As the government embarks on a major overhaul of Home Affairs, it is taking steps to fix flaws in the immigration system that have been exploited by organised crime groups. By Denham Sadler.

Immigration beset by ‘grotesque abuses’

A woman in a black blazer speaks while a man with grey hair and dressed in a navy suit stands watching beside her.
Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil and Immigration Minister Andrew Giles this week.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

Australia’s immigration system is broken. Two reports handed to the government in recent months leave little room for any other conclusion.

In her report submitted in March, and released publicly for the first time this week, former Victoria Police chief commissioner Christine Nixon found “grotesque abuses” of temporary workers and international students by organised crime groups that were exploiting “gaps and weaknesses” in Australia’s immigration and visa systems. Nixon’s investigation was commissioned following Nine media reports in October last year highlighting flaws that had enabled illegal rackets involved in sexual exploitation and human trafficking.

A separate review from March, undertaken by former senior public servant Martin Parkinson, offered a broader critique of the entire immigration system, finding it lacking in terms of its vast backlogs, outdated skills lists and reliance on temporary visas.

Alongside the release of Nixon’s report on Wednesday, the Labor government unveiled its response across a series of announcements, with reforms focused on strengthening protections in the international education and vocational education and training (VET) sectors, boosting compliance and integrity measures within Home Affairs, and addressing abuses of the refugee protection system.

For Abul Rizvi, who held senior positions in the Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007, the reforms are long overdue.

“The changes have been desperately needed now for almost a decade,” Rizvi tells The Saturday Paper. “This has been brewing for ages; it’s not something that suddenly happened.”

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil agrees. Upon unveiling what she’s described as the most substantial reforms to Australia’s immigration compliance for decades, she said the problems in the system are “not new” and the “warning signs were there”.

The Nixon report found gaps in regulations, and a lack of focus on the problem by Home Affairs, were partly responsible for allowing organised crime to hijack the visa system. “I know from a career in policing and law enforcement that criminal organisations and unscrupulous people are always looking for ways to exploit and make money,” Nixon wrote. “It is clear that gaps and weaknesses in Australia’s visa system are allowing this to happen.”

Nixon noted problems stemming from the creation of the Australian Border Force, formed in 2015 by the former Coalition government, bringing together 35 pieces of legislation and several discrepancies. For example, its investigators can exercise search warrants and make arrests under the Customs Act but not under the Migration Act.

The creation of the ABF “diminished investigation and field compliance resources”, Nixon found, and Home Affairs’ resources were aimed at other priorities, including refugees arriving by boat, and a strong focus on illicit drugs.

Exacerbating this, the number of immigration compliance staff in the department was almost halved over a decade of Coalition governments, from 380 in 2013-14 to 200 in 2022-23.

University of Sydney associate professor and global migration expert Anna Boucher agrees that the emphasis on boat arrivals has distracted from wider problems within the immigration system. She says the Nixon review and the government’s response to it represent a rebalancing of priorities.

“There was all this focus on maritime arrivals, and in the process this issue mushroomed,” Boucher tells The Saturday Paper. “The way people are entering Australia unlawfully has shifted back to airport arrivals, and the nature of the visa system, with a strong focus on temporary visas has, in a way, permitted that to occur.

“The general public probably assumes because of the focus on maritime arrivals that everything has been dealt with, but that has completely overlooked the reality of the immigration program,” she says. “There’s been this decoy and we simply have lost sight of it.”

Of the 34 recommendations in Nixon’s report, the government disagreed with two relating to banning temporary migrants from working in the sex industry, saying this might violate Australia’s human rights obligations.

The federal government agreed either fully or in part with 24 of the recommendations and “noted” eight, including Nixon’s calls to expand the regulatory scheme to offshore migration agents and to expand the anti-money laundering scheme to cover immigration-related bodies.

