All around the world, life changed drastically in March 2020. Suddenly millions were working from home, and travel to local shops was an issue, never mind another country. From visiting family to taking a vacation, the world was put on hold as governments sought ways of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even now, over 18-months later, we are only beginning to return to some semblance of normal, but not everything was put on hold for everyone. While some countries even subsidised earnings to help people during lockdown, as work stopped in many industries and transferred to remote work in others, the clock for Visa expiry kept on ticking.
In Australia, an estimated 130,000 international students were left stranded as the border closed in 2020, unable to return to take up places at educational institutions all over the country. Some were just about to begin their first year, others were looking forward to a final year and graduation, but all of them had their education paused, for an indefinite period.
In addition to the upheaval of suddenly not being able to take up courses, many students also realised another problem. Their visas have expiration dates, and that could complicate things even more. One particular area of issue is the Temporary Graduate Visa, which allows graduates to live work and study after completing a course.
This Temporary Graduate Visa, also known as the 485 Visa, is a crucial part of the process of gaining residence in Australia post study, allowing students to pursue a new course or find employment, building a life in Australia before applying for permanent residence.
It allows the holder between 18-months and 4-years of stay in the country, with 5 years for Hong Kong and British Nationals, and lets them live, work or study legally for that time. With an application process that can take upwards of a year to complete, it is a lengthy process at the best of times, but for current holders stuck outside of Australia due to the border closure, things are even worse.
Since the border closure in March 2020, there has been no way at all for 485 Visa holders to extend or reapply for their visas, and there is no mechanism to freeze that visa either. This means that for many, their ability to live and work in Australia is disappearing before their eyes, with a danger of the Visa expiring even before the border reopens. The government figures suggest there are around 14,000 holders of such Visas stuck outside the country.
The Australian government has been aware of issues with this type of Visa though. Before the pandemic it required an in-person application while residing in Australia, but during the pandemic they changed the rules to allow remote applications. This did nothing to help those who already have a current Visa though, as it only applied to new applications.
A new approach
However, while the government has been silent on this issue for too long, a recent announcement by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has offered a solution that gives Visa holders a way forward.
In it, the minister stated that “As I’ve said in the beginning of the pandemic, every visa announcement we’ve made has sought to give people leniency, to give them flexibility and to give them opportunities to take advantage of what has happened to them. For some people offshore, they might want an extension of their visa. We’re working on how to make sure we accommodate everything that’s happened to people through no fault of their own.”
With the announcement from Prime Minister Scott Morrison of border opening and skilled migration resuming, this difficult situation seems moving towards some sort of solution. One proposal by the Greens is new legislation that will extend and reinstate visas for all temporary visa holders, including Temporary Graduate Visas.
This legislation would work by automatically crediting the visa of a temporary visa holder with an extended amount of time equal to the period they were stuck overseas and unable to benefit from their issued visa.
Recognising the economic importance of international students, the party’s immigration spokesman, Senator Nick McKim, said that taking this approach was crucial in ensuring all visa holders feel fairly treated, and they don’t want to lose valuable, skilled people to Canada, UK, the US or other countries.
A solution for everyone?
This legislation may not be enacted; however, it is pressuring the government to acknowledge and address the problem for visa holders. While no official options have been put forward yet, the government have suggested that allowing applications for a further 485 visa to replace an expired one, something not currently possible, may be an option.
There are some issues with this approach, the current year or more long application process would have to be streamlined to make this a practical solution being perhaps the main one. Until there is an official explanation though, there are temporary visa holders all over the world living in a state of uncertainty about their futures.
The 485 visa is just one of hundreds of temporary visas affected, and while it is clear that there are so many variables in dealing with border closures that the Australian government have been left in an almost impossible position for many things, a solution for expiring visas could have been implemented months ago.
At the very least, some level of reassurance that there will be something put in place to ensure that thousands do not lose their visa time should have been provided early on in the situation. We still don’t know what the end result will be, however it is clear that as borders are beginning to reopen, a solution will be found that will ensure a workable solution for temporary visa holders.