ABUL RIZVI: Government Continues to Pretend We Have No Air Borders

Jan 4, 2019

In an echo of Donald Trump, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Immigration Minister David Coleman continued to pretend yesterday we only have sea borders and we can ignore our air borders. They announced closure of two detention centres (see here) without telling the Australian public that their mismanagement of the visa system will inevitably mean we will need lots of detention space in future if we are to ever regain control of the visa system and deal with the deluge of mainly non-genuine asylum seekers arriving by air (see here).  

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

While Peter Dutton tried to suggest this was the result of ‘greater scrutiny’, the fact is the 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 (see Table 2). This meant that over 24 percent of net migration in 2017-18 was due to people arriving on visitor visas and changing status – an astonishing level.

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 that 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 (latest available)

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

Source: Temporary Entrants in Australia Pivot Table – Department of Home Affairs

The bridging visa backlog 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).

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

These record number of asylum seekers and bridging visa holders are flowing onto a rapidly growing backlog at the AAT. The AAT backlog is currently rising at a net rate of around 1,600 per month – this may accelerate over next 12 months unless action is taken (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 Nov 2018
Cases 17,480 24,462 44,436 52,491

Source: AAT Website

Active asylum seeker caseload at AAT at end Nov 2018 was 17,248. Flow through to the AAT from the 2017-18 surge in asylum seekers at the primary stage may not start to show up in the AAT numbers for another 12 months.

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.

The sad fact is that this will mean we need more detention centre space in the future not less whilst failed asylum seekers await removal.

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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