ABUL RIZVI: Is our Visa Processing System in Crisis?

Nov 30, 2018

A fundamental aspect of a well operating immigration system is one that encourages people to apply for the right visa and follow intended visa pathways after arrival rather than use visitor visas to by-pass applying for the right visa. Visitor visas have the lowest level of scrutiny and are the easiest to exploit. But the current Home Affairs leadership has let both offshore and onshore backlogs and processing times increase dramatically with a commensurate decline in the integrity of Australia’s immigration system. This includes allowing unscrupulous labour agents to use the Protection Visa system to supply easily exploitable labour to unscrupulous employers.

Most people apply for the right visa from the start unless backlogs and processing times balloon out to intolerable levels. Poor visa design changes, mismanagement of the migration program and fearmongering messages from the leadership to visa processing staff have contributed to unheard of backlogs and processing time blow-outs.

For example, processing times for the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (RSMS) are now well over 12 months. RSMS visa grants declined from over 20,000 in 2012-13 to just over 6,000 in 2017-18. This is despite the Prime Minister saying migration to regional Australia is a priority and despite the RSMS application backlog growing by 21% to over 22,500 by end June 2018 (even though RSMS applications are falling due to ham-fisted policy changes employers in regional Australia are angry about).

Visas issued in the employer sponsored categories generally were down from 48,250 in 2016-17 to 35,528 in 2017-18. While the application rate fell by 27.1%, the pipeline only declined from 53,094 persons at end June 2017 to 52,503 at end June 2018. This suggests a growing number of very old applications in the pipeline.

The outcome for the Business Innovation and Investment Program in 2017-18 was 7,260 visas, exactly the same as in 2016-17. Demand for places in this category continued to grow strongly with the pipeline increasing in 2017-18 by 34.8 percent to 20,610 – almost three times the number of places available.

While partner visas issued in 2017-18 fell, new applications increased by 5.4 percent. The size of the pipeline fell by 0.8 percent to 80,936 suggesting a substantial number of applications were withdrawn, possibly due to lengthening processing times and applicants changing their minds as to where they will live.

Experienced immigration officers know that growing offshore backlogs and extended processing times inevitably lead to an increase in the number of people arriving on visitor visas and then applying for the actual visa they wanted (see Table 1).

Table 1: 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 Not Yet Available

Source: ABS Cat: 3412

This phenomenon is contributing to a record backlog of people on bridging visas – these visas are granted to people already in Australia and seeking a further visa but whose original visa has expired while waiting for Home Affairs to make a decision.


Table 2: 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

A growing bridging visa backlog is an indicator of poor administration as it rewards people lodging non-genuine applications in the knowledge that will extend their time in Australia while punishing genuine applicants because it puts their life on hold while they wait for a decision.

It also allows unscrupulous labour agents to exploit the situation. For a large fee, they can sell the opportunity of work in Australia, usually on farms or other low skill jobs, including working in sex shops. The people are usually brought to Australia on visitor visas, as these have the least scrutiny.

The labour agents subsequently mislead these vulnerable people into applying for a Protection Visa, knowing these applications have little chance of success but will take years to process through to finality, including appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).

Table 3 highlight the extraordinary increase in Protection Visa applications in recent years, particularly from Malaysia, China and India – countries with very low success rates for Protection Visa applications. These Protection Visa applications would be adding to the growing bridging visa backlog.

Table 3: Onshore Protection Visa Applications

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 unscrupulous labour agents facilitating these Protection Visa applications are little more than people smugglers. But they are being assisted by poor administration from the Home Affairs leadership.

That these labour agents can so easily exploit our immigration system makes a mockery of the government’s so-called ‘greater scrutiny’ approach to visa applications. Advice from experienced and registered migration agents is that the visa processing blow-outs are not due to greater scrutiny as large numbers of applications are just sitting waiting to be allocated to a case officer or waiting on advice from head office.

The ‘refusal’ culture created by fear-mongering messages from the leadership is also contributing to basic errors being made by junior departmental staff that must be re-worked by more senior staff. Where errors cannot be corrected, some applicants appeal to the AAT.

Table 4: Stock of Active Cases at AAT Migration and Refugee Division

Year End July 2016 End June 2017 End June 2018 End Oct 2018
Cases 17,480 24,462 44,436 50,887

Source: AAT Website

The AAT is funded to make around 18,000 decisions per annum. Almost 38,000 applications were received in 2017-18, up from around 26,600 in 2016-17. The AAT backlog will continue to grow strongly over the next few years unless action is taken.

The Home Affairs Department is hopelessly conflicted in this space.

To deal with the backlog and reduce the honeypot effect of the bridging visa backlog, Home Affairs needs application rates to fall significantly. This is happening in a range of skilled migration categories as a result of government policy changes, including the government’s decision to reduce the migration program. And the declines are in the very categories that contribute most to Australia’s economy and budget.

But to make Home Affairs’ outsourcing agenda viable and to meet the savings targets Home Affairs has agreed to as part of the outsourcing budget measure, it is relying on the application caseload to grow by 50% by 2026.

It is now likely Home Affairs will have to abandon its ill-considered outsourcing agenda (see here) as it cannot possibly promise a 50% growth in the caseload by 2026. But even with application rates falling in key categories, the Home Affairs leadership has shown it is incapable of getting on top of the backlogs. The low morale amongst visa processing staff which the leadership has engendered is adding to the problems which will get worse before they can get better.

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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