Home Affairs loses control of the visa system

While the two main political parties hover around immigration issues without addressing the substance, some developments in March confirm once again that the Department of the Interior (DHA) has lost control of the visa system.

Novak Djokovic’s debacle earlier this year was just a taste of the chaos.

The election’s focus on boat arrivals and temporary protection visas when we haven’t had a boat since the start of 2013-14, as well as the marginal difference between major parties on visas for farm workers, are also missing the real issues.

In addition to the problems created by poor visa design/administration and poor DHA staff morale, a critical issue is the impasse in the visa system and the extent to which this reflects a loss of border control. But we saw no discussion of this during the election campaign.

One of the best indicators of the standoff is the number of people in Australia on bridge visas. The vast majority of these people held a background visa while in Australia and applied for another background. While they wait for a decision from DHA, they receive a relay visa to maintain their legal status.

A large number of people on bridging visas reflects a system unable to cope with its workload – in fact, a system that is out of control (see Figure 1).

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

In the 1990s, it was unusual for there to be more than 30,000 people on bridging visas. After the global financial crisis, the number of people holding bridging visas rose to around 100,000.

Work to reduce this backlog caused it to gradually decrease to about 70,000 in 2014. But then the DHA stopped working on the backlog. I was surprised when the DHA allowed the backlog of bridging visas to reach over 200,000 in 2019.

During the pandemic, at a time when offshore visa applications had dropped significantly and available resources presented an opportunity to clear the backlog of bridging visas, the DHA allowed it to grow to an astonishing 373,109 late March 2022.

Part of the bridging visa backlog is associated with the labor trafficking scam abusing the asylum system that began in 2015. The scam is largely aimed at providing cheap farm laborers.

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

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

Unlike the discussion of boat arrivals, there was no mention of this scam and what can be done about it during the election campaign. The government is happy to sweep these 95,000 people under the rug even though they represent a massive loss in border control.

The current blockage of the visa system will encourage the organizers of this scam to take it up again now that international borders have been reopened. The large visa backlogs ashore are a honeypot for the unscrupulous while penalizing the honest.

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

While the contribution of visitors to net overseas migration is traditionally less than 10% annual, this has changed considerably over the past decade (see Chart 3). The number of long-term visitor arrivals in Australia increased from around 40,000 in 2012-2013 to over 132,000 in 2019. In that year, this accounted for over 40% of net migration to Australia. overseas, accounting for more than 25% of Australia’s overall population growth.

Again, this loss of visa control was not mentioned during the election campaign.

Chart 3 (Source: ABS, Migration)

It is clear that the government has no intention of remedying this situation as it would require a massive infusion of additional resources to DHA, especially given the expected increase in visa applications as international travel resumes. .

The 2022 budget indeed shows a dramatic reduction in resources for DHA.

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

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

Funding for the Humanitarian Program and Settlement Services increases from $779 million in 2021-22 to $631 million in 2023-24.

Overall, funding for DHA’s immigration functions declines from $2.6 billion in 2021-22 to $1.7 billion in 2023-24, a decrease of $0.9 billion over two years.

With the number of visa applications expected to increase over the next two years as we return to more normal levels of international movement of people, and the existing massive gridlock in the visa system, a reduction in funding of Home Affairs will further reduce its ability to deliver its basic services. immigration duties.

Whoever wins the government will have to deal with it urgently. Failure to act would lead to an even greater loss of border control.

Dr Abul Rizvi is an Australian freelance columnist and a former undersecretary of the Department of Immigration. You can follow Abul on Twitter @Rizvi Abul.

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