The Albanese government must invest in clearing the lengthy visa application backlog, or else home affairs will remain known as the department of “human misery and economic carnage”, Labor MP Julian Hill has said.
Hill made the comments in an interview backing the home affairs minister Clare O’Neil’s decision to bring more permanent workers to help tackle workforce shortages, but warned it is a “bandaid and sticky tape job, not a sustainable long-term fix”.
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Migrant Workers Centre have warned the push to prioritise skilled workers should not come at the expense of asylum seekers who need work rights and onshore workers and family members who face long waits.
On Wednesday, O’Neil told the Australian Financial Review that 60,000 permanent visa applications lodged by skilled workers based overseas will go to the top of the pile, at the expense of applications by temporary visa holders already in Australia.
O’Neil said the government has “got to get the system moving again, and then we have to have the deeper conversation” about the “size and composition of the migration program” – foreshadowing Australia may accept more migrants after the September jobs summit.
Hill, a member of the joint migration committee in the last parliament, said that prioritising permanent skilled applicants offshore “is obviously the right decision right now”.
But he warned without an increase in capacity “the department of home affairs will remain better known as the department of human misery and economic carnage”.
“Businesses, the international education sector as well as families right across Australia despair at the blackhole of the visa and citizenship processing system,” he said.
“Every day my office sees a sea of sad, angry and desperate people …
It’s not rocket science: we need more staff for visa processing to the clear the backlog and keep waiting times down.
“Otherwise we’ll play the same game of whack-a-mole the former government played for years: to scramble over and whack one problem … [while] two others emerge.”
Migrant Workers Centre chief executive, Matt Kunkel, said lengthy visa processing times and the “limbo” of bridging visas can delay migrant children’s education, require them to pay expensive international student fees, and makes it difficult to obtain housing.
“Without the certainty of permanent visas, they are unable to plan their lives. The psychological toll is immense.”
“We’ve heard from workers who’ve been waiting over two years for a permanent visa, despite meeting all the eligibility requirements,” he said, citing applicants for the 887 skilled regional visa.
Kunkel welcomed the Albanese government’s focus on permanent migration, but added that “workers who stayed in Australia and did essential work throughout the pandemic shouldn’t be left behind”.
“We’re hearing the frustration of onshore applicants – they made sacrifices to stay in Australia without any support during Covid.
“They worked hard to support themselves and our communities. Now they are telling us they feel forgotten.”
ASRC director of advocacy and campaigns, Jana Favero, said many of the 60,000 asylum seekers in Australia don’t have a guaranteed right to work, suggesting the government should prioritise both cohorts at once.
Of people in the ASRC’s employment program, half work in areas of workforce shortages including carers, hospitality, IT and finance, she said.
“There is an opportunity to quickly solve what is a humanitarian need and the skills shortage,” Favero said.
“There has been a direction to speed up visa processing. We would prefer there was more focus on those in Australia at the moment.”
Associate professor Anna Boucher at the University of Sydney agreed the visa system needs “a massive influx of staff to deal with this” and reduce the backlog of close to 1m visa applications, of which about a third are for family visas.
Boucher said that 70% of partner visas took 20 months to process, meaning many faced “almost two years to reunify with your spouse”.
“It’s possible that [prioritising permanent skilled workers] will mean they will have to move processing away from temporary migrants, or family, or asylum based claims.
“If I were sponsoring a partner, or a humanitarian visa applicant I would be very annoyed.”
The Australian National Audit Office is conducting an audit of parent and partner visa wait times.