Politics Analysis

Nixon report challenges Home Affairs over visa system exploitation

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The review of our visa system was submitted to Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil asking if Labor is doing enough to fix it (Screenshot via YouTube)

A review of the criminal exploitation of Australia's visa system is questioning the Labor Government's resolve to fix the Coalition's mistakes. Dr Abul Rizvi reports.

*Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.

FORMER POLICE Commissioner Christine Nixon’s damning report raises two crucial questions:

  1. how could the extraordinary level of exploitation of Australia’s visa system have been allowed by the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) – a department set up by Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and Secretary Mike Pezzullo specifically to make the visa system more secure against exploitation by criminals; and
  2. is the Government now doing enough to address the vulnerabilities?

In her transmittal letter to Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil, former Police Commissioner Christine Nixon says:

‘I know from a career in policing and law enforcement that criminal organisations and unscrupulous people are always looking for ways to exploit and make money. It is clear that gaps and weaknesses in Australia’s visa system are allowing this to happen.’

Nixon makes the point that DHA clearly had other priorities (for example, boat arrivals) that allowed this to happen. But for almost a decade, Dutton and Pezzullo have denied the evidence of visa exploitation at an industrial scale that was staring them in the face. Pezzullo has been in denial for years. And as recently as a Senate Estimates hearing earlier this year, he attempted to distract from his failure to protect Australia’s visa system from criminal exploitation.

Early in his tenure at immigration, he had criticised past immigration officers for their sentimentality. He argued the new department under him would not be trapped by history, trying to suggest that under him, the department would be clinical in its approach to dealing with visa fraud and criminal exploitation.

The reality turned out to be very different from Pezzullo’s rhetoric.

What does Nixon recommend?

Nixon makes seven broad recommendations.

Firstly, she proposes the development of a greater investigative capacity and to re-prioritise the immigration compliance function. I wrote on the need for additional immigration compliance funding in early May 2023.

As a result of the Nine Network’s Trafficked series, the Government has set up Operation Inglenook to pursue the specific cases identified. In addition, after years of decline, the Government has allocated an additional $50 million over four years for immigration compliance. The question is, given the size of the challenge, whether this will be enough.

Secondly, Nixon recommends strengthened regulation of registered migration agents (RMAs) including:

  • comprehensive background checks on initial and repeat RMA applications — the Government announced it is proceeding with this;
  • positive obligation on RMAs to ensure clients understand Australia’s workplace rights and protections and how to report exploitation — the Government is pursuing this through a package of measures to address migrant worker exploitation;
  • establish a proactive compliance function; invest in a strong and enduring investigative capability and increase compliance and investigative powers within the Office of Migration Agent Registration Authority (OMARA) — while we don’t know how the additional funding for immigration compliance in the recent Budget will be spent, this is a likely priority;
  • increase financial penalties for misconduct by RMAs — we may see legislation for this later this year;
  • extend the requirement to register with OMARA to offshore agents — an effective method of enabling this will need to be developed given the limits of extra-territoriality;
  • review OMARA’s engagement with industry associations — the two desperately need to be working together; and
  • undertake a trusted branding exercise for RMAs.

Nixon is right to focus on unscrupulous RMAs (and non-RMAs) as they are likely to have been key to the massive labour trafficking scam that started in 2015. Why former Home Affairs Minister Dutton and Secretary Pezzullo didn’t target unscrupulous RMAs to tackle the scam in 2015 is a mystery. Instead, they let OMARA become a completely ineffective regulator.

OMARA engagement with industry associations will be essential as they are well-placed to help OMARA identify RMAs likely to be engaged in unscrupulous activity. But these industry associations will need to stop pretending unscrupulous RMAs are just “a few bad apples” when journalists have so readily identified major RMAs involved in highly criminal activities. That line might play well with their members, but few people actually believe this mantra. It is in the interests of industry associations themselves to help weed out unscrupulous RMAs and restore integrity to Australia’s visa system.

Thirdly, Nixon recommends strengthened regulation of education providers and regulation of education agents. Note that governments have been discussing this for over two decades with little progress. Responsibility in this area rests with the Education Department, which is heavily conflicted due to one of its key performance indicators being to grow the international education industry (apparently no matter the consequences to the reputation of that industry).

While a number of Nixon’s specific recommendations focus on private Vocational Education and Training (V.E.T.) providers and the need for the V.E.T. regulator to play a much stronger role, it would be a mistake to assume universities are not a problem in this space. Universities are bringing in large numbers of students who quickly move to the V.E.T. sector. That suggests that either they are recruiting students who are not suited to university education or that these students never intended to do a university course.

It is certainly the case that few universities properly manage the education agents they use when they should be weeding out unscrupulous education agents. It seems that for many universities, the lure of student fee revenue is just too great.

Fourthly, Nixon recommends improved temporary worker protections from exploitation. While the Government has announced a package of measures in this space, there are very real questions about how effective these will be. This is an issue the Government will need to revisit, perhaps relatively soon.

Fifthly, Nixon recommends increased verification of identity. This also has merit. However, DHA resources offshore are very limited and the volume of movements is large and growing rapidly. It needs to find more efficient means of checking identity.

Sixthly, Nixon recommends reducing timeframes for some visa processing and merits review. This relates in particular to asylum cases. This also has merit as it would reduce the financial and other benefits from lodging unmeritorious asylum cases. The costs of this, however, would be significant and it is not clear the Government has allocated sufficient funds to enable significantly faster processing. Weeding out unscrupulous RMAs is an essential part of this.  

Finally, Nixon recommends increased integrity detection programs. Once again, this will require resources DHA does not have.

Overall, Nixon has produced a very useful report. The devil will be in the detailed implementation, especially given the size of the challenge after years of neglect.

But will the Government bite the bullet on Pezzullo’s Home Affairs experiment and put the immigration compliance function back with immigration policy and administration (where it had been since World War II)? That is essential to restoring visa integrity.

*This article is also available on audio here:

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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