Most of Australia’s migrants are here temporarily

Net overseas migration (NOM) is the primary driver of population growth in Australia.

In 2018-19, NOM contributed to 62% of total population growth.

The headline numbers catch the attention of the media and the general public, but overseas migrants are a diverse group of people.


What are their characteristics?

The recent release of the annual migration publication by the ABS sheds some light on these, such as the balance between permanent and temporary migration.

How many people come to live in Australia each year?

In 2018-19, a total of 537,840 people arrived in Australia, and 298,240 left, resulting in a net figure of 239,600.

Levels of migration can fluctuate widely each year, but the number of arrivals represented a 2% increase on the 2017-18 figure.

However it was slightly lower than the 540,150 arrivals in 2016-17.

In general, the volume of movement in each direction has increased in recent years.

Temporary versus permanent arrivals

It may surprise some people that most arrivals are here on temporary visas and in 2018-19 they comprised 64% of the total.

They include international students, skilled visa holders (commonly known as 457s), and working holiday visa holders.

All visa types have certain conditions regarding length of stay, and this is important from a population measurement perspective.

People are only included in the Estimated Resident Population if they are resident in Australia for 12 months or more out of a 16 month period.

The shift towards temporary migration is a distinctive trend and the graph below illustrates the growth in this category since 2006-07.

This decade alone, the number of temporary visa arrivals has increased by 23%, whereas other visa types have remained relatively steady or declined.

In a globalised world, when people can move between cities, regions and countries with relative ease, the shift towards temporary migration is not surprising.

Some temporary migrants may later become permanent migrants, but this process can take many years and involve a transition between visa types.

Overseas Arrivals By Visa Type 2007 19

In 2018-19, higher education international students accounted for 34% of temporary visa arrivals, and visitors (eg with family or friends in Australia) accounted for a further 22%.

Migration levels are volatile, but these two categories have recorded large increases in the last five years.

For instance, higher education international student arrivals and temporary visitor arrivals increased by 49% and 74% between 2013-14 and 2018-19 respectively.

On the other hand, arrivals with skilled or working holidays visa recorded slight declines over the same time period.

Permanent arrivals

In 2018-19, there were 82,460 permanent visa arrivals.

Miniature Traveler Man On The Terrestrial GlobeThis was the lowest figure since 2010-11, but numbers are volatile from year to year.

The largest category was skilled visa holders (46%), followed by family visa holders (28%) and humanitarian visa holders (18%).

The number of skilled visa holders tends to be more volatile than other categories, as it depends on the demand for particular skills in the Australian labour market.

In contrast, the number of people arriving on family visas has trended downward since 2013-14.

The 23,440 arrivals in the family category was the lowest number since 2004-05, when the current data collection commenced.

The impact of COVID-19

These statistics refer to 2018-19, and as such do not include the more recent impacts of the travel restrictions imposed to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. On 18th March 2020 the Australian borders were closed to non-citizens.

Needless to say, the impact has been swift and will influence population growth and change over the rest of this year – at the very least.

The ABS recently released some provisional statistics on movements in and out of the country.

CoronaThey show that overseas arrivals declined by 99% in April 2020 compared to April 2019.

Crazy numbers!

Interestingly, they also suggest that permanent arrivals outnumbered temporary visa holders in April, though the temporary categories in the provisional are not entirely comparable to the numbers presented above.

There were 3,820 permanent visa arrivals and 1,190 departures in April 2020.

This compares with just 30 student visa arrivals (and almost 10,000 departures) and 160 skilled visa arrivals (900 departures).

In the case of international students – the largest category of temporary visa holders – many arrived in February before the travel bans were imposed.

However, the numbers were lower than the 2019 figures as restrictions were placed on arrivals from China and South Korea before the total ban.

But the steep decline to just 30 international student arrivals in April indicates the impact on the higher education sector, a critical export industry in the Australian economy.

Although these numbers are dire, and are likely to be repeated in May and June (if not longer), it’s important to note that they are provisional.

Covid 19 Corona

The full impact in terms of population change will not be evident until the ABS releases March and June quarter data later this year.

As I said in my previous blog, prohibiting most arrivals into the country will have a huge impact on population growth, but it will depend on how long the borders are closed.

Will the June 2020 quarter be an anomaly, or is it the start of a long term trend?

How will the sharp decline in temporary visa holders influence numbers who go on to apply for permanent residency in the future?

Will economic recovery encourage a sharp increase in migration when restrictions are lifted?

So many questions in a time of great uncertainty!


In 2018-19, NOM totalled 239,600 persons and contributed to 62% of Australia’s population growth.

Most migrants come to Australia on temporary visas, such as international students and working holiday makers.

The number of temporary visa arrivals has increased by 23% this decade, while permanent arrivals have been relatively steady, and some categories have declined in number.

The closure of the Australian border will have major implications for population growth, and the additional releases provided by the ABS shed some light on this.

Long term impacts will become clearer as data is released and the economy recovers from the pandemic and associated restrictions.


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Simone Alexander


Simone Alexander is a demographic consultant with more than 20 years of experience working in both the public and private sectors. She uses her expertise to blog about demographic trends, housing and planning issues in Australia’s cities and regions.

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