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Visa holder update to COVID-19 pandemic response from the Department of Home Affairs

Update to Covid-19 pandemic

With the pandemic curve currently under control many are starting to ask when the Australian government will loosen restrictions on international movement. The unfortunate news for many affected visa holders and those seeking to travel appears to be – ‘not soon’.

Changes to support temporary visa holders

The government announced a series of rapid changes to the migration program in early April to address the unfolding crisis. Changes included:

  • A new COVID-19 stream of the 408 Activity visa for people who could not return home or needed to remain in Australia to work in a critical sector
  • Stand-down, part-time and leave arrangements were put in place to enable employers to deal with 482 Temporary Skill Shortage visa holders without breaching visa conditions
  • Additional flexibility for Student visa holders on work rights (since ceased) and class attendance requirements.

Some additional arrangements were made to enable certain visa holders additional support during the pandemic:

  • NZ Citizen 444 visa holders access to JobKeeper, access to JobSeeker for 6 months if they have lived in Australia for 10 years or more (NZ citizens resident since before 26 February 2001 already had access to Centrelink payments)
  • Subclass 500 Student, 485 Graduate, and 482 Temporary Skill Shortage workers were granted access to up to $10,000 in superannuation

Unfortunately, no further arrangements have been made to make life easier for temporary visa holders and it appears no further changes are under consideration. As a result, it appears temporary visa holders will need to manage through the pandemic without further support or flexibility.

Recent statements by government officials suggest that initial border openings could be anywhere from 3-4 months up to 12 months away. It is likely that policy makers cannot effectively predict the process given the number of unknowns in the situation.

In-bound travel restrictions

In addition, one of the key challenges has been for temporary visa holders who are outside Australia and wish to return. The government has established very narrow criteria for return and it appears the number of exemptions granted is very low. Approximately 6800 movements were authorised into Australia between 2 February and 6 May.

Exemptions may apply for:

  • foreign nationals travelling at the invitation of the Australian Commonwealth Government for the purpose of assisting in the COVID-19 response or whose entry would be in the national interest
  • critical medical services, including air ambulance and delivery of supplies, that regularly arrive into Australia from international ports
  • people with critical skills (for example, medical specialists, engineers, marine pilots and crews) by exception
  • diplomats accredited to Australia and currently resident in Australia, and their immediate family
  • ​case-by-case exceptions for humanitarian or compassionate reasons.

Of these, existing temporary residents are unlikely to qualify for most exemptions (depending on circumstances) and many have applied for the compassionate or humanitarian basis. Approximately 20% of these have been refused to date.

Home Affairs have not provided clarification of the meaning of humanitarian or compassionate grounds and many visa holders find themselves frustrated by the lack of transparency around how and when they may be able to return.

Data released by Home Affairs to the Select Committee on Covid-19 Parliamentary enquiry suggest a very low number of applications have been processed to date. This begs the question of whether there are a large volume of unresolved requests which are yet to be processed.

Extracted from Department of Home Affairs response to Question on Notice for Select Committee on COVID-19 Parliamentary Inquiry

Hammond Taylor will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates on in-bound travel restrictions. If you would like personalised support, contact Hammond Taylor for assistance.