Abacus Visa Newsletter

2020 Mid-Year Update

Dear Clients and Readers,

As expected, COVID-19 is still casting uncertainty over many aspects of migration and international travel. Big drops in the number of migrants to Australia, as well as worrying unemployment figures, are fuelling public debate over what Australia’s post-COVID migration program should look like. All eyes are on the 2020-21 Budget, due for release on October 6, which will likely contain some big announcements on migration policy.

In this edition, we give you a quick update on travel restrictions and citizenship tests; the state of offshore and onshore visa processing; and key points of contention in Australia’s migration debate, and how they might impact future visa applicants. We also cover the policy announcements – still very light on detail – regarding visas for Hong Kong residents.

Kind regards,

Linda McCreath
Principal Lawyer & Managing Director
Abacus Visa Immigration Lawyers
MARN: 0104387

Indefinite travel restrictions for Australian citizens, permanent residents and non-citizens

International travel in or out of Australia very likely won’t happen until mid-next year, unless you’re part of an extremely small group of people granted permission for ‘essential’ travel. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has hinted at possible travel bubbles with New Zealand and Japan, but the details will take time to work out. The recent resurgence of new coronavirus cases in Victoria complicates things further. In sum:

If you are...

Travel guidelines and restrictions

An Australian citizen or permanent resident

You can’t leave Australia unless you have an exemption under at least one of the following:

  • Your travel is as part of the response to the COVID-19 outbreak, including the provision of aid 
  • Your travel is essential for the conduct of critical industries and business (including export and import industries)
  • You are travelling to receive urgent medical treatment that is not available in Australia
  • You are travelling on urgent and unavoidable personal business
  • You are travelling on compassionate or humanitarian grounds 
  • Your travel is in the national interest

You can apply for a travel exemption online. You should apply at least 4 weeks, but not more than 3 months before your planned travel. Extensive evidence must be provided to support your application.

While it is possible to apply for an exemption, practical challenges remain – flights are limited and expensive, and returning travellers have to contend with paying for the cost of mandatory quarantine (up to $3,000 for solo travellers to $5,000 for families in some states).

A temporary visa holder

You can make arrangements to return to your home country at any time, provided  border controls in that country allow you to do so. There is no need to apply for a travel exemption.

An international visitor

You should return home as soon as reasonably possible.

These guidelines and restrictions can change any time – if you are considering travel abroad, you should check the Department of Home Affair’s website for updates.

Offshore visa approvals on hold, some permanent onshore visas processed

As long as travel restrictions remain in place, offshore visa applications are unlikely to be processed for the time being, except those considered essential to the COVID-19 pandemic response.

However, there is some good news on the permanent onshore visa front. We have had several onshore spouse/partner visas (Subclasses 820 and 801) finalised recently, as well as received approvals for nominations and visa applications under the Employer Nomination Scheme (Subclass 186).

As usual, the key to maximising the potential for a favourable outcome is submitting a decision ready application; that is, an application containing all the forms, fees and supporting documents required by the Department. Prompt responses to requests for further information are also important.

Also on hold – citizenship tests and interviews

Citizenship tests, interviews, and in-person citizenship ceremonies generally continue to be postponed due to COVID-19.

In-person citizenship interviews and tests

Restarted in Western Australia from 6 July 2020. The government has yet to determine it safe to do so in other states and territories.

New applications for Australian citizenship

Are being accepted. Applications for Australian citizenship that have already been lodged with the Department continue to be processed.

Citizenship ceremonies

Being delivered online, allowing already approved applicants to continue to become Australian citizens. From June 2020, some jurisdictions with eased COVID-19 restrictions will reintroduce small in-person citizenship ceremonies.

(approved applicants)

Generally have 12 months from notice of approval to attend a ceremony and make the pledge of commitment. However, COVID-19 means that citizenship approval will not be cancelled if a conferee cannot attend a ceremony within this 12 month period.

