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Coronavirus means Australia won’t meet migration forecasts for a decade

Migration in Australia has collapsed amid border closures brought in to stop the spread of the coronavirus, and net migration figures are unlikely to reach government forecasts from the 2019 budget for the rest of the 2020s, according to one immigration expert.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced in March that Australia would close its borders to non-citizens and non-residents. From April, “both inwards movements and outwards movements just collapsed”, a former immigration department deputy secretary, Abul Rizvi, told Guardian Australia.

The result is that net overseas migration — which balances the numbers of people leaving Australia for 12 months or more against those entering Australia for the same period — fell to almost zero, as immigration minister Alan Tudge admitted in May.

The number is likely to stay low, for the short term at least. Speaking at the National Press Club in May, Morrison said that Australia was looking at net overseas migration falling to about 34,000 “next year”.

In 2019, net overseas migration was about 210,700, according to figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics last month. About 553,500 people immigrated to Australia last year and 322,900 left. Migration contributed to about 60% of population growth.

Even before the coronavirus hit, net migration was lower than government forecasts. In the 2019 budget, the government forecast a migration number of around 270,000 per annum between 2019 and 2022.

Now, the coronavirus means that those 2019 forecasts “will not go within a cooee of being met,” Rizvi said. “We’re out of the ballpark here. You may as well just put them in the rubbish bin.”

And, Rizvi said, even if the coronavirus disappears and international borders re-open, Australia is unlikely to get anywhere near the 270,000 figure for the rest of the decade because of its weakened economy.

“I don’t think, during the decade of the 2020s under current policy settings, there is any chance of us getting back to above 200,000 net migration,” he said.

Rizvi said that if temporary entrants already in Australia had left the country, as urged by the government, net migration could well have fallen into negative figures. Instead many stayed, despite the lack of financial support offered by the federal government.

The biggest group of migrants no longer entering Australia are international students, who have made up 40% or so of migration in recent years, according to Rizvi.

“Basically, they’ve stopped,” he said. The students not coming include people who already had a visa, those who had applied for a visa, and those who were intending to apply.

Working holiday-makers, skilled temporary entrants, and temporary visitors who would then apply for longer-term visas are also no longer entering the country.

Rizvi said that the offshore humanitarian program, under which Australia brings in refugees, appears to have stopped. In the 2018-2019 financial year, it brought in just under 19,000 people.

Processing of permanent visas has also slowed down, according to University of Sydney migration expert Anna Boucher. Rizvi added that the processing of offshore partner visas appeared to have “stopped or gone very, very, very slow.”

Boucher said it was not clear what the net migration figure of 34,000, suggested by Morrison, would comprise. “That’s not even going to necessarily cover spouse and child visas,” she said. “There’s going to be pressure building up at some point around family separation.”

Recent restrictions on inbound passenger numbers at Sydney airport would also affect the number of entrants, Boucher said.

Despite the border closure, some people are being allowed to enter on temporary visas to provide essential services, she said.

“A lot of this is in flux,” Boucher said. Pointing to the new outbreak in Victoria, the continued global spread of the virus, and the close link between new arrivals and new coronavirus cases in Australia, she said: “It’s understandable that the immigration response would be a little confused at times.”

Shorter-term travel, which net overseas migration does not measure, has also ground to a halt.

In April 2020, 17,000 Australians returned home after a short-term trip, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. A year earlier, the figure was 916,400 — a drop of 98.1%. Australian citizens and residents are not allowed to leave the country without an exemption.

Short-term visitor arrivals fell even more dramatically — by 99.7% from 700,400 in April 2019 to 2,200 in April 2020.

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