In its response this week, the government on Wednesday allocated $50 million to the establishment of a new immigration compliance division within Home Affairs, representing a 40 per cent increase in funding for compliance from last year. A multi-agency taskforce investigating suspected sex and drug traffickers will also be made permanent.

This new division will sit within Home Affairs rather than ABF, Boucher says, further signalling the shift within the department. “It’s a rebalancing of where compliance energy is put,” she says. “Some of these things make complete sense and should have happened years ago.”

The current immigration regulators have been ineffectual and change won’t be instantaneous, Rizvi says. “Fundamentally, these have been weak regulators and suddenly giving them teeth is not going to be easy,” he says.

There will also be a crackdown on the domestic migration agent sector, with stricter background checks and vetting, and more powers handed to the regulatory agency overseeing them. According to the review, about 40 per cent of migration agents used by people hoping to enter Australia are unregistered.

A further $27.8 million has also been allocated to improve the use of biometrics to verify the identity of migrants entering Australia.

And on Thursday the government unveiled a $160 million package focusing on reducing the backlog of asylum claims, particularly in the onshore refugee protection system. The Nixon review found wait times for these claims were up to a decade, and that bad actors were taking advantage of this by lodging non-genuine applications for protection.

The funding includes $54 million to prioritise new asylum claims under a “last in, first out” process and $48 million in legal assistance services.

These add to initiatives announced earlier this month, including reforms centred on the international education and VET sectors, and focused on shutting down “rorts and loopholes”. Among them is a ban on education agents receiving commissions for “poaching” international students and transferring them to other private providers.

Rizvi welcomes the reforms but says the recent rebound in immigration will make it more difficult for the government to implement them. “The criticism of the current government you could make is it moved far too slowly and, as a result of the very slow response, it allowed net migration to get to a level that no one anticipated,” he says.

In March this year Australia’s net migration hit 450,000 people in the previous 12 months, compared with about 240,000 people before the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s an unsustainable level; it shouldn’t have got to that level, and it wouldn’t have if the government had acted earlier,” Rizvi says.

The net migration increase is likely to be a temporary boost following the pandemic, allowing for a large influx of international students.

Underpinning the government’s reform package was a message that the blame for the systemic flaws in the immigration system lies with former Home Affairs minister and current opposition leader Peter Dutton.

“One of the greatest frauds that’s ever been perpetrated in Australian politics is Peter Dutton presenting himself as the tough guy who kept our border secure and our nation safe,” O’Neil said. “The truth is that Peter Dutton … presided over a migration system that was used to facilitate some of the worst crimes in our society.”

Dutton responded by criticising the government for taking more than six months to release the Nixon report, saying it is now a distraction from the debate around the Voice to Parliament referendum.

“We’re not going to take lectures in relation to migration issues from a Labor government that presided over the greatest immigration debacle in our country’s history,” Dutton said.

Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo was notably absent from any of the announcements. Pezzullo headed the relevant departments for a decade, including when the ABF and Department of Home Affairs were established. He has been stood aside pending an investigation into text messages between himself and Liberal powerbroker Scott Briggs revealed in Nine media reports last month. The reports claim the senior bureaucrat had attempted to intervene inappropriately in political decisions related to the department and its leadership.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese released details of the department’s review, which the government had planned since its election victory, two days before the first Nine story about Pezzullo’s texts appeared. The restructure comes amid a strong expectation that the senior bureaucrat, who oversaw a massive growth in the department’s functions and purview, will not return.

Rizvi says the reforms announced this week are a start but substantial changes are needed to address the systemic problems in Australia’s immigration networks.

“It now boils down to the details of how you implement and how you resource them,” he says. “On that, we won’t even know the first results of what’s happening for another four or five months.”

O’Neil conceded this week the current system is “virtually unworkable” and flagged more extensive reforms in the future. “There’s a whole set of fissures that we haven’t even touched on,” she said.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 7, 2023 as "Immigration beset by ‘grotesque abuses’".

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