address visa expiries and difficulties staying in Australia are implemented);
Despite a keenness to open borders on the part of Federal and State governments, visa and immigration policy will remain subject to change at any time in response to ongoing COVID-related risks.
With these trends in mind, we look forward to helping you navigate the challenges ahead and keeping you well informed of important changes to visa and immigration policy as they happen.
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