Politics Analysis

ABUL RIZVI: Visa processing paralysis

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The COVID-19 pandemic made a huge impact on temporary visa numbers in Australia (Screenshot via YouTube)

Numbers of temporary visa applications, both educational and vocational, are rapidly declining as Home Affairs still deals with a Bridging visa backlog, writes Abul Rizvi.

MORE THAN 12 MONTHS after Prime Minister Scott Morrison told temporary visas holders in Australia to go home, at the end of February 2021 there were 1.7 million temporary entrants in Australia, down from 2.4 million in December 2019. Because of the length of time they have been in Australia, almost all of these people will be counted as part of Australia’s resident population by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The 1.7 million would not include unsuccessful asylum seekers and overstayers, most of whom would also be counted as part of the resident population.

Table 1: Stock of temporary entrants in Australia — month ending

(Source: data.gov.au, Temporary Entrants in Australia)

The stock of temporary entrants in Australia (see Table 1) declined sharply in March 2020 mainly due to the departure of short-term visitors here during the summer of 2019-20. Visitor numbers fell significantly again in June 2020 and from then on have declined only gradually. This would include people who were already in Australia being granted a visitor visa.


The sharp rise in students in Australia in March 2020 would have mainly been the result of new student arrivals in the period of January-March 2020 for the new academic year as well as a surge in onshore student applications.

Student numbers in Australia since March 2020 have gradually declined as existing students depart and are not being replenished by new student arrivals, even though the Department of Home Affairs is continuing to grant offshore student visas, mostly to people who cannot currently enter Australia. The large number of Bridging visa holders still in Australia at end February 2021 will include applicants for a student visa.

Unless some form of special arrangement is made ahead of international borders re-opening, student numbers in Australia will continue to decline. The biggest declines to date have been amongst students from China who have fallen from 304,242 at end September 2019 to 145,002 at end February 2021. This will continue to decline given very few student arrivals likely for the remainder of 2021.

Student numbers from India have not fallen nearly as much. In September 2019, there were 269,391 students from India in Australia. This has fallen to 219,484 in February 2021. The Nepalese student situation is similar having fallen from 87,254 in September 2019 to 84,074 in February 2021. It is likely there will be a substantial number of onshore student visa applicants in the Bridging visa backlog from these two countries at end February 2021.

Student visa applications have plunged since March 2020 (see Chart 1).

(Source: DHA Students Report, December 2020)

The decline in onshore applications has been greatest from Chinese students with only a marginal decline from Indian students and an increase from Nepalese students. There has also been a decline in onshore applications from Brazilian students while onshore applications from Colombian students have held up.

Offshore applications have declined much faster and this decline appears to be across the board.

Working Holiday Maker and Work and Holiday visa holders

The decline in Working Holiday Maker (WHM) and Work and Holiday (WH) visa is to be expected given the weakness of the labour market. WHM and WH visa holders in Australia combined declined from 141,142 in December 2019 to 40,616 at end February 2021.

With international borders closed and WHMs not being considered a priority for entry under the overseas arrivals cap, the stock of WHMs in Australia will continue to decline for the rest of 2021. Initial WHM applications lodged had been falling for many years before COVID-19. Over 159,000 first WHM applications were received in 2016-17, falling to 155,041 in 2017-18 and 142,293 in 2018-19. This plunged to 94,433 in 2019-20. Only 2,885 first WHM applications were lodged in the six months to end December 2020.

This is likely to be aggravating the shortage of farmworkers that the farm lobby is complaining about. When international borders do open, this low application rate will mean WHM numbers will recover only slowly.

Skilled Temporary residents (SC 482)

Skilled Temporary resident visa holders have also been steadily declining due to both the weak labour market and the changes to visa criteria in 2017-18. There will be some Temporary Graduate visa holders who have applied for Skilled Temporary entry in the Bridging visa backlog.

New primary applications for Skilled Temporary entry lodged in the 12 months to December 2020 was 11,210, down 41.6% on the previous 12 months. The declines were generally across the board in terms of source countries with India (-44.0%), the UK (-40.0%), the Philippines (-49.6%) and China (-54.6%) all falling significantly. The Republic of Ireland was the only source country that did not fall significantly, declining by only 23.6%.

