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A Shock to the System – Prescribing Australia’s Immigration Policy post-COVID-19

In recent years, Australia’s immigrant intake has trended toward policies that prioritise short-term skill shortages and the productivity needs of the economy through temporary migration flows. While this has allowed Australia to procure stocks of talent and skilled labour, the impact of COVID-19 has highlighted the disruption of transnational labour mobility networks and regional disparities in crisis response.

Southeast Asian migrants to Australia are generally educated above the national average and have often addressed skills shortages in various economic sectors. These sectors stretch across both high and low skilled areas, such as healthcare, agriculture, and retail. Due to the pandemic, the Federal Government is currently predicting an 85 percent drop in its immigration intake from 2019, creating uncertainty on the future quality of deliverance in these sectors.

In April 2020, the Department of Home Affairs announced exemptions for temporary visa-holders working in essential sectors, leaving large numbers of migrants in other areas to rely upon their own means of support. As Australia attempts to negotiate the delicate balance between reliance and burden, the risk of future global shocks on regional connectivity necessitates a holistic re-evaluation of Australia’s development objectives combined with a recalibration of its immigration policy.

The hardening of national borders and disruption of transportation networks has a significant impact on sending nations as well as the migrants themselves.These measures disrupt flows of remittances, with low and middle-income countries estimating a drop from USD$554 billion in 2019 to USD$445 billion in 2020. This will affect remittance-dependent economies such as Vietnam and the Philippines that owe 6 and 10 per cent respectively of their total GDP to remittances. Combined with declining Foreign Direct Investments (FDI), these nations will subsequently rely to a greater extent on remittances to cope during the pandemic and its aftermath.

The strategy of optimising Australia’s skilled-labour intake will leave its developing neighbours with significantly fewer resources as the government looks to simultaneously cut foreign aid to Southeast Asia. An International Labour Office report previously identified excessive outflows of Filipino health workers to higher-income countries resulted in the closure of local hospitals and medical training programmes. Skilled-labour shortages in Southeast Asia thus risk compromising the region’s capacity to adhere to universal health standards and implement effective prevention measures.

Proposals to create ‘travel bubbles’ and ‘quasi-quarantine’ arrangements risk ingraining economic isolationism, as shifting production lines and supply chains become increasingly localised, further compounding segmentation between developed and developing nations. This has the potential to exacerbate subregional migration and increase the risk of transmission within Southeast Asia, as developmental disparities draw people toward higher wages and global market access in more prosperous economies.

Rising pressure on developing nations will likely contribute to an overall increase in vulnerable groups seeking irregular migration channels. For undocumented workers and asylum seekers confined to the periphery of mainstream social and economic activity, lockdown measures not only increase the risk of contagion among these populations, but the additional danger of resurgence poses an existential threat to the healthcare systems of quarantined ‘safe-zones’.

Framing migration as a global development issue instead of a matter of economic productivity and placing a greater emphasis on people-centred policy would recognise the holistic impact on migrants and non-migrants alike. Through this lens, an appreciation of the relationship between development and migration will encourage further proactive policy measures better able to withstand future global shocks.

Australia must consider reshaping its foreign policy with greater attention to migration issues, through increased engagement, coordination and alignment of interests with both sender and other receiver governments and international NGOs. Working alongside foreign authorities would allow Australia to establish distributive supply chains that help balance the composition of skilled migrant flows and address global labour shortages in essential sectors. Importantly, Australia’s proposal to expand labour mobility opportunities in the South Pacific should not direct its focus away from Southeast Asia.

The success of Australia’s long-term health strategy to protect against future pandemics will depend upon migration issues becoming integral to foreign policy. Intersectoral collaboration between regional health and migration institutions will allow Australia greater scope and coverage of policy measures that will in turn create a more effective response mechanism to subsequent crises through improved collaboration and data sharing.

Ultimately, policymakers in Australia should be encouraged to develop people-sensitive initiatives that recognise the unique challenges facing migrants today. Future policy must grant migrants working in all sectors of the economy access to tangible support and assistance networks during times of crises to alleviate fiscal impact at the individual level. Given the immediate risks posed by temporal migration flows, initiatives that move toward more permanent and safer solutions for migrants and non-migrants should be afforded greater priority in Australia’s foreign policy discourse. To future-proof itself against subsequent global systemic shocks, Australia must ensure that its region is secure enough to allow for a swift and safe resumption of transnational connectivity. A balanced immigration policy supporting the development of Southeast Asia while providing access to regionally sourced skilled migrants will be instrumental in aiding Australia’s economic recovery in the years ahead.

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