The rorting of Australia’s immigration system is never-ending. Alongside widespread rorting of the ‘skilled’, student and working holiday maker programs, Australia’s partner visa scheme is also being gamed, according to a new report from Dr Bob Birrell at the Australia Population Research Institute (APRI):
In 2016-17 there were 47,825 partner visas issued and in 2017-18, 39,799. There were another 79,027 partner applications queued up as of June 2017.
The scale of these numbers can be appreciated by comparing them with the total number of marriages contracted in Australia in 2017. This was 112,000.
The reason why the number of partner visas dropped in 2017-18 is that the Department of Home Affairs took a harder line on assessing the bona fides of partner visa applications.
Why are the number of partner sponsors so high?
Here’s a couple of clues. Australia’s partner visa rules allow an Australian resident to sponsor a partner if just 18, unemployed, on a welfare benefit and still living at home. Eligible sponsors include former migrants who hold a permanent residence visa even if granted very recently, such as in 2019.
All that is required for a resident to sponsor someone on a partner visa is some (until recently) easily established evidence that the relationship between sponsor and prospective visa-holder is genuine.
Australia is alone amongst Western countries in maintaining such generous rules.
What about the willingness of persons to be sponsored for a partner visa?
There is a huge incentive for potential migrants to take up the offer of a partner visa.
There were 1.4 million persons in Australia as of June 2018 on a temporary entry visa (not counting New Zealanders) some 673,000 of whom were overseas students. Almost all are eligible for a prized permanent residence visa as a partner, if they can find a resident willing to sponsor them.
Why would prospective migrants want to pursue the partner visa option? As this report details, it is becoming increasingly difficult for a temporary resident to obtain a permanent-entry visa based on skill.
So, for the large number wanting a permanent residence visa, the partner visa is an attractive alternative option. There are no onerous English language standards or any need to find an employer. All that is required is that they be at least 18 years old and that they find a resident willing to sponsor them for a partner visa.
For prospective partners living in low income countries, an Australian partner visa offers the prospect of a huge life style gain with no entry cost, other than the visa fee.
Who is taking up the partner visa option?
Only a minority of partner visas are granted to those most casual observers think dominate the partner visa category, that is, people in relationships resulting from international travel and work. Where this does happen, some of the Australian partners move to the country of their new partner (usually the UK and the USA) and some of the partners move to Australia.
The majority of partner visas derive from two quite different pathways.
One is where a foreigner is in Australia on a temporary visa (usually a student visa) and finds an Australian resident willing to sponsor them for a partner visa. I label this ‘two step’ migration. The scale of the student uptake of partner visas alone, is enormous. Previously unpublished data released by Department of Home Affairs (DHA) shows that in 2016-17 some 11,048 former overseas students received a partner visa, as did 9,257 in 2017-18.
The other pathway is via chain migration links, that is, where an Australian resident (usually recently arrived and Asia-born) returns home to select a partner known to their family or community. At least a third of partner visas derive from this link.
These two routes are distinctive in that both are one way – to Australia – with little or no movement away from Australia.
Why worry? First, partner visa numbers already constitute 24.5 per cent of the permanent migration program. Since most partners locate in Sydney and Melbourne they add significantly to the migration burden in these two cities. Also, few have the job skills or English language capacity to thrive in the Australian job market.
Another reason is that the stock of Asia-born residents living in Australia is increasing rapidly thus providing a growing base for persons interested in returning home for a partner. So is the stock of temporary entrants in Australia interested in finding a resident willing to sponsor them for a partner visa. Thus the demand for partner visas is set to grow.
This is occurring in a context where DHA is under pressure from migrant communities, with the support of the Federal Labor opposition, to drop the recent tougher scrutiny of partner visa applications and turn the visa into an ‘on demand’ option. If this happens, the number of partner visas issued will escalate…
[Labor’s] position is suffused with a halo of entitlement. It ignores the evidence that I have presented, that most partner visas are being issued as part of a two-step and/or chain migration process. Because Australia’s rules on partner visas are so soft, indeed softer than in any other Western country, demand for the visa will continue at a high level. How could it be otherwise given the generous transfer of benefits from the Australian nation to the sponsored partners?..
Australia’s partner visa is long overdue for reform. A suite of proposals is offered, starting with a requirement that all those who wish to sponsor a partner establish that they are old enough (at least 21) and have the secure income and housing arrangements adequate to provide for the sponsored partner…
Proposals to strengthen Australian partner visa rules
Australia’s partner visa rules, as indicated, are the weakest in the developed world. Here’s a suite of reform proposals:
- Raise the minimum age of partner sponsors and the sponsored partner to 21. Some might object, given that in Australia one can vote at age 18. However, being ready to vote at 18 is quite different from being able to provide for a partner at this age, especially if the sponsor has just finished school and has no reliable source of income.
- Ensure that the sponsor can provide for the partner without imposing on the public purse. Require evidence that the sponsor has a secure annual income sufficient to provide for the partner, much as is the case across Europe and Canada. The amount required for a British sponsor (noted above) of around 18,000 pounds or $34,000 Australian could be a minimum starting point.
- In order to ensure that the partner does not need public support in the first few years of residence here, the sponsor should provide an Assurance of Support covering any such expenditure, where it does arise.
- Put in place a rule that, in return for the privilege of sponsoring a partner, the sponsor must show some attachment to Australia and some evidence that he or she is making a contribution to the Australian community. This, at a minimum, should require a period of residence of at least four years during which the sponsor proves that he or she has not been a burden on the public purse. I favour a requirement, as in the USA, that the privilege of partner sponsorship should be limited to Australian citizens. This currently requires a minimum of four years stay in Australia while holding a permanent residence visa.
- Require proof that the sponsor and partner are in a genuine and continuing relationship both before the initial partner visa is issued and after two years of residence in Australia has elapsed. It was only during 2017-18 that DHA took this requirement seriously, hence the slow-down in partner visa processing at this time.
How many more examples do we need before our politicians take action and close down the various avenues to visa rorting?