A widespread problem of corrupt migration agents poses a “high risk” threat, and may require greater investigative powers to combat, according to the Department of Home Affairs.
Disciplinary investigations by Home Affairs found some migration agents have swindled hundreds of thousands of dollars from desperate clients, while others regularly falsify documents to obtain visas which should never have been issued.
Newly released findings from the probes show eight migration agents were suspended or barred from the profession in the final two months of last year alone, and 34 faced penalties in 2018 for inappropriate conduct.
Assistant Home Affairs Minister Linda Reynolds said she would “not tolerate this kind of behaviour by migration agents who think it is acceptable to defraud clients”.
“The government is working closely with the appropriate authorities to target rogue agents and ensure those who apply for visas are not exploited,” Senator Reynolds said.
In one of the worst of the findings, Destiny Visa migration agent Maryam Shahi was found to have required a $50,000 “bond” to obtain a visitor visa for an Iranian citizen in November 2017 despite no bond being required nor requested by Home Affairs for the application.
Ms Shahi later said she had sought the bond because another migration agent in Tehran had previously helped a client obtained a visitor visa, but that family had refused to return to Iran after the trip and applied for protection, harming his “livelihood”.
In another complaint against Ms Shahi, lodged in October last year, a client known as Ms EGS was also asked for a $30,000 deposit to “guarantee the grant of the visitor visa”.
No application was ever lodged with Home Affairs, and at the time of the complaint, Ms Shahi – who has since had her license cancelled – still owed Ms EGS $9000 of the bond deposit paid.
There were at least five other occasions, according to the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority, that Ms Shahi was paid for visa services – once more than $9000 – where no application was every received by Home Affairs and despite the “desperate circumstances” of her clients.
Ms Shahi declined to comment, citing an appeal of the findings to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and to the Commonwealth Ombudsman, but denied any wrongdoing.
Early last year, the federal government tasked Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Migration with investigating if current laws regulating migration agents were working.
Liberal MP Jason Wood, the committee’s chairman, told the Herald and the Age that the Home Affairs findings were only the tip of the iceberg.
He said more information about migration agents needed to be made available to prospective clients, suggesting the government should adopt a system similar to New Zealand where companies must publicly provide their success rate for visa applications.
“That’s one thing the committee is looking at, but we have also spoken to the Commonwealth Ombudsman about the matters they investigate … if someone overseas wants to complain, they go through them, but we need to make it a lot easier to access,” he said.
“A bigger problem is not the migration agents, but when community leaders start giving visa advice, and that nearly always ends up in tears.”
The inquiry is due to report in the next month.
Home Affairs, in a submission to that investigation, claimed that the threat “posed by corrupt migration agents (both registered and unregistered) are assessed by government crime intelligence agencies as high risk”.
Home Affairs pointed to their lack of access call charge records, data stored on phones, and inability to triangulate phones as “obvious difficulties” in investigating these issues.
It also raised concerns that migration agents did not have to declare what other business interests they had to the Migration Agents Registration Authority as part of their license.
John Hourigan, the national president of the Migration Institute of Australia, said the majority of operators within the industry were “highly competent and ethical professionals”.
Mr Hourigan, who operates Hourigan Visa & Migration Services, said while the MIA “abhors bad or shoddy practices of a few bad apples that emerge within every profession”, it “was very disappointed by the lack of action” by the government to stop unregistered agents.
“(They) appear to be able to apply their trade with immunity from prosecution,” he said.
“The MIA repeatedly reports unregistered operators to Home Affairs and the (Australian Border Force) and we never receive any feedback on compliance activity in relation to unregistered operators.”
Another agent, Lanshan Gao, an employee of Great Lands Investment, had his license cancelled in December after being found to have made up to 14 “systemic, planned” visa applications where he knew his clients had “no legitimate grounds for seeking protection”.
“By charging a considerable fee to ‘put in’ a protection visa application for his clients without supporting documentation and exerting minimal effort in relation to these applications, has exploited his vulnerable clients,” the disciplinary decision finding reads.
“The agent has manufactured protection visa claims for his clients and in so doing has demonstrated profound dishonesty and a lack of integrity.”