Migrants forced to wait four years for benefits in Australian budget’s biggest cost-cutting measure

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

New migrants to Australia will be forced to wait four years before they can access government benefits under a Coalition plan to save $671m.

The cost-cutting measure, contained in Tuesday’s budget, will apply the waiting period to all those granted residency from 1 January 2022, affecting 13,200 future migrants and 45,000 families, with carers and parents to be hit the hardest.

In a budget announcing a deficit of $106.6bn in 2021-22, the Morrison government has applied the biggest savings measure to new migrants, who it estimates will continue to be granted visas at a rate of 160,000 a year.

Related: ‘Team Australia’ is bouncing back, Josh Frydenberg declares, as budget promises $30bn in tax cuts and big spending on services

The budget also contains $464.7m of spending on the immigration detention network, including an extension of the use of the Christmas Island detention centre until June 2022 and “hardening” it to prevent riots.

The cost-cutting measure will apply a universal four-year waiting period for government payments, matching the current wait for jobseeker unemployment benefits and youth allowance.

Currently, migrants are eligible to receive family tax benefit B immediately; carers allowance and family tax benefit A after one year; and paid parental leave and carers payments after two years.

All these payment types will be subject to the four-year wait from 2022, although the measure will only apply prospectively, meaning those who have already achieved residency status will be exempt.

The measure saves $45.7m in 2022-23 ramping up to $415.2m in 2024-25.

Australia’s migration program has been severely interrupted by Covid-19. Due to international travel restrictions the target of 160,000 migrants a year will focus on granting permanent residency status to those already onshore, including families and partners.

The Department of Social Services deputy secretary, Matt Flavel, told Guardian Australia the four-year wait would affect 13,200 individuals and 45,000 families.

The budget papers say savings from the measure will “be redirected by the government to fund policy priorities”.

Related: The six graphs you need to see to understand Australia’s back-to-the-future federal budget | Greg Jericho

They state that $464.7m will be spent on increasing the capacity of the onshore immigration detention network, including Christmas Island, due to “ongoing capacity pressures … as a result of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the ability to remove unlawful non-citizens from Australia”.

Department of Home Affairs officials told Guardian Australia that $278.2m would be spent on upgrades across the network to boost its capacity from 1,000 people to 1,500, the current average number of people in detention onshore.

A further $163.9m will be spent to extend the use of Christmas Island’s north-west point immigration detention centre, including $117.4m for garrison services from February 2021 to June 2022.

The controversial Christmas Island detention facility was closed in 2018, only to be reopened the following year as the government threatened to send sick refugees from Manus Island and Nauru there instead of to the mainland. That never happened but the centre was kept in “hot contingency” with more than 100 staff.

The detention centre was reopened at the beginning of the Covid crisis. It now houses asylum seekers awaiting removal from Australia, including a family who have fought a protracted federal court case to stay in their Queensland home of Biloela.

Departmental officials said the upgrade included $4.2m to rectify damage that occurred during a January 2021 disturbance at the centre and $6.2m for “facility hardening … to mitigate risks including the risks of future riots”.

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