IT and other workers on temporary skilled visas can stay in Australia even if they are stood down, but migrant-rights groups are up in arms after an immigration policy ruling that could force around 2 million other temporary visa holders to go back to their home countries.

Condemnation came quickly after Acting Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs Alan Tudge announced that temporary visa holders would be “strongly encouraged to go home” if they don’t have enough savings to support themselves through the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.

The new rules – which Tudge tweeted have been made “to manage health risks, support critical industries and speed up the recovery when the crisis eases” – allow many of Australia’s 2.1m temporary visa holders to dip into their Australian superannuation savings to support themselves.

For the 565,000 international students currently studying in Australia – 240,000 of whom are also working in Australia – options include relying on family support, obtaining part-time work “where available”, and dipping into their own savings.

Those students – many of whom are studying ICT courses – are limited to working 40 hours per fortnight and can access their superannuation if they have been in Australia for more than 12 months.

The ruling also affects 139,000 temporary skilled visa holders, who are in Australia on 2- or 4-year visas and were brought into the country to fill skills shortages in IT and other areas.

Temporary skilled visa holders who have been stood down will maintain their visas and their employers can extend those visas, or reduce their working hours without threatening the validity of their visas.

Those workers can access up to $10,000 of their superannuation this financial year – but if they are laid off and cannot find a new sponsor, Tudge said, they “should leave the country in line with existing visa conditions”.

So, too, should the 118,000 people on Working Holiday visas – who will be given “limited flexibility” so they can support critical industry sectors but should leave if they “do not have the confidence to sustain themselves over the next six months”.

Many migrants without options

The accommodations for temporary skilled visa holders are a lifeline for tech workers – as long as they can retain the support of their employer.

With employers desperate for IT skills and the coronavirus response requiring more digitisation than less, that shouldn’t be a big challenge for most tech workers.

In an unusual pique of bipartisanship, Labor Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Andrew Giles, said the “sensible” changes, such as the early access to superannuation, were “a fair and equitable proposition in the absence of any other means for their support.”

Many other groups weren’t so equanimous.

Reaction to the policy clarification was strong, with one author calling it “grotesque bigotry and xenophobia” and social-rights group GetUp! warning that the government “is creating a situation where millions of people are stuck here with no way to leave, and next to no support.”

Others warned that the tightening of controls on migrant workers would leave many destitute, with Migration Institute of Australia national president recently saying he is “deeply concerned” about the exposure of now-unemployed employer-sponsored, provisional partner and international student visa holders.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recoiled after Tudge said New Zealanders living in Australia “should consider returning to New Zealand” if limited access to JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments isn’t enough to supplement their savings, work or family support.

Despite Tudge’s claims that the changes would support healthcare and other industries fighting the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the tenor of the changes reflects recent warnings from Australian Immigration Law Services managing director Karl Konrad – who recently wrote that “our international visitors here on temporary residency visas owe Australian citizens nothing.”

“This government has given no indication they are going to help you if you get sick and can’t complete your studies or continue working... [and] no indication they will even acknowledge your assistance. My advice to you is don’t risk getting sick for just a few extra dollars in your hand.”

The Morrison government has had a tenuous relationship with temporary visa holders, with Tudge warning in 2017 that “the case for further skilled migration is strong... but this does not translate to meaning that the more skilled migrants, the better.”

Past changes to migration strategies, such as the abolition of the long-running 457 visa and introduction of the 2018 Global Talent Scheme, were designed to allow the government to cherry-pick talented overseas workers in areas such as IT.