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Australia migration program

As part of its planned Migration Program, the federal government allocates places each year for people wanting to migrate permanently to Australia. The focus of the Migration Program has changed since 1945 when the first federal immigration portfolio was created. Australia’s immigration policies have evolved over those 65 years from focusing on attracting migrants, primarily from the United Kingdom, for the purpose of increasing Australia’s population to a focus on attracting workers and temporary (skilled) migrants in order to meet the skilled labour needs of the economy.

Australia’s Migration Program

Australia’s first federal immigration portfolio was created in 1945.  It was the government’s intention to increase the population by 1 per cent per annum through immigration to achieve an annual growth rate of 2 per cent overall, including natural increase. As a result of the post-war government’s new focus, the proportion of the Australian population born overseas rapidly increased from 9.8 per cent in 1947 to around 20 per cent in 1971 and has continued to grow. According to the latest available statistics, just over one quarter (26 per cent) of Australia’s resident population was born overseas.

Over the years Migration Program planning numbers have fluctuated according to the priorities and economic and political considerations of the government of the day. By 1969 program planning figures had reached a high of 185 000. However, by 1975, the planned intake for the year had been reduced to 50 000. The migration intake gradually climbed again after this and by 1988 there was another peak under the Hawke Government with a planned intake of 145 000. After 1988 the Migration Program planning levels were gradually reduced, with a low of 80 000 in 1992–93.

Skilled migration

Four main categories exist under the skilled component of the Migration Program:

  • General skilled migration, for skilled workers who do not have an employer sponsoring them. Migrants are selected on the basis of their nominated occupation, age, skills, qualifications, English language ability and employability
  • Employer nomination, for those who have an employer willing to sponsor them
  • Business skills migration, which encourages successful business people to settle in Australia and develop new business opportunities, and
  • Distinguished talent, a small category for ‘distinguished individuals with special or unique talents of benefit to Australia’ such as sports people, musicians, artists and designers, who are internationally recognised as outstanding in their field.

Recent changes to the skilled stream of the Migration Program have been designed to shift the balance of the program away from independent skilled migrants, who do not have employment arranged in Australia prior to migrating here, towards sponsored skilled migrants, who have arranged employment prior to their arrival. These reforms were the result of a review of permanent skilled migration undertaken by the Rudd Government for 2008–09 in the wake of the economic challenges resulting from the GFC. The review identified the need for a shift in focus away from ‘supply driven’ independent skilled migration towards ‘demand driven’ outcomes, in the form of employer and government-sponsored skilled migration. The intention is to enable the program to better target the skills needed in the economy and ensure that skilled migrants are employed in industries that have the highest need.

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On 1 July 2010 a new Skilled Occupation List (SOL) came into effect. It contains 181 occupations identified as being in demand, to ensure that the Skilled Migration Program is demand-driven rather than supply-driven. In order to be eligible for independent skilled migration applicants must hold relevant qualifications in occupations listed on the SOL. Occupations which have been identified as no longer being in demand, such as cooks and hairdressers, were removed from the list. The SOL is expected to be updated annually.

Family stream

The family stream of the Migration Program provides for the migration of immediate family members of Australian citizens, permanent residents or eligible New Zealand citizens.

The family stream of the Migration Program has decreased relative to the skill stream over the last two decades, a reflection of the move towards a Migration Program which is more closely targeted at meeting the labour market needs of the Australian economy. The family stream comprises four main categories:

  • Partner, which includes spouses, de facto partners (including same-sex partners), and fiancés
  • Child, including the dependent child or step-child of the sponsor, a child adopted from overseas, and orphan relatives (a child under the age of 18, not married or in a de facto relationship, who cannot be cared for by his or her parents)
  • Parent, and
  • Other Family, including aged dependent relative, remaining relative and carer categories.

Regional initiatives

The Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (RSMS) is a key component of the push to attract migrants to regional areas. Introduced in 1995–96, it enables employers in a designated RSMS area to nominate temporary residents already in Australia or applicants from overseas, to fill skilled vacancies for a minimum of two years. Successful nominees who are prepared to settle in these regions are able to apply to migrate permanently to Australia.

State and territory governments may also sponsor migrants under various visa categories. For example, sponsorship is possible under the Business Skills visa category, the intention being to encourage business skills entrants to set up businesses in regional, rural or low growth areas of Australia.

Recent figures indicate that regional migration initiatives are becoming more successful.

Temporary migration

Temporary migrants do not comprise part of the Migration Program, however temporary migration is increasingly becoming the first step towards permanent settlement in Australia for many people.

It is this growth in temporary migration, rather than permanent migration under the Migration Program, which has been driving growth in levels of Net Overseas Migration (NOM). NOM is calculated by taking into account the addition (or loss) to the population of Australia arising from the difference between those leaving permanently or on a long-term basis (12 months or longer) and those arriving permanently or on a long-term basis. As well as permanent and long-term temporary migrants, this includes Australian permanent residents and citizens either leaving the country or returning home after an extended absence, as well as New Zealand citizens who enjoy free movement under the 1973 Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement.

