When Chase Arnesen decided to migrate to Australia from Singapore in 2019, he was looking forward to living in a freer and more open society, even if it meant higher taxes. After nearly two years of experiencing the country’s extreme pandemic restrictions, the 32-year-old lawyer is on the verge of packing up and leaving.
Since Australia slammed its borders shut in March 2020, Chase, who is a Canadian citizen, has been unable to leave the country if he hopes to return, leaving him separated from friends and family with seemingly no end in sight.
“A life torn across borders is hell,” Arnesen, who came to Australia under a four-year work visa that offers a pathway to permanent residency, told Al Jazeera.
“Simply ‘leaving’ doesn’t just mean giving up my career and home here that I’ve built, but my partner and friends here. Yet staying means indefinite separation from family. I can’t justify not seeing my own parents as they age and nieces and nephews, some of whom I haven’t seen for half their lives. My life is ripped in half and it feels indefinitely suspended.”
While Arnesen accepted the initial border closures and “stuck it out” during 262 days of lockdown in Melbourne, he lost faith in the government when it began allowing citizens and permanent residents to holiday overseas before skilled visa holders could see their loved ones.
Arnesen is sceptical the borders will ease any time soon or that he would not face the risk of being stranded overseas even if they do.
After the emergence of the Omicron variant last month, the Australian government announced it would “pause” plans to welcome the return of skilled migrants and international students from December 1 by two weeks. The Prime Minister’s Office said the move would allow authorities to asses the variant and the government would continue to take “evidence based action” so the country could “open safely, and stay safely open as we learn to live with the virus.”
“What that means for me is that if we see further delays or future closures, especially disproportionate to what’s seen in other countries, I’ll have to leave,” Arnesen said. “Not out of rage, but simply because it’s unsustainable and inhumane. It’s also wrong, and that’s where I start questioning my commitment to this country more existentially.”
Tens of thousands of other migrants, graduates and international students cannot get into Australia in the first place despite spending thousands of dollars on visas, relocation costs and education fees.
Saad Ahmed, who has been stuck in Pakistan for 21 months on a temporary postgraduate visa, told Al Jazeera he felt like his life was being wasted.
“We are having serious mental health issues, dealing with anxiety, can’t even sleep properly,” said Ahmed, who studied professional accounting in Melbourne. “Our families and parents are suffering along with us because they are worried about our temporary graduate visa.”
Ahmed, who is among approximately 14,000 postgraduate visa holders stranded overseas, said it was unfair that under “concessions” made by the government he would have to wait until July to apply for a replacement visa at the original cost of 1,680 Australian dollars ($1,206).
“We are just requesting the government to please bring the date forward and grant our visas so we can finally come back because three years is a really long time,” he said. “And many people are considering moving somewhere else because they don’t want to wait for three years. I, myself, am looking for other options like the UK because I need to plan my life.”
The dropoff in migration has profound implications for Australia’s economy, which before the pandemic relied on population growth to power a record-breaking 30-year streak of uninterrupted growth. Amid a net departure of 96,000 people in the last financial year, the Treasury estimated population growth would slow to 0.2 per cent in 2020–21 and 0.4 per cent in 2021–22 – the lowest rates in more than a century.
In October, Fitch Ratings predicted migration would not recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2023, with the pandemic shortfall leading to a nearly 2 percent lower gross domestic product by 2026.
The country is already grappling with a chronic skills shortage, leading some firms to offer sign-on bonuses for the first time in years.
‘Source of tax revenue’
In an Australian Bureau of Statistics survey carried out last December, one in five businesses reported having difficulty finding qualified staff.
The shortage of workers has led some business groups, including the Australian Chamber of Commerce, to call for an increase in the annual migrant intake after the borders reopen.
In October, New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet proclaimed his belief in a “big NSW”, after a newspaper published leaked proposals from his office recommending Australia accept two million immigrants over the next five years.
Gabriela D’Souza, an economist at Monash University in Melbourne, told Al Jazeera it was difficult to say how much Australia could afford to alienate immigrants before the economy suffered catastrophic damage, but said the country’s policies were becoming “less and less defensible” as vaccination rates neared 80 percent.
“Anecdotally migrating to Australia is looking less and less like an exciting prospect,” D’Souza said. “I’m a migrant myself and have a lot of friends as well who are reconsidering their decision to come here. As for the people intending to come here, it’s likely that they might decide to go elsewhere to Canada and the UK.”
For migrants like Arnesen, there is a bitter sense that newcomers’ only value lies in being a “source of tax revenue, and yet not even an appreciated one”.
“The government insists that skilled migrants are essential to the recovery and future of this country, and on that point, they’re correct,” he said. “Yet their actions make clear that, at best, they do not see – let alone respect – the humanity of people like me who contribute far more than we take. There’s no benefit, except political, and even that is short-term.”