Nick Cater writing in The Australian (see here if you can get past the Paywall) seems to think people trying to manipulate the visa system is news. Has he been as asleep to this while our intrepid government has allowed a world class visa system to deteriorate into chaos (see here)? It is the chaos in our visa system that has enabled Dutton to set a new record in the number of mainly non-genuine asylum seeker applications (see here). But rather than ask the hard questions about how a government obsessed with border protection could have allowed this, Cater looks to blame anyone other than the government.
During his time as Immigration Minister, Phillip Ruddock watched the onshore asylum seeker caseload like a hawk. He too experienced a surge in onshore asylum seeker applications, initially from people who had a visa to enter Australia (between 1995 and 1999). But unlike Dutton et al, Ruddock acted quickly to deal with the issue at an operational level as well as making significant legislative and policy changes.
The key for Ruddock was to ensure rapid processing, removal of failed asylum seekers and investigation and prosecution of labour and migration agents who were organising the scams. As a result, Ruddock managed to bring the total number of asylum seeker cases on hand down to less than 4,000 by end June 1999 (this was ahead of the surge in boat arrival asylum seekers in 1999-00).
As The Australian appears unlikely to ask the hard questions that need to be put to the government, I thought I should help Nick out. There are four key questions that must be asked:
- How did the record number of onshore asylum seeker applications come about? Is the massive backlog of bridging visa applications acting as a ‘honeypot’ for people smugglers who are likely to be behind these scams? Is the government concerned that over 24 percent of net overseas migration is now represented by visitors who have by-passed the appropriate offshore visas because of the blow-out in processing times and backlogs?
- When did the government first recognise it was experiencing a surge in non-genuine asylum seeker applications? What actions did it take to deal with the surge and when did it take these actions? Have these actions had any impact? Has the government been too slow to act? Could the problem have been contained if the government had acted more quickly?
- What is the government’s best estimate of what it will cost to get on top of the problem? Please provide a cost breakdown in terms of much more rapid processing applications at the primary stage; the review stage; and ministerial intervention; asylum seeker support costs; costs of locating, detaining and removing failed asylum seekers; costs of investigating and prosecuting the organisers behind these scams? What is the size of the onshore asylum seeker application backlog at each processing stage and how has this grown in each of the last four years? Is it likely the overall cost will exceed a billion dollars? Will the government include this cost in the forthcoming Budget, consistent with the Charter of Budget Honesty?
- What is the government’s plan and timetable to get on top of the problem? In what year does the government expect it will be able to process more applications than it receives? When does the government expect the AAT will be able to process more applications than it receives? What amount of additional detention centre space will the government need to manage removal of failed asylum seekers?
The surge in non-genuine asylum seeker applications not only represents a major budget cost, but it also undermines Australia’s ability to assist genuine asylum seekers and the public’s confidence that our immigration system is being administered efficiently, fairly, humanely and with integrity.
Making excuses for the Government’s incompetence in this regard will not help.
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.