Peter Dutton and the great Australian tourist visa scam

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The abuse of power exhibited by Peter Dutton's Home Affairs Department has made a mockery of our tourist visa system, writes Murray Hunter.

INTERNATIONAL TOURISM is one of the bright lights of the Australian economy with almost 10 million international visitors to Australia last year and growing around 9% per annum. This contributes almost AUD $50 billion to the Australian economy per annum, about AUD $3.5 billion in foreign exchange per month and directly supports more than 100,000 Australian jobs.

The Australian tourist visa processing system was once fair, impartial, transparent and accountable. However, recent information surfacing about Australian visitor visa processing indicates that practices under the new Home Affairs super-department are secretive, unfair, deceitful, unaccountable, dishonest and, in some areas, even illegal.

In addition, even with the relatively new partly privatised procedures forced into the visitor visa application procedure, there is a massive backlog of applications that are being dishonestly dealt with through giving refusals, which is causing massive morale problems in processing staff

Visitor (tourist) visas

Visitor visa revenue is worth in excess of AUD $1.5 billion per annum to the Australian Government.

The processing of visitor visas has become secretive and completely divorced from applicants. The objective of the screening process is to screen out people who don’t intend to comply with the term of the visa or don’t intend to return to their home country. The process is also intended to screen out criminals, those who may burden the health and social welfare system, paedophiles, and national security threats.

However, the system is rejecting many bona fide tourists and visitors on statutory grounds, such as a belief that the traveler won’t comply with the terms of the visa or intends to remain in Australia. Previously, visa processing officers, if in doubt over an application, would seek additional information from the applicant. This practice appears to have ceased and the applicant has no right to appeal or even no right to query any decision. Any correspondence in relation to an application will just remain unanswered.

The due diligence process on processing applicants has been substantially lowered even though applicants are paying for the service.

The complexity of the application process encourages applicants to use agents. Some of these agents guarantee a 100% success rate. A few agents are claiming to potential applicants that they have connections, but this is hearsay with no corroboration. This would not be the first time that corruption has been associated with visa processing. There have been numerous cases of visas sold by Home Affairs officials for both money and sexual favours. However, Home Affairs are planning to solve these alleged corrupt practices by moving all visa decisions to India, out of reach of the agents.

A former staff processing officer in an Asian capital told the writer that they work on a quota system — in other words, a certain percentage of applications must be rejected. A current officer in another Asian capital said that after a certain number of applications are processed each day, the remainder are rejected.

The VFS monopoly

Approximately five years ago, the then Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship appointed VFS Global as the sole processing partner of visa applications for entry into Australia.

This appointment process of VFS appears to have been undertaken very quietly without the usual press releases accompanying a major policy decision. The lack of transparency in this agreement is dubious at best, where the department selected a single company as a service delivery partner to handle visa applications and the taking of biometric data from applicants on its behalf, which has effectively created a monopoly for VFS Global.

This business is worth in excess of AUD $50,000,000 per year to VFS Global.

On the surface, this appears to be an exercise in outsourcing with the objective of streamlining the visa application process. However, on further examination, concerns arise about the principle of competition, integrity of peoples’ personal data and links to other data collection agencies.

The appointment of VFS Global as the sole service delivery partner to handle visa applications appears to break the doctrine of “free competition” outlined in The Competition and Consumer Act 2010, which upholds anti-trust principals in the interests of fair and open competition.

The agreement between Home Affairs and VFS Global squeezes out many visa agencies that have been working with Immigration for years, to some degree marginalising these businesses that have painstakingly been built up over the years.

However, the Act exempts the Australian Government and its agencies from scrutiny, where this immunity allows Home Affairs to appoint agents who practice monopolistic competition in an unfair way. Under the monopolistic VFS arrangements, Australian Immigration applies discrimination against applications lodged directly to them, by a factor of three.

For example, a tourist visa through the Australian Immigration office in a consular office is advertised to take 30 working days to process, where VFS Global advertise that applications lodged through them will take only ten working days. These advertised longer lead times by Australian Consular Offices effectively grant VFS Global a working monopoly on Australian visa applications.

Very little, if any, benefit to anybody appears out of this agreement. There seem to be few labor savings for the Australian Visa offices at diplomatic missions and no benefits at all to clients. The agreement has effectively increased service charges to clients by up to 40%.

