Howard Springs quarantine facility
The Howard Springs quarantine facility (Image: AAP/Glenn Campbell)

Australia will have 1.2 million fewer people by 2060-61 than previously estimated, with 23% of the population projected to be over 65.

A huge reason for this decrease, as stated in Treasury’s latest Intergenerational Report, is due to a slowing birthrate and limited immigration.

Migrants are key to Australia’s economic recovery and will continue to be the largest source of population growth. Yet with poorly managed hotel quarantine, strict border closures and arrival caps, limited exemptions for migrants wishing to leave to visit family and just 5% of Australia’s population fully vaccinated, our borders aren’t opening to new arrivals any time soon.

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A nation of immigrants

Migrants tend to be younger and higher-skilled than the general population, making them key to supporting labour force participation and productivity, the Intergenerational Report found. COVID-19 has reduced migrant growth to the lowest in more than a century — from an annual average rate of 1.4% across the past 40 years to 0.1% in 2020-21.

While the report notes migration is not a “complete solution” to Australia’s ageing population, it states “migration needs to be managed well to ensure it continues to support higher living standards”.

Yet migrants have been crying out for help since the pandemic began: international students lined up for support for food charities; families torn apart, with citizens’ partners not able to get into the country; and many migrants — unable to score an exemption or pay for the costly return to visit their families — planning to leave.

Immigration lawyer Adam Byrnes tells Crikey while many visa restrictions have been eased, many feel not enough has been done.

The 408 visa is a new pathway for those on temporary visas to remain in Australia, while others can apply for visas onshore when previously they had to be offshore.

“[People have asked me] if it’s a good idea to renounce my Australian permanent residency because I never want to come back,” he said.

But he stressed migrants shouldn’t make rash decisions: “We are one of the best countries in the world. “As the borders start to open and as people are vaccinated I would envision more people will be eligible for exemptions and we will continue to open up.”

Where are federal quarantine facilities?

At the beginning of the pandemic, Australia had a federal quarantine facility on Christmas Island to bring home travellers from Wuhan, China. The decision to use the detention centre for quarantine was criticised by doctors, refugee advocates and island residents.

When Health Minister Greg Hunt flagged that states and territories would establish their own quarantine facilities in late February, Prime Minister Scott Morrison reminded the country it was not realistic for Australia “to completely lock itself off from the world”.

Since the borders shut, most COVID outbreaks have originated from hotel quarantine. Sydney’s outbreak is the exception, with a limo driver believed to have caught the virus from a FedEx freight plane crew. Failures in Victoria’s hotel quarantine caused the state’s 112-day lockdown mid last year.

It wasn’t until September that calls for federal hotel quarantine facilities grew. Labor called for the specialised facilities, increased quarantine caps and RAAF planes to bring home stranded Australians.

But the federal government has repeatedly dismissed calls to set up Commonwealth centres. At the time, Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham stressed that the arrival caps were “driven entirely by what the states and territories tell us they can safely accommodate through their quarantine facilities”.

This month the federal government supported Victoria’s plans for a purpose-built 1000-bed facility in Mickleham, but refused to help pay for it. The facility is expected to be up and running late this year or early next.

Quarantine still needed despite vaccines

University of New South Wales epidemiologist Abrar Ahmad Chughtai tells Crikey quarantine facilities will be key for years.

“It will probably take another year or more for Australia to achieve 80% immunity, and probably another two or three years to vaccinate, for example, people coming from other parts of the world,” he said.

He stresses there are a number of factors that need to be considered when addressing who is exempt from quarantine — from how vaccinated the country’s population is, to the type of variant circulating, to how effective the vaccine is against the major strains.

“[Quarantine] isn’t a short-term solution,” he said. “We need to think about short-term, medium-term and long-term.

“Even if these facilities don’t help us now, they definitely will for future pandemic preparedness.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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