ABUL RIZVI: Chaos in our Visa System Continues

Jun 7, 2019

New Shadow Minister for Home Affairs, Kristina Keneally and Shadow Immigration Minister have signalled they intend to hold the Government to account for the chaos in our visa system. This article updates some of the data on that chaos which confirms Home Affairs continues to struggle. The Department’s funding over the next few years, together with its plans for visa privatisation, suggest the Government has no effective method for regaining control over our air borders.

The problems with our visa system start with enormous visa application backlogs and ballooning processing times (see Table 1 for examples).

Table 1: Applications on Hand Versus Places

Visa Category On Hand at end June 2018 Places in 2017-18
Partners 80,936 39,799
Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme 22,500 6,221
Employer Sponsored Migration 53,094 35,528
Business Innovation 20,610 7,260

Source: Home Affairs Migration Program Report

We are unlikely to get an update on these backlogs until the Government releases the report on the 2018-19 Migration Program.

But we do know these backlogs are forcing people to by-pass the off-shore visas they really want and use visitor visas to enter Australia and then apply for the visa they really wanted. This is showing up in the fact over 24 percent of net overseas migration in 2017-18 was due to people arriving on visitor visas and changing status – an astonishing and unprecedented level. It is a key indicator of a visa system that is out of control. This trend is highly likely to increase further in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Table 2: People arriving on visitor visas contributing to net overseas migration (NOM) arrivals

Year 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16 2016-17 2017-18
Visitor Arrivals Contributing to NOM 44,440 50,240 60,550 71,870 (Est) 78,020 (Est)

Source: ABS Cat: 3412

The massive level of people arriving on visitor visas and then applying for a different visa after arrival is contributing to record increases in the backlog of people in Australia on bridging visas (see Table 3). These are visas the Department of Home Affairs uses when it cannot process onshore visa applications quickly enough.

Table 3: Stock of People on Bridging Visas as at end March

Year 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
BV Holders 107,191 111,178 136,904 153,809 194,875 229,242

Source: data.gov, Home Affairs Temporary Entrants Pivot Table

Accelerating growth in the bridging visa backlog is screaming out to criminals and spivs that Australia’s visa system is in trouble. It is creating a honeypot attracting people smugglers who abuse our onshore protection visa system. In 2017-18 we had a record number of onshore asylum seeker applications, exceeding that of any year under the Rudd/Gillard Governments (see Table 4). And while Home Affairs processed around 15,000 asylum seeker cases at the primary stage in 2017-18, that meant the primary stage backlog grew by around 13,000.

Table 4: Onshore Protection Visa Applications (ie Asylum Seekers)

Year 2014-15 2015-16 2016-17 2017-18
Total 8,587 9,554 18,290 27,931
Malaysia 1,401 3,549 8,579 9,319
China 1,299 1,099 2,269 9,315
India 674 582 1,133 1,529

Source: Various onshore humanitarian program reports – Department of Home Affairs

The record number of asylum seekers and bridging visa holders are flowing onto a rapidly growing backlog at the AAT. Despite efforts to increase AAT decisions, the backlog continues to rise (see Table 5).

Table 5: Stock of Active Cases at AAT Migration and Refugee Division

Year End July 2016 End June 2017 End June 2018 End May 2019
Migration Cases 11,798 16,092 29,991 38,293
Asylum Cases 5,682 8,370 14,445 20,149
Total 17,480 24,462 44,436 58,442

Source: AAT website

The active asylum seeker caseload at AAT is also growing rapidly and at end May 2019 stood at 20,149. Flow through to the AAT from the 2017-18 surge in asylum seekers at the primary stage continuing with 61 percent of asylum applications year to date in 2018-19 being from Malaysia and 13 percent from China. While the AAT refusal rate for the current cohort of asylum seekers is 92 percent, we do not know what portion of the failed asylum seekers are leaving Australia, being located and removed or just melting into the community.

Home Affairs does not publicly disclose the size of the total asylum seeker backlog at primary stage or the total number of asylum seekers who have been refused but remain in Australia mostly as overstayers. The total number of asylum seekers at primary stage, at the AAT and the number who have become overstayers over the past five years is unlikely to be less than 50,000 and most likely much larger and growing rapidly.

The visa system, and by implication our borders, have never been so out of control. It will take many years and many hundreds of millions of dollars (possibly billions) to get back to an even keel.

But the 2019 Budget Papers reveal funding for both visa and citizenship processing as well as for border security to be in steep decline. Funding for border security is to decline by 30.3 percent over the forward estimates while funding for visa and citizenship processing is to decline by 16.2 percent.

The Government clearly has no plans to deal with the chaos in our visa system.

To our shame, it now seems highly likely Australia will follow the European and US path of a growing permanent underclass of failed asylum seekers who will live from hand to mouth trying to obtain work illegally wherever possible.

It is good the Opposition has indicated an intention to expose this appalling situation.

Abul Rizvi was a senior official in the Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007 when he left as Deputy Secretary. He was awarded the Public Service Medal and the Centenary Medal for services to development and implementation of immigration policy, including in particular the reshaping of Australia’s intake to focus on skilled migration. He is currently doing a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies.



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