Immigration Minister Responds to Concerns over GSM Backlog - Applications May Take 30 Years to Process

by Mark Webster, Acacia Immigration Australia, 19 November 2009

The Minister for Immigration, Chris Evans, has responded on the Radio National program the National Interest to concerns over the slowdown of processing of General Skilled visas.

The Minister said that some applicants could be left waiting 20 or 30 years for grant of their applications, depending on the Migration Program levels for the next couple of years. He also suggested that some might never have their applications processed at all.

The Minister rejected the premise that applications had been put on hold. Hundreds of thousands of applicants, many of whom have now been in the system for over 18 months, may disagree. The Minister confirmed that there are now 30,000 onshore applicants and 105,000 offshore applicants who are awaiting grant of their general skilled visas. Of these applications, we estimate that 75% are not in CSL (Critical Skills List) occupations - this would equate to some 100,000 applicants who have no clear idea how long their applications will take to be processed.

The Minister did not take up an invitation to apologise to applicants who had been disadvantaged by his changes to processing priorities. Many applicants were advised by the Department of Immigration to provide their final health and police checks for grant of their applications, only to now be advised that their applications might take another 2 years to be granted. The hardest hit applicants were those sponsored by state or territory governments - such applicants were previously at the highest level of priority, but are now much further down the list. Health and police checks would cost in the order of $350 per applicant, so people affected by the changes have every right to feel aggrieved.

Significantly, Minister Evans indicated he was not satisfied with the current arrangements which allow international students to apply onshore for general skilled migration after completion of their courses. Whilst he did not fully embrace Kelvin Thomson's suggestion that students return home for at least 2 years before applying to return to Australia, he did indicate that there will be a review of the current rules. Issues with the education-immigration link have been common knowledge in the migration industry for years. These concerns were raised by the Migration Institute of Australia in response to the Birrell Report in 2006, but then duly ignored by the Department of Immigration.

Minister Evans suggested that the review of the MODL (Migration Occupations in Demand List), which is due to be completed in a few months, will reduce the number of applicants lodging for General Skilled Visas.

There are a number of serious concerns with the Minister's comments:

Rule of Law and a Fair Go

The Minister indicated that applying for migration does not give the right to migrate to Australia. However, the Minister is obliged under the Migration Act to process visa applications if validly lodged. If the application meets the criteria for the visa, the Minister is must grant the application and issue a visa.

The Rule of Law is long established as a central principle of Australian society - that laws are open and transparent, and don't apply retrospectively. In this case, many applicants have been affected retrospectively and it is definitely of concern to hear that some applicants might not receive visas, even though they meet the required criteria.

Many Australians would that managing a migration program by administrative delay is just not acceptable - you need to give people a fair go and make the rules clear upfront. Anything else is un-Australian.

Integrity of Skilled Migration Process

The General Skilled program was reformed in 1999 - the resulting system was very objective and transparent. Pre-application skills assessments made it possible to have a fairly good idea whether an applicant would be eligible.

However, the integrity of the system has been gradually eroded over time, mainly to link education to immigration outcomes, the system has now sunk to such a level that even the Minister admits that it is "not serving us well". In reality, the main issue may be the skills assessment settings rather than the visa requirements.

The most glaring example is in the trade sector - international students need only complete a 1-year certificate III in Australia, and show 900 hours of work experience in the occupation. Australians would need to complete a 4-year apprenticeship to be qualified tradespersons, and overseas applicants need to show at least 4 years of work experience in the field to get a positive skills assessment. This loophole has, not surprisingly, led to massive growth in the vocational education sector for international students. The introduction of the job ready test from 1 January 2010 is an acknowledgement that the skills assessment settings for trade occupations are not appropriate.

The Minister's recent changes lead to all sorts of problems - see our article on this topic. It is hoped that the CSL is only a temporary "band aid" solution, but I fear that the CSL and its consequences will be with us for some time.

The Minister suggested that he may look at allowing lodgement without application fees. This would be a fatal blow for the integrity of the GSM program. Applicants would effectively be entering a "lottery" to get their visas with even higher numbers in the pipeline and very little indication of who will be able to migrate to Australia.

Application Fees

There are probably in the order of 100,000 applicants in the GSM pipe line who have very little chance of receiving visas in the next 2-3 years. Even at a conservative estimate of the average fee paid for lodgement being $1,000, this would represent some $100 million in fees paid to the Department of Immigration. This does not even include fees paid to Health Services Australia, a monopoly provider of health clearances to applicants applying from within Australia.

The Department of Immigration in July 2009 raised the application fee for General Skilled Migration from $2,105 to $2,525 - an increase of some 20% - for a service which for most applicants would agree is definitely not getting better. The fee increase is excessive, especially considering that more and more applications are being lodged electronically and so requiring less labour to process. Indeed, the Department has pulled Department of Immigration officers from the skilled processing centres, despite the fact that the flow of applications continues.

The Minister may consider refunding the application fees paid by people who now no longer wish to proceed with their applications. It is within the power of the Minister to make a provision for refunds to be given in specific circumstances, and this would also be helpful in reducing the backlog.

Missing a Golden Opportunity

The Minister pointed out that the number of applicants is increasing from countries where economies are in trouble, for example, Ireland. Australia seems to have escaped the worst of the economic turmoil and is still experiencing skills shortages in some areas. Forecasts indicate that after 2011, the growth of working age population will slow significantly and that only a large migration program will enable Australia to avoid economic downturn.

Australia needs skilled employees - and what a great opportunity we have now to attract high quality migrants who would not otherwise be available. It could be a once in a generation opportunity that we are squandering. A highly skilled applicant facing a delay of 3 years or more if they apply to migrate to Australia would definitely look at which other countries have a more reasonable migration program. The Minister correctly points out that Australia can choose the migrants which it needs for economic growth, but a manifestly unfair or capricious system is not going to attract quality applicants.

Urgent Need for Reform

The Minister suggested a number of times that the reform of the MODL will solve many of the problems with the GSM system. However, it is not necessary to have an MODL occupation to apply for skilled migration and this is only one of the factors affecting a person's points score. Changes introduced in September 2007 giving MODL points only where the applicant had work experience in the occupation have not had any noticeable affect in decreasing the number of applications.

The Minister must conduct a thorough review of the General Skilled Program. Consideration must be made of the following issues:

  • What are the objectives of the GSM program
  • How should it relate to other temporary and permanent visa options
  • What should be the mix between international students and offshore applicants - which advantages to give international students studying in Australia, if any
  • Skills assessment settings
  • English requirements
  • Points for Work Experience
  • MODL - selection of occupation and points available
  • Points for spouses and children likely to be of working age in the near future
  • Maximum age for application

The GSM program needs urgent review and reform to restore confidence in it as soon as possible. Then we can work to attract the migrants we need for the growth of the country.

Let's have a public debate and get the GSM program right this time.

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