How will we know the migration system has been fixed?

Feb 28, 2023

The Minister for Home Affairs, Clare O’Neil, has declared Australia’s migration system is “broken. It is unstrategic. It is complex, expensive and slow. It is not delivering for business, for migrants, or for our population”.

While no one is to be held accountable for this, not even the guy who has been in charge for ten years, the Minister has promised to fix the system. But how will the public know that the broken system is getting better and what more needs to be fixed?

When I was in the Department of Immigration, my colleagues and I monitored a range of indicators of the health of the migration system. It is not clear if the current Department of Home Affairs (DHA) does the same but there would be merit in the current Parkinson Review of the Migration System and the Nixon Review of Visa Integrity recommending Government publish, in an easily accessible form, a set of monthly performance indicators of the health of the migration system (not the meaningless indicators DHA publishes in its DHA Annual Report).

Delivery of migration levels

At an aggregate level, DHA should publish on a monthly basis how it is tracking against the annual migration and humanitarian program planning levels. A former infamous Immigration Minister introduced the concept of migration and humanitarian program ‘ceilings’ whereby he kept secret the actual targets he used. That is poor practice and leaves Commonwealth and state government agencies and businesses in the dark. It treats the Australian public with contempt.

DHA should also publish the detailed basis of its (or Treasury’s) forecast of net migration and how this is linked to immigration and economic/employment policy settings. Regular updating of the forecast would be appropriate just as economic and employment forecasts are updated. But using an historical average as the basis of net migration forecasts and then ignoring how far these forecasts are missed is just unhelpful.

DHA should also publish how it is tracking against these net migration forecasts on a monthly or quarterly basis. Yes, this would involve preliminary estimates of net migration that must be revised. But that is far superior to providing no tracking at all. That just leads to unclear media speculation and provides a poor basis for decision-making by government agencies and businesses.

Processing times, backlogs, complaints and application fees

For all major visa categories, DHA should publish monthly data on processing times at the 50th and 90th percentile and application backlogs against targets for each. The targets should aim to get back to acceptable processing times and backlogs of the past. The data on backlogs should include an age breakdown of the backlog for each major visa category by major source country.

Wherever possible, DHA should also publish similar data for key competitors, particularly Canada. How our application fees for major visa categories compare with those of Canada should also be tracked.

Two of the key backlogs that should be tracked against targets aimed at driving down these backlogs are the:

  • bridging visa backlog broken down by major substantive visa that the applicant was originally on and which substantive visa was applied for. The bridging visa backlog should be returned to below 50,000; and
  • asylum backlog at the primary stage, at the AAT stage and post-AAT stage against targets for each. The aim should be to get these backlogs to less than 5,000 at both the primary and AAT stages. There is then the more complex issue of what is to be done about the rising number of unsuccessful asylum seekers who won’t be going home.

To make DHA a department that again gives priority to client service, DHA should publish data on client complaints it receives by major visa category and how long it takes to satisfactorily resolve these. Data on the AAT appeal and set-aside rate for each major visa category should also be published by DHA on a monthly basis. DHA publishing this data would force it to accept its overall responsibility for the visa system.

Immigration compliance, enforcement and detention

Key indicators of immigration compliance that should be monitored closely are:

  • number of people who have been unlawful in Australia for more than six months and more than 24 months, particularly unsuccessful asylum applicants;
  • number of people in immigration limbo. These might best be defined as people on temporary entry visas for more than five years; more than 7 years and more than 10 years. DHA should identify and investigate education providers, lawyers, agents (migration and education) who are most associated with temporary entrants left in immigration limbo;
  • visitor non-return rate for all major source nations. These are essentially people who entered on a visitor visa which are generally for three months but have remained in Australia past that time mostly by applying for another visa. In 2022, these non-return rates are likely to have hit record levels. The Parkinson/Nixon Reviews should recommend an independent investigation of these non-return rates and what DHA proposes to do about this; and
  • number of asylum applications for nationalities (monthly and in total) with a very low approval rate (ie less than 10 percent at both the primary level and at the AAT). This is a good indicator of where the asylum system is likely being abused;
  • number of students by source nation changing to a lower rated provider after arrival without completing their initial course (ie being poached) and associated providers/lawyers/agents; and
  • number of complaints about exploitation from migrants to DHA, to the Fair Work Ombudsman and to unions by major industry sector and employer.

In terms of compliance activity, which needs to return to historical levels before resources were taken away from this function, DHA should monitor and report on the number of:

  • providers and students audited for compliance with study and work hours and subsequent enforcement action;
  • sponsoring employers audited for compliance with sponsorship obligations, including payment of minimum salary, and subsequent enforcement action;
  • investigations into lawyers and agents lodging very large numbers of unsuccessful applications for asylum; extension of stay by visitors; and onshore student applications before the student completes their initial course and subsequent enforcement action;
  • investigations of complaints about DHA staff allegedly involved in corruption and subsequent enforcement action.

In terms of immigration detention, DHA should ensure and report on a general trend away from long-term detention and towards use of detention for short stay and rapid removal. Trends in recent years towards long-stay detention, other than in highly exceptional circumstances, is both wasteful and inhumane.

Finally, DHA should monitor the number of new people and travel documents added to the Movement Alert List (MAL) every month based on cooperation with overseas law enforcement bodies. MAL is the primary means by which Australia prevents entry of criminals. Its management must be properly resourced.

There would be merit in the Parkinson/Nixon Reviews recommending appointment of an independent Immigration Commissioner responsible for reporting without fear or favour on the above indicators to give the general public assurance the immigration system is indeed being fixed.

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