Can the Pacific Engagement Visa deliver positive outcomes?

Jun 13, 2023
Flag of Australia , visa application form and passport on table.

Earlier this year, I wrote on the potential risks of the new Pacific Engagement Visa (PEV) that will provide a lottery-based pathway to permanent residence for nationals of Pacific Islands and Timor Leste.

With the visa starting on 1 July 2023, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), which has policy responsibility for the visa, has provided some further details on how the visa will work. DFAT says the visa will:

“increase permanent migration from the Pacific and Timor-Leste, growing the diaspora in Australia, strengthening people-to-people links, and encouraging greater cultural, business and educational exchange. Up to 3,000 visas will be allocated to Pacific islanders annually by a ballot process across participating countries. Those selected in the ballot will be able to apply for permanent residence in Australia”.

Note the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) has responsibility for visa processing and manages most of the downstream risks and costs – such a split in responsibility is a recipe for problems and policy incoherence. The Parkinson Review recommends a single agency be responsible for all visa design but DFAT will fight that tooth and nail.

DFAT is so protective of its ownership of the PEV that it has prevented the Minister for Immigration from even counting the PEV as part of Australia’s Cabinet approved permanent migration program.

While there are many details still to be worked out, the key features of the visa are that primary applicants will need to:

  • be aged between 18 and 45 years to enter the ballot
  • hold a passport from a participating country
  • have been born in, or have a parent who was born in, a participating country
  • be selected through the ballot process
  • secure a formal full-time job offer in Australia
  • meet English language, character and health requirements

Applicants can include a partner and legally dependent children in their application. It will cost $25 to enter the ballot for a period of one year after which a further $25 would need to be paid if unselected. People selected through the ballot would then need to pay the relevant visa application charge.

Apart from the age requirement, its not clear which criteria will be tested before entry to the ballot and which afterwards (ie during the visa processing stage).

DFAT has announced that Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) Scheme temporary workers in Australia will be eligible to enter the ballot for a permanent residence PEV. I suspect an objective of that is to try to discourage PALM Scheme workers from running away from their current employers in the Agriculture Industry and applying for asylum.

From November 2019 to April 2023, over 5,500 Pacific Island nationals have applied for asylum. They now represent by far the largest source region for asylum applications in Australia, well ahead of India, China and Malaysia. The cost of processing asylum claims and the job of managing removal of those who are refused (which is almost 100%) rests with DHA and not DFAT. Given the costs involved, it is not surprising that very few refused asylum seekers are ever removed.

Securing a PEV would of course be a much better outcome for PALM workers than applying for asylum given the almost 100% refusal rate. But there are over 30,000 PALM Scheme workers in Australia almost all of whom are likely to apply to enter the ballot if they can meet the other criteria, particularly English language and a formal full-time job offer. On this basis, very few PALM workers will get a PEV. They will soon become disillusioned and again start running away from their employers and applying for asylum.

It is not clear if the English language or the formal full-time job offer requirement will be assessed before the ballot or after the ballot. The risk of applying these requirements after the ballot is that a large portion of people selected in the ballot may then fail to meet the English language and formal full-time job offer criteria for receipt of a PEV.

It would certainly make sense to apply the English language requirement before the ballot. Indeed, in the interest of occupational health and safety as well as reducing the risk of worker exploitation, there is a strong case for applying a basic English test before a PALM visa is granted.

But what about the ‘formal full-time job offer’ requirement?

It is highly unlikely many PALM worker employers (other than in areas such as meat processing) would offer PALM workers a full-time job noting the extreme reaction from some farmers to the proposal that PALM workers must be given a guaranteed minimum number of hours work per week.

Many agriculture sector employers would worry that offering a PALM worker a full-time job that leads to permanent residence would result in them quickly losing the worker to an easier, more secure job in the city with better pay.

DFAT says that:

“the Australian Government will establish a service to work directly with successful applicants to connect them with employers in Australia, providing access to a variety of roles at a range of skill levels. This service provider will also guide successful applicants through the visa application process, deliver culturally and language relevant program outreach and help prepare applicants for life in Australia.”

Perhaps the best way to interpret this ambiguous wording is that the Australian government will help people who are successful in the ballot to secure a formal full-time job offer that will be the basis of a PEV application. Even with this help, it would be very difficult for a person without any post-secondary qualifications and living overseas to secure a formal full-time job offer from an Australian employer. It would be even more difficult if the labour market weakens as forecast.

As I have indicated previously, a far better approach would be to assist PALM workers in Australia to receive training relevant to the long-term needs of their employer in regional Australia and for that employer to then sponsor them for permanent residence. Employers who fail to deliver on this should be excluded from the PALM Scheme. All PALM workers who successfully complete relevant training and meet criteria for sponsorship should be allowed to then apply for a PEV rather than just those who are selected through a silly lottery system.

This approach provides:

  • the PALM worker with an incentive to complete skills development training to secure a better paid job rather than run away from their employer and apply for asylum;
  • reward for reputable regional employers to support PALM workers through skills development and then sponsorship to a PEV with a better chance of retaining the worker in regional Australia; and
  • ensures Pacific Island nationals on a PEV do not become heavily reliant on social support as currently assumed in the Government’s costings.

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