Temporary Skilled visas granted offshore have fallen from 48,365 in 2018-19 to 31,180 in 2019-20. Only 6,842 offshore Temporary Skilled visa applications were lodged in the six months to end December 2020.

Onshore, the decline in applications has not been as marked, falling from 33,160 in 2018-19 to 23,880 in 2019-20 and 14,051 for the six months to end December 2020. The strong onshore application rate in the six months to December 2020 is likely being driven by existing Skilled Temporary entrants securing further visas, Temporary Graduates securing Skilled Temporary resident visas and less-skilled temporary entrants securing permanent employer-sponsored visas.

While the decline in offshore Skilled Temporary visas is likely to continue whilst international borders remain closed, demand for onshore Skilled Temporary visas may hold up with the large stock of Temporary Graduates in Australia applying for Skilled Temporary entry once they have sufficient relevant skilled work experience.

In response to strong pressure from employer groups, the Government has signalled an intention to reverse some of the Skilled Temporary visa changes that Peter Dutton introduced — some of which were truly silly. But it is unlikely to increase the minimum salary requirement for Skilled Temporary entry which appears to have not been increased since 2013.

Temporary Graduates

The continuing increase in the stock of Temporary Graduate visa holders in Australia (see Table 1) is due to students completing their courses and applying for a Temporary Graduate visa.

Chart 2 highlights a surge of Temporary Graduate visa applications in March 2020. This would reflect students completing their courses and receiving results at the end of the academic year. The surge in July, August and September 2020 would be a similar effect.

There has been no drop off in Temporary Graduate visa applications following the closure of international borders. If anything, this has continued to trend up as students who started their courses a number of years ago completed those in 2020. This effect should continue into 2021.

Note that the Graduate Work stream is generally used by V.E.T. students and provides for a visa of only up to 18 months while the Post-Study Work stream is generally used by higher education students and for a stay of between two and four years. 

As Temporary Graduates have no sponsoring employer and no access to social security, they are currently highly vulnerable to exploitation. The lack of government action on this will mean this exploitation will continue.

(Source: DHA Students Report, December 2020)

Bridging visas

The most striking feature of Table 1 is the sustained increase in the number of Bridging visa holders in Australia. These increased from an already extraordinarily high 191,655 in December 2019 to 312,126 at end February 2021.

Given the general decline in workload from new visa applications due to COVID-19, it is surprising that Home Affairs has made minimal effort to clear its many onshore visa application backlogs that are represented by the stock of Bridging visa holders.

Over 70,000 of the stock of Bridging visa holders in Australia will be asylum seekers at the primary and review stages. This is a function of the massive labour trafficking scam that has taken place over the past six years (see here and here). Home Affairs appears to have abandoned the idea of clearing this backlog ahead of international borders re-opening when the scam is likely to resume.

Another part of the Bridging visa backlog will be onshore Partner visa applicants which the Government has, at last, announced it will start to clear. This was a backlog that Home Affairs had allowed to emerge by illegally limiting the number of places it made available to partners, an action that it is now trying to cover up by making the biggest allocation of Partner visa places in Australia’s history in 2020-21.

But the onshore partner backlog is unlikely to be more than 60,000.

The bulk of the remaining stock of Bridging visa holders is likely to be applicants for further student visas and Temporary Graduate visas. Why Home Affairs is delaying processing these applications is not clear. The reason could be as simple as Home Affairs not having the resources to do so, having wasted so much money on a range of misadventures including the ongoing costs of offshore processing as well as the failed visa privatisation debacle.

Others included in the Bridging visa backlog will be people who have applied for family visas, particularly parents, Permanent Skilled visas and other temporary visas.

Hopefully, new Ministers Karen Andrews and Alex Hawke will be asking questions of Home Affairs about the extraordinary Bridging visa backlog.

Certainly, if Philip Ruddock was still immigration minister, there would be intense pressure to clear the backlog as he understood large onshore visa application backlogs punish the honest while rewarding the unscrupulous. It reflects a visa system that is out of control and poorly managed.

Sadly, Secretary Mike Pezzullo appears to have little understanding of that.

Dr Abul Rizvi is an Independent Australia columnist and a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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