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Peter Dutton’s abysmal record on immigration integrity

A key responsibility of any immigration minister is to prevent the system being exploited by labour traffickers.

Attempts by labour traffickers to exploit Australia’s visa system have been made for decades. Australian immigration authorities have generally been quick to deal with these knowing that if allowed to grow, tackling the implications becomes increasingly more difficult.

That was why I was surprised when a massive labour trafficking scam abusing the asylum system started in 2015-16 and there was no response from the then Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton.

The scam started with labour traffickers bringing Malaysian nationals to Australia using the Electronic Travel Authority (ETA). They were mainly being used to work on farms as well as on construction sites, sex shops and back rooms in restaurants. This was a scam well known to long-standing immigration staff.

Peter Dutton

The lack of effective response from Dutton led to the scam quickly extending to Chinese nationals (see Chart 1).

In 2017-18, Australia received 27,931 asylum applications – exceeding any previous financial year – with around 67 per cent of those applications from just Malaysia and China.

Dutton would have known this was a scam as most of the asylum applications had very poor claims and were being refused at a very high rate (over 98 per cent). But the size of the surge in applications overwhelmed the visa processing system.

Processing times blew out, which was exactly what traffickers wanted. It was only the closure of international borders from 2020 that helped slow the scam. But by then the labour traffickers were lodging appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which too would become overwhelmed (see Chart 2).

Yet still Dutton did nothing. He did not even acknowledge the existence of the scam.

Immigration compliance activity

One of the key strategies for tackling a labour trafficking scam is to ramp up immigration compliance activity targeting the organisers and employers, as well as locating and removing those who had their asylum claims finally refused. But rather than ramp up immigration compliance activity, Dutton whittled it away (see Chart 3).

The decline in immigration compliance activity was associated with a steady reduction in immigration compliance staff as reported recently to a Senate Estimates Committee.

Somehow Dutton, the border protection tough guy, just let those cuts happen. The labour traffickers must have thought all their Christmases had come at once.

Character cancellations

From around 2019, Dutton ramped up cancellation of visas on character grounds (not personally as Paterson claims but by staff in the Department of Home Affairs). These weren’t cancellation of visas or prosecutions of those organising the labour trafficking scams or the agents assisting with the dodgy asylum applications. That would have been a difficult task.

Dutton targeted people already in prison (a much easier task) and drove up the cancellation of their visas. That may have included people who were not subject to mandatory cancellation.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said in Question Time that Dutton allowed over 1000 character cancellations to be revoked while he was immigration minister, many of which included sex offenders and child sex offenders. There were also murderers.

Eventually he reduced the revocation of such cancellations from 235 in 2018-19; 252 in 2019-20; 143 in 2020-21 and 38 in 2021-22. That led to an increase in the number of people who had their visas cancelled on character grounds who were then held in detention after they had completed their prison sentence. The length of time these people were held in detention also blew out.

But this was not associated with an increase in the number of people in detention being removed from Australia. That actually fell steadily (see Chart 4).

Peter Dutton

The decline in removals from detention, which started well before the Covid pandemic, would have been associated with both a reduction in compliance staff as well as a lack of co-operation from other nations.

Dutton may have been surprised that other nations were unwilling to accept people who had lived the bulk of their lives in Australia, had committed crimes in Australia and had no links to the nation they were being deported to.

The extraordinary thing is that the decline in detainee removals took place when the number of non-citizens in Australia without a visa was booming.

General malaise in the visa system

The best indicator of a visa system in serious trouble is the number of people in Australia on bridging visas. The bridging visa backlog boomed under Dutton.

Peter Dutton

That bridging visa backlog boom included not just asylum seekers, but also other areas of very slow visa processing. Dutton’s illegal limits on partner visas would have also contributed.

A large bridging visa backlog rewards the unscrupulous. It enables criminals to take advantage of the visa system. It is shocking that Dutton did not understand that.

I have researched the performance of every immigration minister since the 1980s. There are none who have created the policy and administration disasters that Dutton was responsible for, including in terms of immigration integrity and dealing with those who undermine the visa system.

Abul Rizvi PhD was a senior official in the Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007 when he left as Deputy Secretary. He was awarded the Public Service Medal and the Centenary Medal for services to development and implementation of immigration policy, including the reshaping of Australia’s intake to focus on skilled migration, slow Australia’s rate of population ageing and boost Australia’s international education and tourism industries.

This article first appeared in Pearls and Irritations. Read the original here.

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