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Huge backlog of visa claims build under Dutton's watch

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons

The Government has at last responded to the chaos in our visa system, writes Abul Rizvi.

IN RESPONSE TO a question from Senator Kristina KeneallySenator Linda Reynolds has suggested the bridging visa backlog is apparently due to an unexpected surge in visa applications that caught Department of Home Affairs off-guard.

Also, in 2018-19 there has been a 12 per cent fall in on-shore asylum applications.

So does that mean all is now well? Senator Reynolds’ response leaves three questions outstanding:

  • Is Home Affairs now on top of the record-breaking surge in non-genuine onshore asylum applications since 2016?
  • Was there really an unexpected surge in visa applications that explains the massive 230,000 backlog in bridging visas as well as the other extraordinary visa application backlogs and ballooning processing times?
  • Going forward, does the Government have a plausible plan to deal with the visa chaos in Home Affairs?

Record number of onshore asylum applications

According to Immigration Minister David Coleman, onshore asylum claims “fell by 12 per cent in the 2018-19 program year, a result of the Government’s focus on stopping unmeritorious claims”.

But that is in comparison to the record level of such applications in 2017-18 when almost 28,000 were received — more onshore asylum claims than in any other year in our history and after an astonishing rise to 18,000 applications in 2016-17.

Organised scams such as Malaysians on an electronic travel authority seeking asylum in Australia are now almost 20 years old. In the past, the former Immigration Department acted on these quickly and the numbers out of Malaysia rarely got above a few hundred before the organisers decided they were losing money and stopped trying to game the system.

In the latest episode of this scam which started in 2016, Home Affairs appears to have been asleep. As a result, non-genuine onshore asylum claims are now counted in the tens of thousands. What we don’t know is why Peter Dutton allowed this situation to get so out of hand before acting?

Dutton needs to explain when in 2016 was he advised of the surge in non-genuine asylum applications? What did he decide should be done? Why did the actions taken, if any, not work? Why didn’t he in 2016 give an exclusive on this to his favourite media outlets as he does with boat arrivals?

Contrary to the Government’s claims, criminal syndicates running onshore asylum scams are just as great a risk to the safety of the community as the syndicates running boat arrivals. That is because the onshore asylum seekers are living in the community and are beholden to these criminal syndicates. Moreover, the individuals concerned have gone through only very limited character checking because they mostly entered on visitor visas.

Given Peter Dutton would know there are criminal syndicates organising these massive scams, did he take this matter to the National Security Committee of Cabinet? If not, why not?

While it is good the Government is at last starting to act, it needs to give the public a clearer picture of the current situation and its timetable for getting fully on top of the problem. For example, it needs to tell us how many people are now at each stage of the process (as it did with boat arrivals):

  • How many asylum applications are still at the primary stage — we know there are over 20,000 at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT)?
  • Since the surge started, how many people have been through all stages and left the country or been removed?
  • How many are still in the community having been through all processing stages (that is, as overstayers)?
  • What has the neglect of the Government cost in diverted resources and what more will it cost for the Government to get on top of the problem?
  • What is the timeframe and plan for getting things back to where they were before the surge started in 2016?
  • When can we expect the Government to capture and charge the criminal organisers involved?

Did an unexpected surge in visa applications lead to massive backlogs?

The backlog in bridging visa applications (visas that Home Affairs grants because it cannot process a substantive onshore application quickly enough) is now almost 230,000 and has grown very steadily over recent years. Senator Reynolds blithely says we can expect the backlog to grow further. Around 20 years ago, immigration officials viewed a backlog of 30,000 bridging visa applications as high risk.

Senator Reynolds told the Senate that the growth in bridging visas was caused by increased arrivals:

“As numbers increase, of course you will get an increase in all sorts of categories of people arriving and making claims to stay.”

An extraordinary statement from a Minister in a Government that says it is strong on border security.

It is important to note that for the vast majority of visa application types (asylum applications being a notable exception), the Government charges visa application fees that generate revenue well in excess of the cost of processing. A very large portion of visa application revenue is diverted by the Government to other functions or just to the budget bottom line. That is why visa application charges operate under taxation legislation rather than cost recovery.

In that sense, the size of the various backlogs in visa applications is a function of Government budget decisions and decisions of the Home Affairs leadership, not just an increase in application numbers.

What is more, some of the backlogs, including part of the bridging visa application backlog, is a function of other policy decisions. That includes the deliberate slowdown in the processing of spouse applications by restricting places for spouses in the migration program as well as the deliberate slowdown in the processing of citizenship applications.

Another factor has been poorly planned and rushed changes to visa design that have added many layers of unnecessary complexity such as the 2017-28 changes to temporary and permanent employer-sponsored visas.

While there has been an increase in applications for student and visitor visas, that increase was entirely predictable and should have been planned and managed.

The most recent increase in student visa applications started from 2013-14 when the Government implemented recommendations of the Knight Review and then progressively devolved responsibility for key student visa requirements to education providers — which has created its own problems.

An increase in visitor applications was the result of strong promotion by the tourism industry. Is the Government really telling us this was unexpected and could not have been planned for?

Finally, the backlogs are also due to the massive morale problems in Home Affairs that have been engineered by the fear-mongering of Dutton and treatment of immigration staff as second class by his Secretary, Mike Pezzullo.

What is the Government’s plan to deal with massive backlogs?

The Government needs to stop making excuses for the chaos in our visa system that it has created and start to properly deal with the problems. Being blasé about the growing backlogs, as Senator Reynolds is, will only help grow the honeypot that attracts the spivs and the criminals and penalises genuine visa applicants and their Australian sponsors.

The cuts to budget funding for visa processing in the 2019 Budget will not help to clear the backlogs, either in the Department or in the AAT. Nor will the silly staffing cap that has been in place for years in the face of the rising applications that Senator Reynolds has blamed.

And finally, while improving the visa IT system is essential, handing over ownership of this to a private corporation will do nothing to address the backlogs. It will only put the taxpayer on the hook when the inevitable privatisation disaster has to be fixed.

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.

This article was originally published by Pearls and Irritations on 26 July and is republished with permission.

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