Politics Analysis

Home Affairs losing control of visa system

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Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews is failing to maintain Australia's problematic visa system (Image by Dan Jensen)

While the two major political parties dance around immigration issues without dealing with the substance, there were some developments in March that re-confirm the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) has lost control of the visa system.

The Novak Djokovic debacle of earlier this year was just a glimpse of the chaos.

The election focus on boat arrivals and temporary protection visas when we haven’t had a boat arrive since early 2013-14, along with the marginal difference between the major parties on visas for farm workers, also miss the real issues.

Apart from the problems created by poor visa design/administration and appallingly poor staff morale in DHA, a crucial issue is the gridlock in the visa system and the extent to which this reflects a loss of border control. But we have seen no discussion of that during the election campaign.

One of the best indicators of the gridlock is the number of people in Australia on bridging visas. The vast bulk of these people were on a substantive visa while in Australia and have lodged an application for another substantive. While they wait for a decision from DHA, they are placed on a bridging visa to maintain their lawful status.

A large number of people on a bridging visa reflects a system unable to cope with its workload — effectively, one that is out of control (see Chart 1).

Chart 1 (Source: data.gov.au, temporary visa holders)

In the 1990s, it was unusual for there to be many more than 30,000 people on a bridging visa. After the Global Financial Crisis, the number of people on bridging visas increased to around 100,000.

Work on reducing that backlog led to it gradually declining to around 70,000 in 2014. But then DHA ceased work on the backlog. I was surprised when DHA allowed the bridging visa backlog to get to over 200,000 in 2019.

During the pandemic, a time when offshore visa applications had declined significantly and the spare resources provided an opportunity to clear the bridging visa backlog, DHA allowed it to grow to an astonishing 373,109 at end March 2022.

Part of the bridging visa backlog is associated with the labour trafficking scam abusing the asylum system that started in 2015. The scam is largely aimed at supplying cheap farm labourers.

At end February 2022, there were just under 30,000 asylum applications at the primary stage, another 35,000 at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT — see Chart 2) and another 30,000 who had been refused at both primary stage and at the AAT.

Chart 2 (Source: AAT Annual Reports and Caseload Statistics)

In contrast to the discussion on boat arrivals, there has been no mention of this scam and what may be done to address this scam during the election campaign. The Government is happy to sweep these 95,000 people under the carpet even though they represent a massive loss in border control.

The current gridlock in the visa system will encourage the organisers of this scam to resume it now that international borders have been reopened. Large onshore visa backlogs are a honey pot for the unscrupulous while they penalise the honest.

Another significant development that has contributed to the bridging visa backlog has been the steady rise in the contribution of people arriving on visitor visas and then extending stay after arrival.

While the contribution of visitors to net overseas migration has traditionally been less than 10% per annum, this has changed significantly over the past decade (see Chart 3). The number of visitor arrivals staying in Australia long-term increased from around 40,000 in 2012-13 to over 132,000 in 2019. In that year, this represented over 40% of net overseas migration, or over 25% of Australia’s overall population growth.

Once again, there has been no mention of this loss of visa control during the election campaign.

Chart 3 (Source: ABS, Migration)

It is clear the Government has no plans to address this situation as that would require a massive injection of additional resources to DHA, especially given the forecast rise in visa applications as international travel resumes.

The 2022 Budget in fact shows a dramatic reduction in resources for DHA.

Funding for migration management falls from $397 million in 2021-22 to $360 million in 2022-23 and to $291 million in 2023-24.

Funding to manage other non-humanitarian visas falls from $362 million in 2021-22 to $346 million in 2023-24.

Funding for the Humanitarian Program and settlement services falls from $779 million in 2021-22 to $631 million in 2023-24.

Overall, funding for the immigration functions of DHA falls from $2.6 billion in 2021-22 to $1.7 billion in 2023-24 — a decline of $0.9 billion over two years.

With visa application numbers forecast to rise over the next two years as we return to more normal levels of international people movements, and the existing massive gridlock in the visa system, a reduction in Home Affairs funding will further reduce its ability to deliver on its core immigration functions.

Whoever wins government will need to deal with this urgently. Failure to act would lead to even greater loss of border control.

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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