Bridging visa surge includes 37,000 mystery holders and swamps permanent migration cuts

Massive growth in Australia’s ballooning temporary migration is dwarfing the Government’s cuts to the permanent intake.

Key points:

  • An extra 40,000 people are in Australia on bridging visas compared to a year ago
  • The Government has revealed it plans to cut the permanent intake by up to 20,000 this year
  • More than 2.2 million temporary visa holders are currently in Australia, a record high

The number of people who hold bridging visas — the same kind of visa given to the Commonwealth Games athletes who are seeking asylum — has hit a historic high.

At the end of March, 195,000 people with bridging visas were in Australia, including more than 37,000 whose nationality was not specified.

That is up more than 40,000 on a year ago, and close to 90,000 since 2014, according to official Department of Home Affairs figures.

It has pushed the number of people in Australia on temporary visas to more than 2.2 million — again, a record high.

Bridging visas are usually given to migrants whose substantive applications are currently being processed.

Jonathan Granger, director of Granger Australia and a former national president of the Migration Institute of Australia, described the migration program as “chaotic”.

“The resources available to the department are limited every year by Government, and yet Government rolls out reform agendas that are not well thought through, that require transitional arrangements and require multiple layers of processing against regulations in the same visa areas,” he said.

“The result of those things is significant delays.”

Attempt to cut migration
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said the Government was planning on cutting the permanent migration intake from its traditional level of 190,000 per year, down to approximately 170,000 this year.

But that number is dwarfed by the scale of the temporary visa program.

In the past year an additional 150,000 visitors are in Australia on temporary visas, including 33,000 more foreign students.

Many of these — such as students, backpackers and many bridging visa holders — have extensive work rights.

A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said processing times were driven by a range of factors including:

  • the volume of applications received,
  • completeness of the application,
  • how promptly applicants respond to any requests from the department, and
  • the complexity of assessments in relation to health, character and national security requirements.

“The department monitors feedback, trends, and fluctuating processing times each month to identify issues in specific caseloads, opportunities for continuous business process improvement and client service efficiencies,” they told.

The mystery 37,000
The boom in bridging visas has been driven by a mysterious component of 37,000 visa holders for whom the Department of Home Affairs will not reveal their nationality.

he Department of Home Affairs declined to provide more explanation about this group.

Mr Granger said the program changes and lack of resources meant there were growing numbers of visa refusals that ended up at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

“This results in a significant rise of unwarranted refusals, and transfers time delays and costs over to the Appeals Tribunal,” he said.

“The Appeals Tribunal is wasting resources on expensive tribunal members deciding on simple visa matters.”

The average processing time at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal for temporary work visas is 381 days over the past six months, up from 286 for the corresponding period a year ago.

Wayne Parcell, immigration partner at EY, said it was impossible to determine the “root cause” of the increase in bridging visas without more information.

“A surge in application rates in different visa categories, and looking at visa refusal numbers in different categories, can just as much be a reason for the increase as an increase in processing times across a range of visa categories,” he said.

Mr Parcell said many of his clients already on bridging visas were forced to request separate bridging visas if they needed to travel — for example for business or family visits — creating additional administrative load on the department.

“A reduction in the number of bridging visas is possible if a multiple entry travel facility was granted to all applicants who are legitimately awaiting a visa decision in Australia,” he said.

“This would decrease administrative effort for the Department of Home Affairs and improve the service experience for clients.”

The Turnbull government has fully reversed a regulation that effectively doubled the income requirements for visa sponsors.

The Coalition has officially scrapped its changes to so-called Assurance of Support visa sponsorship rules, weeks after a government backdown was negotiated to prevent a Senate defeat.

Social services minister Dan Tehan tabled the documents in parliament on Wednesday to complete the reversal, less than two months after the changes were introduced.

The government struck a deal with the Greens to restore the old rules when it became apparent the party had enough support from Labor and the crossbench to defeat the changes on the floor of the parliament.

The new requirements were brought in at the beginning of April and meant residents needed much higher salaries to bring their parents to Australia on a visa.

An individual trying to sponsor their two parents would need to prove they earn an annual income of $86,607, up from around $45,000 under the previous rules.

While the rules were in place for a number of weeks, the minister agreed that anyone who applied in that window would be reassessed under the old rules.

Greens senator Nick McKim thanked the minister for “engaging” on the issue and welcomed the “change of heart”.

“No doubt the government could see the writing on the wall, in terms of the Senate being prepared to support our motion,” he told a news channel earlier this month.

The reversal came following weeks of backlash from migrant communities, with the Chinese community in particular launching a sophisticated petition campaign.

Reporting from various media channels demonstrated the changes would have impacted tens of thousands of migrants on Australia’s long waiting list for visas who were still being vetted by the Home Affairs department.