The structure of the Australian visa industry after the VFS agreement has dramatically changed, giving one firm an unfair advantage and shut out the others. The lack of general transparency of this decision has privately angered many immigration advisors and agents, especially with the way the agreement with VFS Global was created.

Who is VFS?

Visitors believe that the “Australian Visa Application Centre” is, as its name suggests, Australian. It is not.

VFS is supposedly just a collecting agency and we are told to trust that they will not copy or forward on collected data including biometrics. In the light of past security scandals involving VFS, this trust is misplaced given issues including cases of confidential client data negligence, security compromises and data leakage associated with this contractor.

No consul interviews are undertaken whatsoever. VFS websites clearly state that the company has no say in the granting of a visa. VFS Global provides services such as dedicated visa application centres and websites, joint visa application centres, waiting lounges, online appointment scheduling facilities and courier pickup services.

VFS has had issues with maintaining the integrity of client data in relation to visa applications in the past.

The company’s online UK visa application system was found to be flawed back in 2007 where more than 50,000 applicants’ identities and personal information from India, Nigeria and Russia were compromised.

Even though an Indian visa applicant reported this problem in 2005, no action was taken by either VFS or UK Visas.

The VFS website was only shut down after the UK media became aware of this lapse of security.

VFS and UK Visas were found to be in breach of the Data Protection Act 1998, where the British Foreign Office was required to review its relationship with VFS Global.

VFS was just recently exposed for fraudulently selling tickets that entitle passengers to use premium immigration lanes at Bangkok’s two international airports earlier this year.

The London-based VFS Global is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Kuoni Group, a public-listed company headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland. What makes VFS interesting is that the chairman of the parent company, Henning Boysen, was closely involved with Booz, Allen & Hamilton in the area of predictive intelligence, the same company that Edward Snowden worked for.

Like Booz, Allen & Hamilton, VFS Global almost solely acts as a contractor for Government in data collection services. Two other directors were previously involved with Boston Consulting Group which has long been suspected of having close links with the U.S. intelligence community.

The biggest danger, however, is that information supplied for the sole purpose of requesting a visa could be disseminated and used beyond the purpose it was provided. VFS Global’s track record and the connections of the parent company’s directors with organisations like with Booz, Allen & Hamilton, give great reason for concern.

Crown Casino and corruption in Home Affairs

Recent revelations have highlighted that a special deal was done between Home Affairs and Crown Casino, where numerous allegations of illegal practices have been made against the organisation to facilitate fast-track short-term visitor visas for high-rolling Chinese gamblers. It was also reported as part of the package deal included access to sex workers, who may have been trafficked into the country and working against their will. Questions are now being asked as to whether this deal has compromised border security where money launderers, drug and people traffickers, Chinese triad bosses, Chinese intelligence agents and other criminals have been allowed into the country.

Home Affairs and Crown Casino are now under investigation by the little known independent agency Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, as this organisation is not part of the Department of Home Affairs.

Towards Big Brother or big corruption?

Home Affairs is tainted with a potential compromise in integrity. The secretary of the department, Mike Pezzullo, has a brother who was a former Customs officer convicted for perjury and being a member of a corrupt ring of officers at Sydney Airport. Some are arguing that this is a conflict of interest for him. Pezzullo has been a hawk for the surveillance State and would cover up anything embarrassing for the State, including the intimidation of a senator.

Good governance requires high ranking public servants to be totally and absolutely beyond any reproach in wrongdoing. It has to be asked whether the department had the right person in charge. It’s not just the integrity of Mike Pezzullo that is at stake but the whole Government.

The Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, compromised the integrity of the Government with his discretion in having one rule for some and another rule for others. Dutton was accused of helping friends of his powerful friends get visas, while ignoring pleas by an Australian veteran for help in a visa for a refugee who was an interpreter for Australian forces in Afghanistan.

The experiment to make Home Affairs a super-department and the vanguard of the national security community has to be put in question if the department can’t run its visitor visa section with honesty and integrity. There are too many signs of corruption to allow Home Affairs to have so much power over people of the nation and visitors to Australia.

The Australian Federal Police Union is fearful that integration of the AFP into Home affairs will compromise the force’s independence and integrity. Former Attorney-General George Brandis, before departing to a diplomatic posting in London, warned that Mike Pezzullo’s push to the Department of Home Affairs into every aspect of Australian life is a great cause for concern.

Murray Hunter is an Australian independent academic based in Thailand. You can follow Murray on Twitter @DalastKimbasabi.

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