Two million temporary visa holders in Australia left in limbo by coronavirus travel standstill | World news
More than two million temporary visa holders living and working in Australia have been left in limbo and risk breaking migration laws as the coronavirus pandemic brings global travel to a near standstill.
Following a strict new travel ban announced by prime minister Scott Morrison on Thursday – to come into effect at 9pm AEST Friday – concerns are also being raised about the ability of the agriculture sector to access the foreign labour it relies upon for farm work.
The Migration Council of Australia says it has particular concerns for two groups of visa holders – those on multiple entry tourist visas who can’t meet visa conditions, and those on temporary work visas who would be vulnerable in the event of a downturn. Some visa holders are also at risk of breaching visa rules if their work conditions change.
“We have a large stock of people currently in the country who are potentially impacted by unemployment and closures as businesses, particularly in the services industry, wind down, who do not have access to Centrelink benefits,” Migration Council of Australia chief executive Carla Wilshire told Guardian Australia.
“Many of them have families and children, and rental payments … which creates a significant vulnerability in the community.”
Wilshire also said that tourist visa holders may need to be moved on to bridging visas to avoid being in breach of conditions and becoming unlawful, while other visa holders who breached work requirements could also find themselves in strife.
“There needs to be a review across all temporary migration streams of visa status and capacity to support people through vulnerability,” Wilshire said.
Labor is also raising concerns about the impact of the pandemic on the temporary migrant workforce, suggesting that if a large portion of temporary visa holders in Australia cannot leave, and cannot get financial support and medical treatment, they may be forced to continue working.
“They could be left with no choice but to unknowingly spread the virus as they are forced to keep working or keep seeking work,” a Labor spokesperson said.
“A virus does not check a person’s visa status. It affects everyone in the community. It is in Australia’s national interest for everyone – citizen or not – to be part of the extraordinary national effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.”
The National Farmers’ Federation was on Thursday in talks with the government about the restrictions on foreign travel and is seeking assurance that the supply of foreign labour will not dry up.
“The horticulture sector relies on foreign workers to pick and pack the fresh fruit and vegetables Australians depend on every day. The unfailing supply of fresh produce on our supermarket shelves is of paramount importance to Australians right now,” NFF president Fiona Simson said on Thursday.
“To ease this challenge, the NFF continues to have productive discussions with the federal government about the potential to extend the visas of workers currently employed on farms pursuant to the seasonal worker and working holiday makers programs.
On Thursday, agriculture minister David Littleproud flagged following a meeting of state ministers that he was working with the immigration department on possible “tweaks” to the visa status of more than 140,000 backpackers and 7,000 seasonal workers already in the country.
“We are confident that with some minor tweaking of visas, visa conditions, that we’ll be able to provide that continuity of supply – and that will be from the farm gate right through to the supermarket,” Littleproud told the ABC.
A large cohort of these visa holders are New Zealanders – more than 600,000 – who are on special category visas.
While Morrison said yesterday that the travel ban would not apply to New Zealand residents, those who remain in the country are not eligible for social security payments in the event that they lose their job.
A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said that any non-citizens wanting to extend their stay in Australia “should review information on the department’s website and apply for another visa”.
“Any visa application will be assessed considering the Covid-19 enhanced border measures and an applicant’s individual circumstances,” the spokesperson said.
The department also said that applications for new visas should be made before a current visa expired, and if a current visa holder had a “no further stay” condition, then “a request to waive this condition must be made”.
It did not comment on whether temporary visa holders who lost work and could not return home would be able to access Centrelink benefits.