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The largest categories of temporary migrants coming to Australia in recent years have been overseas students and temporary skilled migrants, in particular those arriving on a (subclass 457) which allows employers to sponsor skilled workers from overseas for a period of between three months and four years.

Chronology of announced changes to the Migration Program, November 2007–May 2010

Date Details Source Documents
17 February 2008 An increase in the Skilled Migration Program of 6000 places for 2007–08, made up of permanent employer sponsored visas and General Skilled Migration visas. This would bring to 108 500 the total number of permanent visas granted under the Skilled Stream of the Migration Program in 2007–08. C Evans (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship), media release, Immigration package to ease skills shortage
13 May 2008 Announcement of the 2008–09 Migration Program, set at a total of 190 300 places including:

  • 133 500 skilled stream, an increase of 31 000 from 2007–08
  • 56 500 family stream, an increase of 6500 from 2007–08
C Evans (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship), media release, Budget 2008–09 Record skilled migration program to boost economy
17 December 2008 Reforms to the skilled Migration Program, effective 1 January 2009, to give priority to skilled migrants with a confirmed job (employer-sponsored migrants) or those with ‘skills in critical need’.  The Critical Skills List (CSL) would focus on medical and key IT professionals, engineers and construction trades. C Evans (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship), media release,  Migration program gives priority to those with skills most needed

C Evans (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship), Ministerial Statement, Changes to the 2008–09 skilled migration program

16 March 2009 A 14 per cent cut to the 2008–09 skilled stream from 133 500 places to 115 000 places. The Critical Skills List was also amended to remove building and manufacturing trades. These changes were a direct response to the global financial crisis. C Evans (Minster for Immigration and Citizenship), media release, Government cuts migration program
12 May 2009 Announcement of the 2009–10 Migration Program. The skilled stream was further reduced, to 108 100 places, representing a 20 per cent reduction on 2008–09 planning levels. The cuts were to be achieved in the general skilled migration category, with a focus on filling places in the employer-sponsored categories instead.

Announcement also of an increase in the English language level required for trades-related occupations and the introduction of a targeted skills-testing regime to ‘ensure that migrants have both the language and skills needed to participate in the labour market’.

C Evans (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship), media release, Budget 2009–10 Migration program: The size of the skilled and family programs
1 July 2009 The commencement of the requirement, announced on 12 May 2009, for people applying for a skilled migration visa in a trades-related occupation to demonstrate ‘competent English’ rather than the former requirement of ‘vocational English’. This requirement is in line with the English language level requirement for all other occupations on the Skilled Occupation List. C Evans (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship), media release, Assessment changes for skilled migrants from July 1
8 February 2010 The announcement of a reform package designed to shift the skilled stream of the Migration Program from a supply driven to a demand driven program. Changes include:

  • All offshore General Skilled Migration applications lodged prior to 1 September 2007 cancelled and a refund given
  • The Migration Occupations in Demand List (MODL) revoked and replaced with a more targeted Skilled Occupation List. The Critical Skills List introduced in early 2009 to be phased out
  • The points test used to assess a person’s suitability for the skilled Migration Program to be reviewed, with a report to be presented to Government later in 2010
  • Amendments to the Migration Act to be introduced to allow the Minister to set a limit on the number of visas to be granted to certain occupations
  • State and territory-specific migration plans to be developed, allowing states and territories to prioritise skilled migrants of their own choosing
C Evans (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship), media release, Migration reforms to deliver Australia’s skills needs

C Evans (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship), Changes to Australia’s skilled migration program, speech delivered at the Australian National University.

17 February 2010 Release of a discussion paper on the review of the points test announced on 8 February. The review is to consider issues such as whether some occupations should warrant more points than others, whether sufficient points are awarded for work experience and excellence in English, and whether there should be points for qualifications obtained from high quality overseas universities. C Evans (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship), media release, General skilled migration program points test review
19 April 2010 Changes to the business skills visa categories, increasing the net assets required in order to qualify for business migration. The changes are intended to increase the contribution of business migrants to Australia’s economy. Department of Immigration and Citizenship, media release, Changes to the business skills migration program
11 May 2010 Announcement of the 2010–11 Migration Program which is to remain at 168 700 places, the same number as in 2009–10. The composition of the program is to change however, with a reduction of 5750 places in the family stream and an additional 5750 places in the skilled stream. The skilled stream includes an additional 9150 places in the employer-sponsored categories and a decrease of 3600 places for general (independent) skilled migration. C Evans (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship), media release, Budget 2010–11, Government sharpens focus of skilled migration program
17 May 2010 Announcement of the new Skilled Occupation List (SOL), developed by the independent body Skills Australia and consisting of 181 occupations, effective from 1 July 2010. C Evans (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship), media release, New Skilled Occupation List to meet Australia’s economic needs

DIAC, New List of Skilled Occupations – Skilled Occupation List

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