“Terror touches down”: My thoughts on claims of visa fraud

Fairfax’s Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie have another scoop. The headline screams: “Terror touches down: visa fraud, migration crime ‘rampant,’ Immigration Department files reveal”.

Leaked files from the Department of Immigration inform their article, where serious claims are aired about the effectiveness of Australia’s immigration operations and policy.

The claims cover a wide range of immigration subject areas but can be categorised as follows:

  • 9 out of 10 General Skilled Migration visas (making up between 40,000 to 75,000 visas per year depending on your definition) possibly contain fraud.
  • 9 out of 10 Afghan visa applicants contained ‘fraud of some type’ (the vast majority from asylum claims).
  • There are serious issues with departmental investigations, particularly in relation to national security matters, primarily because of funding.
  • Loopholes in visa programs restrict the abilities of authorities to redress fraudulent claims.
  • Student visas are being granted to non-genuine students.

While we should not dismiss this article, it is dangerous to label any internal document gospel given the sheer size of the department. The only document author named – Wayne Sievers – is an Assistant Director (EL1), one of 1,655 Assistant Directors working at the department (as at end of June 2013, .pdf). I’m unsure why he is named but it seems unlikely a current staff member at that level who is named would leak such documents (but still possible). It is likely the files are a collection of internal memos (called ‘Minutes’), briefings and reports (Edit: The files are available here). It is also unclear how the Senior Executive Service was involved in authoring such claims (Edit: The Sievers document is addressed to the Secretary however there is no apparent clearance box with signatures of higher-level staff members). This is important as the claims should be taken more seriously the higher up the executive chain they go.

The is one constant theme running through the article is the lack of resources for investigations. This is something I tend to agree with. Politicians can and will argue about various funding levels. However how this is used is more important. In the debate about 457 visas last year, it turned out there were less than 50 officers in the investigations team. Regardless of what this is relative to three or five years ago, it does not appear on face value to be a high number. This is more true when you take into account the growing number of visas issued, from students to temporary work visas and permanent residents.

However, it is incorrect to say more investigators will automatically solve visa fraud. As the article alluded to, one a visa has been granted, it can be difficult to undo. Strong, clear legislation is required to reverse visas obtained by fraud. While the article does mention ‘policy changes’ in the years since, it fails to mentioned Fraud Public Interest Criterion 4020 – a new piece of legislation which came into effect in July 2013 designed explicitly to deal with visa fraud. It is unclear how this new Criterion is affecting visa applicants however its introduction signals that the department is well aware of the possibility of serious fraud.

Should the department have more funding (or allocate more funding) to investigations? Yes. But what we have to realise is that budget cuts and efficiency dividends take their toll on the public service. Operational roles such as visa investigations are easier to cut than other activities and easier not to increase in times of rising austerity. The ALP might not like to admit it but an efficiency dividend of four per cent hurts the public service. This is just one example of where things can potentially go wrong.

To specifically address some of the claims:

General Skilled Migration visa fraud – This claim stems from a 2010 report. Since 2010, the following policy changes have occurred; a wholesale review of the visa classes including massive changes to the points-test, increasing the barriers to proving applicants have the skills claimed and a new method to select visa applicants.

This is not to say visa fraud does not occur. I have no doubt it does. Since the mid-2000s, various legislative decisions and stuff ups left skilled migration in a mess. It’s taken a long time to clean up and the process probably hasn’t finished. But compared to 2010, fraud is less likely to occur in 2014. Further, the claim of 90 per cent in the first place is nearly impossible to fathom (but impossible to comment further on without context).

Afghan visa fraud – This claim stems from a 2012 report. Compared to the claims about skilled migration, it is more difficult to assess. Asylum claims are more complex than other visa classes given international obligations and an ever changing policy environment. I could be persuaded to believe anything in this area. Determining what is and what is not fraud is not simple here and before jumping to conclusions, more substantive evidence should be required. An unanswered question is how policy relating to fraud interacts with an assumed effort to tighten up asylum claims (assumed by government policy, not bureaucratic decision-making).

Student visa fraud – This claim stems from a 2009 report. International students now prop up our education industry which can be seen as a good thing or a bad thing (or both for different reasons). In a program of between 300,000 to 400,000, even a three per cent fraud rate would see 10,000 cases as fraudulent at any one time. Undoubtedly there were massive issues with providing student visas to non-genuine students for a period of time. This was done by small time education providers selling courses as a pathway to permanent residency. This occurred as the Howard government loosened up the rules determining both permanent residency regulations and what counted as an education provider.

Yet its hard to see how this claim is news now. As the article alludes to, a complete overhaul of the student visa program concluded in the wake of these findings. Linking this specific claim from a five year old document seems like a stretch given the other claims in the document.

A couple of things to conclude.

“Fraud” needs to be defined and this is critical how we view success and failure. The term means different things to different people. Particularly in the case of the Afghan’s, this might be relating to documents or processing interviews, both of which are difficult to wedge into how we make policy for asylum. Plastering these claims across the front page without a more detailed understanding of what exactly is occurring is a shame.

Baker and McKenzie’s article is important as these matters don’t get discussed regularly. However overall, the tone struck me as over the top and attempting to link specific issues such as terrorism to immigration which were not proved beyond doubt. Important questions remained unasked, most obviously the links behind how the Department of Immigration engages with national security matters.

To me, asking why the Department of Immigration has failed on an investigation matter into suspected terrorists smacks of asking about the wrong agency. This is not to say the public service should blame shift its problems. But far too often we see claims which are difficult to reconcile with the understanding that immigration policy is complex and nuanced. ‘Terror touching down’ does little to advance this understanding.

2 thoughts on ““Terror touches down”: My thoughts on claims of visa fraud

  1. I sent the law to Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker pointing out that there are no actual offences beyond cancellation which allows for appeals. The reason so few are cancelled is because of the prohibitive costs in the courts.

    Singling out Afghans though disgusts me because the department have been aware for 20 years that Afghan have little or no ID since 1973 due to years of wars and invasions. The lie is an excuse to try and prevent granting protection and led to a slight fall off of visa acceptances in 2011-2012 but 90% of those denied were granted on appeal, the last known figures for Afghan refugee visas on primary acceptance was 2012 and that was 87% with another 90% over turned on appeals.

    Afghans don’t have birthdays, that is what they are claiming is fraud.

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