ABUL RIZVI. Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton have lost control of our borders.

Apr 22, 2019

Chaos in our visa system and extraordinary border control failures are being exploited by people smugglers to deliver record numbers of non-genuine asylum seekers arriving by air.  The Coalition pretends we only have sea borders and can ignore our air borders. Yet Australia is sleep-walking into replicating the experience of Europe and the USA with an ever increasing underclass of failed asylum seekers. Our borders have never been so out of control.

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. This is highly likely to increase 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 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 

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). 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 Mar 2019
Cases 17,480 24,462 44,436 56,293

Source: AAT Website

The active asylum seeker caseload at AAT is also growing rapidly and at end March 2019 stood at 18,665. 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 6-9 months. 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 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 and appears happy to quietly pass the problem onto an in-coming government.

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.

Surely our politicians should be talking about this?

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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