Keneally exposes visa system chaos under Dutton

The Morrison Government clearly has no plans to deal with the chaos in our visa system, writes former Immigration Department deputy secretary Abul Rizvi.

NEW Shadow Minister for Home Affairs and Immigration Kristina Keneally has signalled Labor’s intention to hold the Government to account for the chaos in our visa system. This article updates some of the data on that chaos which confirms the Department of Home Affairscontinues to struggle. The Department’s funding over the next few years, together with its plans for visa privatisation, suggest the Government has no effective method for regaining control over our air borders.

The problems with our visa system start with enormous visa application backlogs and ballooning processing times (see Table 1 for examples).

Table 1: Applications on Hand Versus Places
Visa CategoryOn Hand End June 2018Places in 2017-18
Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme22,5006,221
Employer Sponsored Migration53,09435,528
Business Innovation20,6107,260

We are unlikely to get an update on these backlogs until the Government releases the report on the 2018-19 Migration Program.

But we do know these backlogs are forcing people to bypass the off-shore visas they really want and use visitor visas to enter Australia, and then apply for the visa they really wanted. This is showing up in the fact over 24% of net overseas migration in 2017-18 was due to people arriving on visitor visas and changing status — an astonishing and unprecedented level. It is a key indicator of a visa system that is out of control. This trend is highly likely to increase further in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Table 2: People arriving on visitor visas contributing to net overseas migration (NOM) arrivals
Year2013-14 2014-152015-162016-172017-18
Visitor Arrivals Contributing to NOM44,45050,24060,55071,870 (Est)78,020 (Est)

The massive level of people arriving on visitor visas and then applying for a different visa after arrival, is contributing to record increases in the backlog of people in Australia on bridging visas (see Table 3). These are visas the Department of Home Affairs uses when it cannot process onshore visa applications quickly enough.

Table 3: Stock of People on Bridging Visas as at end March
BV Holders107,191111,178136,904153,809194,875229,242

Accelerating growth in the bridging visa backlog is screaming out to criminals and spivs that Australia’s visa system is in trouble. It is creating a honeypot attracting people smugglers who abuse our onshore protection visa system.

In 2017-18 we had a record number of onshore asylum seeker applications, exceeding that of any year under the Rudd/Gillard governments (see Table 4). And while Home Affairs processed around 15,000 asylum seeker cases at the primary stage in 2017-18, that meant the primary stage backlog grew by around 13,000.

Table 4: Onshore Protection Visa Applications (ie Asylum Seekers)

The record number of asylum seekers and bridging visa holders are flowing onto a rapidly growing backlog at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). Despite efforts to increase AAT decisions, the backlog continues to rise (see Table 5).

Table 5: Stock of active cases at AAT Migration and Refugee Division
YearEnd July 2016End June 2017End June 2018End May 2019
Migration Cases11,79816,09229,99138,293
Asylum Cases5,6828,37014,44520,149

The active asylum seeker caseload at AAT is also growing rapidly and at end May 2019, stood at 20,149. Flow through to the AAT from the 2017-18 surge in asylum seekers at the primary stage is continuing, with 61% of asylum applications year to date in 2018-19 being from Malaysia and 13% from China. While the AAT refusal rate for the current cohort of asylum seekers is 92%, we do not know what portion of the failed asylum seekers are leaving Australia, being located and removed or just melting into the community.

Home Affairs does not publicly disclose the size of the total asylum seeker backlog at the primary stage or the total number of asylum seekers who have been refused but remain in Australia mostly as overstayers. The total number of asylum seekers at primary stage, at the AAT and the number who have become overstayers over the past five years, is unlikely to be less than 50,000 and most likely much larger and growing rapidly.

The visa system – and by implication our borders – has never been so out of control. It will take many years and many hundreds of millions of dollars (possibly billions) to get back to an even keel.

But the 2019 Budget Papers reveal funding for both visa and citizenship processing, as well as for border security, to be in steep decline. Funding for border security is to decline by 30.3% over the forward estimates, while funding for visa and citizenship processing is to decline by 16.2%.

The Government clearly has no plans to deal with the chaos in our visa system.

To our shame, it now seems highly likely Australia will follow the European and U.S. path of a growing permanent underclass of failed asylum seekers who will live from hand to mouth trying to obtain work illegally wherever possible.

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