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Home Affairs delays visa processing while applications drop

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Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews has seen slower processing times in her department despite fewer visa applications (Screenshot via YouTube)

Home Affairs’ resources allocation is fundamentally flawed and with a reduction in visa lodgements since the pandemic, has an even heavier caseload, writes Lina Li.

SINCE AUSTRALIA’S border closed on 20 March 2020, many people assumed that their visas would be processed in no time, since not as many people are lodging visas during the pandemic.

How has COVID-19 pandemic affected processing time for visas?

According to statistics from Home Affairs:

  1. The number of non-humanitarian visas lodged fell by nearly 6 million, or 86% compared to the same period in the previous year in 2020-2021 to 31 March 2021.
  2. The number of non-humanitarian visas decided also fell by nearly 6 million, or 81% compared with the same period in the previous year in 2020-2021 to 30 June 2021.

You’d expect visas to be processed much more speedily, given such a drastic reduction in the number of visas lodged during the pandemic. Contrary to what many people may believe, visa processing time not only did not shorten, but it has lengthened for most visas. Why is that?

Home Affairs’ The Administration of the Immigration and Citizenship Programs explains how the Government administers the immigration program. In ‘Responding to COVID-19’ (Page 5), understandably, staff resources have been redirected from the visa processing team to the travel exemption requests processing team.

Resources are allocated to:

1. Prioritising visas for those with an urgent need to travel

This group mainly includes people who need to travel here urgently for medical reasons, for compassionate reasons and are immediate family members of Australians.

For those who claim to be immediate families of Australians, if they don’t hold a partner or child visa, they’d have to lodge a visa and request a travel exemption first.

The evidence one must provide for getting a travel exemption as an immediate family of Australians is essentially the same as for a partner or child visa. The average processing time for a travel exemption is 1-3 days and for a partner visa, from 18 to 30 months.

Imagine these scenarios: there are 100 travel exemption requests and 100 case officers assessing them, whereas there are 100 partner visa applications and one case officer assessing them. This is why a travel exemption request can be finalised in 1-3 days, whereas a partner visa that requires the same assessment takes as long as two years. “Processing time” is a direct result of resource allocation, not necessarily the actual time taken to process a visa.

Home Affairs’ strategy on how resources are allocated is the root cause of the frustratingly prolonged visa processing time.

Why do families of Australians have to apply for a visa and request a travel exemption at the same time? One or the other, the nature is the same — a document that says who has the right to be in Australia.

Most people opt to lodge a visitor visa as it is a quicker option compared with a partner or a child visa, even though their intention is not to visit temporarily but to stay with their Australian families here permanently. After they travel here, they lodge a partner or child visa in Australia, so they get to stay here after their visitor visa expires.

Instead of making one assessment to decide if they are the families of Australians, Home Affairs has to make three: a travel exemption, a visitor visa and a partner/child visa. If Home Affairs would simply encourage people who are families of Australians to make only one application for the most appropriate visa – such as a partner or child visa – and make a decision as quickly as they do with travel exemptions, they would have a much lighter caseload.

Fiancés (they are not considered immediate families of Australians) of Australians who have applied for their prospective marriage visa on or before 18 August 2020 and have their visa granted, can apply for a travel exemption, too.

Why do people have to apply at all? Why does it require an assessment? Either they have applied for their visa on or before 18 August 2020, or they have not. Either their visas have been granted, or they have not been. There is no middle ground. Home Affairs has an advanced system with accurate records and if it simply notifies everyone who falls within this bracket, they’d have a lot fewer requests to deal with.

2. Maintaining the lawful status of non-citizens unable to depart Australia

As mentioned above, the number of visa lodgements has declined significantly with one exception — the number of bridging visa holders has increased by 6,922 compared with the last program year.

(Source: Department of Home Affairs)

This is because many short-term visa holders could not depart Australia since the pandemic as flight availabilities have reduced substantially. Many people applied for visitor visas to maintain legal status. Visitor visas are granted for three (most commonly), six or 12 months. Unsurprisingly, many of them have applied for three or four visitor visas since last March. As a result, the processing time for a visitor visa has increased from just a few days before the pandemic to an average of six to nine months now.

Again, the Government knows exactly who holds a visa that would expire soon and the majority of them would be unable to depart Australia due to flight shortages and border restrictions globally. They should automatically extend their visas instead of asking people to individually lodge a new application and assess each application separately.

New Zealand has been automatically extending visas for people without them having to apply for a new visa since COVID-19 broke out.

3. Facilitating entries for individuals with critical skills

One-third of inward travel exemptions were granted to people who have a critical skill and/or work in critical sectors.

The problem with this category is there is no clear definition of “critical skills” or “critical sectors”. There is a large element of subjectivity and judgement. Many people keep making new requests when they get refused, hoping the next case officer would agree with them.

As the Government does not provide a detailed reason for refusing a travel exemption request, people have to speculate and include more information or change a category to apply again. It is not uncommon for people to make more than three attempts to get it approved. Some have made ten to 20 requests.

Occupations are classified into eight major groups in Australia, known as the ANZSCO — Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations. Each occupation is assigned a six-digit code which is what we use to indicate a person’s occupation when applying for visas.

There are different skilled occupation lists — different skilled occupations are needed in the short-term, long-term or in regional Australia. People get a particular skilled visa when they have a skill that is on one of those lists. There is no ambiguity as to which occupation is critical, which is not.

Industries are classified in a similar manner, known as ANZSIC — Australian and New Zealand Standard Industrial Classification.

If the Government clearly define “critical skills” and “critical sectors” using codes from ANZSCO and ANZSIC like what we do for visas, there would be a lot fewer discretionary decisions and repetitive requests.

4. Supporting economic recovery by prioritising visas for individuals with an occupation on PMSOL

The Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL) identifies 44 occupations that fill critical skills needed most urgently to support the economic recovery from COVID-19.

Once again, it does not require an assessment at all. Either people have one of the 44 occupations or they don’t. All skilled visa requires people to identify their occupation on the application form — the Government knows exactly who has which occupation. The Government should just go ahead and process their visas.

For those who already have a visa with one of the 44 occupations, the Government should notify all of them by email that they are exempt from the travel restrictions. No one should have to apply and the Government should not have to individually approve each request.

It is difficult to believe Home Affairs is working more slowly with a more than 80% reduction in visa lodgements since last March. It is even more difficult to believe Home Affairs is individually assessing applications that can easily be bulk approved by their system. The only thing you can count on this Government to be good at is visa processing time getting longer and longer.

Lina Li works as an immigration consultant in the immigration industry. She has extensive experience in the corporate migration sector and works closely with government agencies in making changes to the current migration program. You can follow Lina on Twitter @Lina52412342.

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