Eleven miles from Broome, in a dusty red corner of Western Australia, Susie Maggie Thorne spent three months volunteering at a farm and restaurant called the Mango Place.
Most of her six-hour shifts involved tending tropical vegetables in pleasant 28C (82F) weather. Some days she cared for chickens. Others, she helped produce mango wine. Nine volunteers — from Asia, Europe and North America — worked alongside her, harvesting produce or doing maintenance work.
Thorne is one of tens of thousands of travellers who apply to live and work in Australia every year.
“I loved it because it was like a big family,” recalled Thorne, originally from Wales in the UK. “We had amazing group meals together, and the farm owners took us to an outdoor cinema and to a barbecue on the beach. I’m never going to forget those 88 days.”
There is a reason why Thorne remembers exactly how many days she spent at the Mango Place. Thorne, then 23, was in Broome to apply for a 12-month extension to her first-year working holiday visa, which is open to passport holders aged 30 and under from 19 different countries. To qualify for an extension, applicants have to complete three months, or 88 days, of manual work (from fruit picking to mining) in rural areas.
Now, one year after her tenure at the Mango Place, Thorne has a four-year visa after landing a full-time job as an online copywriter for phone company Telstra, which sponsored her stay. In September 2017, she can apply for permanent residency, which her employer will also likely sponsor, she said.
Thorne is one of tens of thousands of travellers who apply to live and work in Australia every year. By late 2014, nearly 161,000 people were in the country on a working holiday visa, and another 90,000-plus had a skilled visa, like the one Thorne currently holds. This follows a two-year trend in which the number of visas given to students, young professionals and travellers grew significantly.
At the end of 2014, there were some 303,000 student visa holders in Australia, more than a third from China or India, according to the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection, an increase of more than 45,000 students from the previous year. This year, 190,000 visas were available for permanent migration, 128,550 of those for skilled migrants.
Australia would be nothing without immigration.
According to the department’s latest report, 227,000 working holiday maker visas were granted between December 2014 and June 2015, which actually marked an uncharacteristic 5% drop in this visa type from the previous year, bucking the upward trend slightly.
Reductions could be influenced by a number of factors, including natural levelling after steady growth and changing economic conditions in partner countries, as well as in Australia.
Despite headlines about Australia’s strict stance on immigration and refugees, the country is still on the generous side of the spectrum, on par with Canada and New Zealand in terms of the number of visas and permanent residency applications it accepts per capita, said Tim Harcourt, an economics fellow at the University of New South Wales’ Business School.
“Australia would be nothing without immigration,” Harcourt said. “Two-thirds of our entrepreneurs come from somewhere else, one in two of our exporters, one in four Australians. While some areas have gotten tighter, others, such as student visas, have gotten easier.”
The option to add a second year to the working holiday visa was established in 2005 to address labour shortages across rural Australia.
“Working holiday makers play a valuable role in filling the short-term seasonal labour needs of many Australian industries, particularly those of agriculture,” a spokesperson from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said.
But those who come from more specialised backgrounds can qualify for a skilled migrant visa by proving they are proficient in one of hundreds of skills on the government’s priority list, which range from restaurant management and cabinet-making to tennis coaching and neurosurgery. If they can’t prove they have one of the needed skills, their application is denied. Harcourt said he thinks blocking people without priority skills is unfair however, considering Australia’s long history of entrepreneurship by migrants who may have not even spoken English when they arrived.
“There are all these great migration stories of people like [Westfield founder] Frank Lowy who have come here with nothing,” Harcourt said.
Back to school
Those who are neither eligible for working holidays nor have government-favoured skills in fields such as medicine, engineering, farming or information technology, often arrive in Australia on student visas. The Australian government expects the number of overseas students to rise by about 40% over the next three years.
In 2010, Kirley Ferreira, who grew up in Florianópolis, Brazil, relocated to Sydney aged 25 on a student visa to study English. Her master plan, though, was to open a hair salon.
“Since I was 16 years old, I had a plan to run a business overseas and learn another language,” Ferreira said. After she completed her English studies, she took two hairdressing courses as well as training in salon management. Because student visas permit paid employment, Ferreira saved money by cutting hair out of her home and from rent-a-chair arrangements at other salons until she could get sponsored to open her own business.
She had to apply for sponsorship through the local government, for both the business to be recognised and to sponsor herself as the manager. Each of these sponsorships cost A$15,000 ($10,800). After two and a half years and more than A$30,000 ($21,600), Ferreira now runs Kideki hair salon in Sydney’s Bondi Beach neighbourhood. In early November, she gained permanent residency, which she said gives her the freedom to experiment with her business without fears of losing her visa.
“Now that I have my PR [permanent residency], a weight is lifted off my shoulders,” she said.
Living the dream
Many people travel to Australia simply to explore the otherworldly landscapes and soak up the beach lifestyle, letting their plans fall into place along the way.
Byron Mason, a 32-year-old from the US state of Michigan, first arrived in Melbourne in 2012 on a work and holiday visa, similar to the workingholiday visa and open to citizens of 13 additional countries, including the US. The main difference between the two 12-month options is that the former is not eligible for the rural work extension.
“I realised if I didn’t start travelling soon I may never do it,” Mason said. So he filled out the online application, paid $320, and 12 hours later, he had his ticket down under.
Mason spent the year driving around the country in a campervan he named Betty, taking temporary jobs, which included paid work on a pineapple plantation in the state of Queensland.
“It was long hot days wearing leather chaps and socks on our arms to protect from the poky plants,” he said.
When his holiday year was up, Mason returned to the US, but memories of Australia lingered, propelling him back three years later on a student visa. He has since worked a handful of jobs and tried unsuccessfully to get sponsored through a small café business. He finally opted to pay A$3500 ($2500) to an immigration lawyer to apply for permanent residency with a former girlfriend, who had a skill on the government priority list. If you’re in a serious relationship (marriage or “de facto” partnership, which you have to prove) with someone who earns a skilled visa, you can get a partner visa with the same terms.
“At the end of the day the opportunities outweighed the fees,” Mason said. “We got approved and I am now able to work and live in Australia indefinitely and apply to become a citizen.”
Mason just moved to Byron Bay, on the northern coast of the state of New South Wales, where he plans to start a small business that will allow him to work, pursue hobbies and be creative. For him, there’s no better place than Australia to fulfil that dream.
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