A record number of Australians returned home in the early days of COVID-19, reversing a long-running migration trend

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  • A record 99,200 Australians living overseas returned to Australia over the 2019/2020 financial year, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
  • The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of border closures helped reverse long-standing migration patterns.
  • The number of new temporary student visa holders also dropped 31.2%, roughly in line with the three months of border closures covered by the data.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Nearly 100,000 Australian citizens returned to Australia in the twelve months leading to June 30, 2020, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports, underlining the drastic impact of the COVID-19 crisis and border closures at home and abroad.

New figures show a record 99,200 Australians set foot on local soil after living overseas over the last financial year, while just 61,000 Australians departed for other countries, marking a 28.8% decline from the year prior.

When accounting only for Australian-born migrants, the figures become starker: 62,200 Australian-born arrivals were offset by just 43,000 departures, providing a net gain of 19,200 people.

That net gain flips traditional migration figures, which generally see Australian-born departures outstrip arrivals by a significant margin. In the year prior, the nation experienced a net loss of some 12,360 Australian-born migrants.

The statistics show the outsized influence of Australia’s international border closure, which took place March 20, and the weeks of uncertainty leading to the decision.

Beyond the wave of Australians returning home, the ABS data also outlines a collapse in the number of student and temporary work skilled visa holders entering Australia.

Some 113,000 temporary student visa holders arrived in Australia, down from 173,000 in the year prior, leading to drastic consequences for the Australian schools and universities servicing those students.

And the number of temporary skilled work visa holders plummeted 29.1% over the same time period, while departures among that cohort rose 16.2% to 195,800.

Additionally, the figures detail how the Australian Government’s decision to bar travel from mainland China more than a month before the border closure further suppressed migration figures: After years of net growth in migration from China, Australia experienced a net loss of 15,600 Chinese-born people over the year.

All told, Australia welcomed 509,600 overseas migrant arrivals over the year, marking a decrease of 7.4% since 2019. Migrant departures reached an estimated 315,200, marking another bleak record.

Although the detailed findings only cover the beginning of the pandemic, there’s little optimism to be found in the ABS’ subsequent reports.

In its preliminary release for February 2021, released earlier this month, the ABS states just 200 international students entered Australia — down a cool 99.8% from the 121,120 arrivals tallied in the same period a year prior.

The Federal Government has engaged with trial programs to fly international students into the country, but more recent estimated from Education Minister Alan Tudge project arrivals by the first semester of 2022.

And with Australia’s stalling vaccination program threatening to blow out the reopening of Australia’s borders, it’s a near certainty the ABS’ just-released immigration figures will be mirrored over the months to come.

That’s bad news for the families who hope to be reunite any time soon, let alone the institutions which have built their business models around continual migration.

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