Some great news, the Federal Government has ruled out an illegal foreign worker amnesty. Stating that an amnesty would send a dangerous message that it is okay to flout Australian migration laws.[1] Rejecting the McGowan government’s recommendation for an amnesty for over 80,000 illegal workers operating in Australia.[2]

This was a reckless proposal benefiting foreign nationals that overstay their visa, enter the country illegally or fail to depart and no longer have a legal right to be in Australia – all criminal offences according to the Migration Act 1958.[3]

WA labor government amnesty proposal

The proposal by the McGowan government to provide employment for foreign nationals that break migration laws suggest a willingness to circumvent statutory migration laws. This was an extreme and unprecedented move by the McGowan government.

It would not alleviate the difficulties of having to deal with the huge build up of illegal foreign nationals currently in Australia. Australia’s temporary migration program is full with over 2 million entrants currently in Australia.[4] Many of these are obligated to exit the country once their visa runs out. There were valid concerns that an illegal worker amnesty may entice temporary entrants to overstay and violate visa rules.

USA amnesty program

Observing amnesty programs in other countries reveals when migration law is cancelled the migration pull factor escalates and it quickly becomes uncontrollable.

The USA gave amnesty to 2.7 million illegal aliens after the 1986 reform.[5] This decision lead to huge growth in illegal arrivals. The illegal migrant population rocketed from 3.5 million in 1990 to a peak of over 12 million in 2007 (see Table 1 below).[6]

Table 1: Unauthorised immigration (USA 1990-2017)

(Source: Pew Research Centre, 2019.[7])

Politics of illegal immigration

Illegal immigration is highly political. One side of politics (usually the left wing) are supportive of an illegal worker amnesty. Social conservatives on the other hand are more inclined to maintain migration rules and laws. The political bonus (as some put it) is evident in the USA were parties may use their support for amnesty to attract votes from ethnic minorities, particularly Hispanic communities[8]

Illegal arrivals by air to Australia

There is nothing to doubt Australian political parties would seek to chase the political bonus an amnesty program could provide. Similar to what happens in the USA with ethnic minorities  

Australia has undergone huge growth in Asia Pacific migration, especially from China, India, Malaysia and others. Illegal air arrivals from Asia Pacific are now a major concern; it has reached very high numbers (see Table 2 below).

In 2019-20 over 23,000 foreign nationals arrived in Australia by air without a legal visa. They have all applied for protection refugee visas under the Humanitarian program (see Table 2 below). Most of the foreign nationals arrived from countries not experiencing wars or civil turmoil.

With the exception of China, most of the citizens are not from countries experiencing controls on personal and religious freedom or political persecution. This is borne out by the fact the Government granted only 1,650 protection visas, yet there were 23,226 visa applications (Table 1 below).[9]

In addition, many of these illegal air arrivals are able to appeal their visa refusal and can obtain a bridging visa in the interim. This has caused a huge backlog in of bridging visa applicants, which the Australian Government are struggling to cope with. A massive 333,000 bridging visa holders in Australia by June 30, 2020.[10]

Table 2: Protection visa lodgements by citizenship (Top 10)

Country of citizenship2019-20
Malaysia 6,046
China 3,321
India 2,866
Vietnam 1,069
Fiji 1,024
Thailand 808
Indonesia 775
Philippines 659
Pakistan 609
Taiwan 423
Other 5,626
Total 23,226

Source: Department of Home Affairs, 2020.[11]


[1] Kath Sullivan, ‘Farmers Fear Worker Shortage Due to COVID-19 Restrictions despite Rising Unemployment’, 2020 <> [accessed 31 July 2020].

[2] Jessica Hayes, Belinda Varischetti and Zoe Keenan, ‘Calls for National Illegal Worker Amnesty as Labour Shortage Crisis Hits Boiling Point’, 2020 <> [accessed 2 October 2020].

[3] Australian Government, ‘Migration Act 1958’ (Attorney-General’s Department, 2020), au <,> [accessed 2 October 2020].

[4] Australian Government, ‘BP0019 Number of Temporary Visa Holders in Australia Pivot Table | Resources | Data.Gov.Au – Beta’, 2020 <> [accessed 1 July 2020].

[5] Peter Nunez, ‘Immigration: Amnesty Plan a Bad Idea’, CIS.Org, 2013 <> [accessed 2 October 2020].

[6] Jens Manuel Krogstad, Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, ‘5 Facts about Illegal Immigration in the U.S.’, Pew Research Center, 2019 <> [accessed 21 October 2020].

[7] Jens Manuel Krogstad, Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn.

[8] Christina Boswell and others, ‘The Illegal Employment of Foreigners in Europe’, Intereconomics, 2004.1 (2004), 4–20.

[9] Australian Government Department of Home Affairs, ‘Visa Statistics’, 2020 <; [accessed 20 October 2020].

[10] Australian Government, ‘BP0019 Number of Temporary Visa Holders in Australia Pivot Table | Resources | Data.Gov.Au – Beta’, 2020 <> [accessed 1 July 2020].

[11] Australian Government Department of Home Affairs.

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