Thursday, 14 May 2020

COVID-19: Civil liberties and the role of the state

Temporary visa holders left behind in Australia

Mary Anne Kenny

Mary Anne Kenny highlights the precarious situation of temporary visa holders in the coronavirus pandemic, proving that their status not only comes with fewer rights but also a decreased sense of responsibility by the government for their fates as compared to Australian citizens and residents.

The COVID-19 pandemic has travelled across global borders. Many countries including Australia have had to face unique challenges managing the intersection between immigration policy and public health policy.  The International Labor Organization has noted the particular vulnerability of migrant workers who may work and live in crowded settings where physical distancing is difficult, while the lack of a coordinated response in public health planning has been linked to outbreaks amongst populations of migrant workers in countries like Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

Control of migration into Australia was one of the first levers the government turned to in February 2020 when it started to impose bans on temporary migrants coming into Australia, initially from China and then Iran. Other bans on entrants followed, all of which has had a significant impact upon the Australian economy in terms of its reliance on temporary migrant workers and international students.

Australia has the second largest migrant workforce in the OECD , second in number only to the US. International education is worth $39 billion and is Australia’s fourth largest export.

The spread of the virus has also had an impact upon temporary migrants who were already in Australia. As of 4 April this included 2.17 million people , comprising temporary migrant workers, partners on temporary visas, refugees, international students, work and holiday makers and visitors.

In some cases, travel restrictions have trapped temporary visa holders in Australia with few options to return home. For some, the inability to return may mean their visas expire; for others, loss of employment may lead to a breach of their visa conditions, leaving them at risk of being unlawful and open to exploitation. Health insurance may expire and access to Medicare is complicated and difficult.

Temporary visa holders have fewer rights than citizens and permanent residents. Citizens, permanent residents and many New Zealanders have unconditional work rights and access to the recently announced government support payments (including the new JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments), while temporary visa holders do not.

The government argued it ‘had to draw the line somewhere’ as extending supports to temporary migrants would cost an additional $18 billion to the already $200 billion assistance package. Those that could not support themselves were advised to return home.

Many temporary visa holders who were working in Australia lost their jobs due to the shutdowns caused by enforced social distancing requirements. A survey of more than 200 migrant workers found more than half had lost their full-time work as a result of the pandemic, and many would struggle to pay rent and other living expenses.

The government responded by making some concessions to their visa conditions, allowing them to change employers if they needed. However, without a financial safety net migrant workers are left vulnerable. They may be reluctant to leave employment with the choice lying between a job and destitution, which in turn can result in a public health risk, as demonstrated in outbreaks of coronavirus clusters among migrant workers in abattoirs and meat works in the United States and Australia .

International students have also been hit hard. Many worked in industries adversely affected by forced business shutdowns such as in hospitality and ride sharing. The government responded by allowing students to access any superannuation savings they may have, but in many cases this amounted to very little.

The government also relaxed the 40 hour per week maximum condition on students who worked for supermarkets or the aged care sector, to allow international students to fill critical work shortages. However many international students are now struggling financially.

They face difficulties returning home due to virus outbreaks in their home countries. Their ability to turn to families overseas to provide increased support has been impacted as their families’ jobs have been impacted with the virus spreading to their countries as well. Universities and state governments have stepped up by offering assistance and emergency relief.

Vulnerable asylum-seekers and refugees on temporary visas have been completely overlooked by the Federal Government despite calls from medical professionals. Asylum-seekers on bridging visas awaiting the final determination of their claims for refugee status are ineligible for any form of support through Centrelink.

Cuts to the federally funded Status Resolution Support Service meanthey have no access to any funded income support or Medicare. Not-for-profit agencies have reported dramatic increase s in demand on their welfare services for food, housing and essential healthcare.

Refugees on Temporary Protection visas and Safe Haven Enterprise visas (SHEV) can only access support from Special Benefits; the income support is not at the same level as JobKeeper and the application process is complicated and services to support refugees are struggling to meet demand.

SHEV holders are also reluctant to access income support due to concerns that it will militate against their ability to meet a visa pathway which requires them to work in a regional area and not claim Centrelink benefits for 42 months. This limited pathway provides opportunity for permanent visas and reunion with family members once they have been separated from each other for over 10 years.

Non-government agencies have been working hard to meet the gap of support to temporary visa holders. In addition, some states and territories such as Victoria , Tasmania , ACT and NT have stepped in to provide emergency relief via agencies such as the Australian Red Cross.

The Prime Minister has said that “we will get through this together”, but this should not depend on visa status. The intersection of visa uncertainty, economic and social stresses will have significant and disproportionate impact not just on the physical health of temporary migrants but also on their mental health and wellbeing, which will last beyond the length of the pandemic response.

Associate Professor Mary Anne Kenny, College of Arts, Business, Law and Social Science, Murdoch University


UWA Public Policy Institute