A migration agent is “pleading” with the Department of Home Affairs to refund the cost of her New Zealand clients’ permanent resident visas, after they were approved just months before the government revealed it would scrap the need for them.
- The government is making it easier for New Zealanders to obtain Australian citizenship by removing a permanent residency requirement
- New Zealanders who paid thousands of dollars for permanent resident visas want refunds
- A Home Affairs spokesperson says refunds only apply in “limited circumstances”
Morunga Migration director Erina Morunga said she had lodged “a number” of refund requests, with no success.
An e-petition calling for visa application refunds and a “demonstration of goodwill” has also been submitted to federal parliament.
“We are pleading with the department to consider these are extraordinary circumstances,” she said.
“That would be a show of good faith, that the government did not intend to hurt New Zealanders, because it’s just rubbing salt in the wound, really.”
The government first flagged possible changes for New Zealanders to become Australian citizens in July last year, but there was little detail about the process.
In December, the department put a pause until July 1 on new applications for the Skilled Independent visas (subclass 189) — a type of permanent residency visa with a specific stream for New Zealanders — while it “considered future migration and citizenship pathways for New Zealand citizens in Australia”.
At the same time, it began fast-tracking applications already lodged — something the government briefly mentioned in the October budget — and many in the queue were asked to finalise their visa payments in January.
The department had more than 5,700 applications for New Zealander families at the time of the pause in December, comprising more than 12,300 people.
Then in April, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese unveiled a direct pathway to citizenship for New Zealanders which means from July 1, the $4,000 permanent visa they paid for will not be required in order to become Australian citizens and access support.
Last month the ABC revealed many New Zealanders believed they were unfairly targeted in a cash grab, and since then has been contacted by many more who were frustrated by the lack of transparency with the process.
Ms Morunga, a New Zealander herself, said she had loaned almost $20,000 to clients for visas.
“They’re single parents. They were in a really bad way financially,” she said.
“They’re slowly paying me back, but they could have avoided the worry. Why make them pay for it?”
No visa refunds or free citizenship
Rebecca, who did not want to include her surname to protect her identity, received a notice to pay the final instalment, 80 per cent, of her visa charge in January.
She said she asked for a payment extension until April 25, because she had read media reports about an announcement regarding citizenship pathways being made by Anzac Day.
“They advised me that they had been told to push through the backlog of applications, and if I didn’t pay the instalment within 30 days, then I would risk having to pay and go through the process again,” she said.
The total cost was $7,000, including the visa, migration agent fees and previously-mandated health tests that have now been dropped.
Rebecca, who has lived in Australia for almost 20 years, said the idea of now applying and paying for citizenship had left “a foul taste in my mouth”.
“My first instalment was made in good faith. The second instalment was absolutely a money grab,” Rebecca said.
“Overall, the decision is a fantastic result and long-overdue for Kiwis. Unfortunately a whole lot of us got screwed in the process.”
Ms Morunga urged the department to expedite citizenship processing or waive the $490 fee entirely for those New Zealanders who “forked out unnecessarily”.
A Home Affairs spokesperson said there were “very limited circumstances” in which a visa application fee would be refunded or citizenship fee waived.
“The direct pathway to citizenship for New Zealand citizens living in Australia does not entitle NZ stream visa holders to a refund of their Visa Application Charge,” they said.
“There are no provisions under the Citizenship Regulation where visa holders are exempt from paying the citizenship application fee as a result of having paid a Visa Application Charge.”
‘I feel cheated’
Georgia moved to Canberra with her family in 2009 as a teenager but went back to New Zealand in 2012 to study at university, before returning to Australia in 2016.
When she settled down with her Australian partner, the now-29-year-old wanted to have “basic rights”.
“Once I have kids here, I’ll still be a temporary resident. And they’ll all be citizens,” she said.
“I wanted the same rights.”
She set out to become a permanent resident in 2021, applying for a Skilled Nominated Visa (190).
It took two years and cost $11,843 – which included a civil union to prove her relationship, a skills assessment to prove her occupation and comprehensive medical examinations including a chest X-ray and HIV test.
In February this year, her visa was approved. Then in April, her phone pinged – New Zealanders would soon have a direct pathway to citizenship.
“I looked at my phone, read the article, and I just burst out crying,” she said.
“I could have just stayed on the visa that I was on already, only two months ago, and I would have got citizenship for $490.
“I feel totally cheated.”
Why was there no pause in fees for existing applicants?
Brooke, whose asked to use a pseudonym, also received a notice to pay the remainder of her permanent visa charge ($3,200) in January.
“During a cost-of-living crisis, instead of rush all the applications through they should have done nothing while they worked through the changes,” she said.
“This would have given the applicants the option to either go through with permanent residency or opt out.”
When asked why applicants were charged for the second instalment on a visa that would soon become redundant, a spokesperson said that granting those visas meant New Zealanders could “access the benefits of permanent residence more quickly”.
Those benefits included the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and automatic Australian citizenship for their children born in Australia.
In December, the department’s website said the Skilled Independent Visa (189) would “temporarily close to new applications” and applications could not be lodged between December 10 and July 1.
“We have paused applications to avoid disappointment for prospective applicants while the government considers future options for New Zealand citizens in Australia.
“These options will be designed to more appropriately reflect the close ties our two nations have, and the very positive contribution New Zealanders make to Australia.”
Some applicants interpreted that message to mean the visa would re-open, and some media outlets reported the visa would resume from July this year.
Ms Morunga said she and her clients had little idea about what changes might be made.
Brooke rejected the suggestion she could have known major changes were imminent, because “often it turns out to be the exact opposite”.
“Shame on us for wanting security in our residence here in Australia, where we pay tax just like every Australian citizen but don’t have access to certain government funds such as disability support or pensions.”
Ms Morunga said she felt the department treated her industry “almost like second second-class professionals” and that migration agents were often accused of taking money from people who could fill out visa paperwork themselves.
“It’s our job to make people secure and safe, and applications meet all requirements of the legislation,” she said.
“It’s a very frustrating relationship working with the department because they are virtually on a planet of their own.
“There is no efficiency there and there’s no communication.”