What to watch for in the debate over Australia’s post-COVID migration program

With the Australian government projecting a 30% decline in the number of migrants in the 2019-2020 financial year, and an 85% drop in 20201-21 (compared to 2018-19), public debate over how Australia’s post-COVID migration program should be managed is heating up. Everyone agrees that migration will play a key role in Australia’s economic recovery from COVID-19, but there are conflicting views over the number, composition, and restrictions on visas, particularly those with work rights.

The outcome of this complex debate will have major implications for employers, and current and potential temporary and permanent visa holders. Key issues to watch for in the coming months include:

  • ‘Australian workers first’. This has become a common refrain from both the Federal government and Labor Opposition. While scrapping the 457 visa and replacing it with the Temporary Skill Shortage (TSS) visa back in March 2018 was a self-described attempt to prioritise the employment of Australian workers, critics have questioned whether the TSS, and the temporary visa program as a whole, go far enough to achieve that aim. COVID-19 and its economic consequences have only further inflamed that debate.

  • Labour market testing for Temporary Skill Shortage and regional visas. Ever since the introduction of the 457 visa in 1996, labour market testing (LMT) – requiring employers to advertise jobs locally before hiring temporary foreign workers – has always existed in some form or another.

    Currently, LMT applies to the TSS and certain skilled regional visas. However, there are significant exemptions (for example, if an applicant is from a country with which Australia has a free trade agreement). In 2018-19, only 5% of visa applications were rejected due to failing to meet LMT requirements. The debate continues over whether labour market testing should be applied more stringently and widely, or, as has been argued for some time, whether it simply adds unnecessary red tape. There is also the issue of whether LMT is even an effective tool for targeting genuine skills shortages.

  • Work rights on student and working holiday visas. With TSS visas taking up a relatively small proportion of the total number of visas issued, other temporary visas with work rights – such as student and working holiday visas – are coming under increased scrutiny. Whether lower-skilled foreign workers on these visas could be undercutting employment for Australian workers is a question which does not yet have a definitive answer.

    However, given the huge drop in net overseas migration – and the expected dire consequences this will have on the Australian economy – it seems likely the government will continue to push for policies that make temporary visas an attractive option for migrants.

  • The continued decline of permanent migration. In 2018-19, permanent skilled visas made up only about 3.7% of the total visas with work rights. The number of permanent family visas has also declined. Australia’s current trend towards a growing proportion of temporary visas, and restrictive caps on permanent migration that result in lengthening wait times for permanent visas, is also attracting scrutiny.

Visas for Hong Kong residents a case of wait and see

Concerns over a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong that cracks down on political freedoms has prompted Australia to extend the length of visas for certain Hong Kong residents. So far, we’ve been told:

  • Temporary graduate and skilled workers will be offered an additional five years of work rights in Australia on top of the time they’ve already been in Australia, with a pathway to permanent residency at the end of that period.
  • Students will be eligible for a five-year graduate visa from the conclusion of their studies, with a pathway to permanent residency at the end of that period.
  • Future Hong Kong applicants for temporary skilled visas will be provided with a five-year visa, provided they meet updated skills lists and Labour Market Testing requirements.
  • Existing arrangements will continue to apply for those applicants who study and work in regional areas to help address skills shortages, with pathways to permanent residency after 3 years.
  • Priority will be given to those applying through the Global Talent Independent program, which offers visas for “highly skilled individuals”.

It’s worth noting that these are policy announcements only – no legislation has yet been enacted. There is a lack of information around how the application process for an additional five years of work rights will work, or how these announcements will impact Hong Kong residents with visas expiring soon. Potential applicants will have to wait until further details are revealed.

We make it our business at Abacus Visa to give timely and accurate advice tailored to your specific situation. Given the rapid rate at which complex immigration laws can change, our dedicated team of legal immigration professionals is committed to walking you through your visa experience to ensure it is as hassle-free as possible.

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