Restrictions spark debate over how migrant-dependent country rebuilds after Covid-19
A new wave of repatriation flights for Australians stranded abroad will begin from the UK and India on Thursday, as the government responds to intense criticism of some of the world’s toughest Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Canberra has barred most foreign residents from entering Australia and imposed strict caps on the number of international arrivals, with only passengers from New Zealand and experts granted special exemptions to enter the country. The tough measures have caused airlines to cancel flights and raise ticket prices, making it exceptionally difficult for Australian citizens to return home during the pandemic.
Yet even as Canberra has organized the repatriation flights, it is resisting pressure from business to reopen its border to migrants — a policy that reduces the risk of importing Covid-19 but which will deliver an $18.5bn economic hit this year.
“This [border closure] is having a big impact on the economy because population growth is such a large driver of economic growth and most of the population growth in Australia happens through immigration,” said Anna Boucher, an associate professor at the University of Sydney. “This will really impact household consumption, demand for services, housing and international education.
The government should look at scaling up the quarantine systems it is currently deploying to help citizens return and to allow some migrants to arrive, to support the economy.” Australia is not the only nation experiencing a fall in net migration. The pandemic has brought a decade-long growth in global migration to a shuddering halt, according to the OECD. But Canberra relies on one of the highest rates of net migration in the developed world to sustain growth, leaving its economy more exposed than most.
Australia’s population will be 26m people at the end of 2022, about 1m lower than it would have been if Australia’s borders had not been closed due to Covid-19, according to government forecasts that assume borders will reopen by late 2021. Net migration will fall to minus 71,600 in 2020-21, down from 154,100 a year earlier, and is not expected to return to pre-Covid-19 levels until 2023-24.