It’s been a week of major migration changes. Here are the key takeaways

A review of Australia’s migration system found it’s rife with fraudulent refugee and student applications, visa processing delays, and gutted government agencies not enforcing existing rules. Here’s what’s going to happen now.


  • There’s been a major overhaul of Australia’s migration system.
  • It comes in response to a review which found a range of problems with the system.
  • It includes criminal gangs exploiting loopholes in the system to engage in human trafficking.

Australia’s migration system was given a major shake-up this week, after a report warned criminal gangs were exploiting loopholes for human trafficking and undermining its refugee system.

The Nixon review into the exploitation of Australia’s migration system was released on Wednesday, laying bare abuse of visa processing which Immigration Minister Andrew Giles has described as “shocking … [and] almost industrial in its scale”.

It found the system was rife with fraudulent refugee and student applications, visa processing delays, and gutted government agencies not enforcing existing rules.

In a series of responses announced this week, Labor has moved to crack down on migration agents and fund more judges processing asylum claims. But the Coalition says it’s designed to distract from the Indigenous Voice to Parliament vote this month.

So what has the report uncovered, and how is the federal government responding?

Refugee system being exploited

There’s a new $160 million package to strengthen the refugee visa system, which the Nixon review found was being exploited to extend people’s stay in Australia.

Processing delays were “motivating bad actors to take advantage by lodging increasing numbers of non-genuine applications for protection”, the review said.

The government announced on Thursday that $54 million will be invested to create a real-time priority processing of Protection visa applications.

That will come with 10 additional judges on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal – who will automatically move to the body Labor will replace it with next year – and 10 to the Federal Circuit and Family Court.

O’Neil said frivolous and fraudulent claims were “degrading the integrity of our system”, with genuine refugees – often facing a decade in limbo as fraudulent applications were sorted through – the biggest victims.

“We do have a problem with applicants making asylum claims who have no meritorious foundation for making them. It is clear that in some instances, this system is being used as a proxy to get work rights in Australia,” she said.

Someone pulling all available levers is able to remain in Australia for an average of nine to 11 years, with full rights to work, before being deported:

  • A protection visa: 2.5 years
  • An appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal: 3.6 years
  • A judicial review: 3-5 years

“All up, you can accumulate quite a lot of years of work rights. You will have to leave in the end, but what was it worth for ten years of being able to work in Australia?” O’Neil said.

“We can’t run a [sustainable] migration system here, where people come to Australia and just stay for as long as they want.”

Refugee visa applications have been on the rise since 2021 – reaching roughly 13,000 last year – though they remain well below levels seen immediately before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Onshore humanitarian applications from Fiji nearly tripled in one year between 2017-18 and 2018-19.

New strike force to crack down on exploiters

Central to the response is a new Permanent Strike Force, working across departments to identify areas of risk and punish perpetrators.

“[It] will move around the immigration system and address the big problems that we see, and make sure that the people who are responsible are rooted out and held accountable,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil said the new force had already started, with an Australian Border Force officer appointed and staff being moved in “as we speak”.

Key to the new body will be Australia’s intelligence agencies, which will be tasked with relaying information gleaned from overseas to the departments that handle applications.

If intelligence agencies are aware of an exploitation ring operating out of a specific foreign village, that information would be passed to Home Affairs, which would then investigate migration agents facilitating the operation in Australia.

Applications from that area could also then be flagged for extra attention. The government believes when that is coupled with a boost to the number of compliance officers, more fraudulent applicants will be uncovered.

Immigration compliance will get an extra $50 million in funding.

More compliance officers, migration agent regulation

Dodgy migration agents living in Australia can be key components of international exploitation rings.

The federal government is implementing a crackdown, significantly boosting the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority (OMARA) which oversees the sector.

That will include:

  • A doubling of OMARA staff
  • Stronger penalties for misconduct and longer periods of deregistration
  • Mandatory background and criminal checks before an agent is registered
  • OMARA able to impose conditions on migration agents

But O’Neil said she didn’t expect significant pushback from migration agents.

“[They] want better regulation so that their good reputations aren’t besmirched by these bad apples who are literally facilitating criminal conduct and human trafficking,” she said.

“So we’re not going to make any apologies about properly regulating this sector.”

Permanent investigation

The government will also make a year-long investigation permanent.

Operation Inglenook was set up in November last year, and has uncovered criminal gangs exploiting Australia’s visa system for:

  • Illegal sex work, human trafficking, and modern slavery
  • Drug importation
  • Money laundering
  • Tax dodging

The operation will also be expanded beyond the sex industry, to include criminal exploitation and other wrongdoing.

By March this year, it had looked into 175 persons of interest, leading to 57 border alerts being issued. Over 90 foreign nationals are currently of interest to the operation.

Fake student visas

The education sector is another target for visa rorts, the report warned.

Foreign students are rapidly making their way back to Australia after the COVID-19 pandemic, with 370,000 in the country as of late last year.

International students are required to provide proof of funds before travelling to Australia. But the review found that system was also being skirted, with the same amount of money sometimes transferred from account to account to bolster multiple applications.

Signalling a mentality shift, the number of student visa applications knocked back by Home Affairs has exploded this year.

In January, around 5 per cent were rejected. That figure stood above 30 per cent by last month.

Earlier this week, Education Minister Jason Clare announced a suite of changes designed to prevent “shonks and dodgy operators” from exploiting students for profit.

  • A ban on colleges paying commissions to agents who help them poach international students from colleges or universities
  • A fit a proper person test for college owners
  • Monitoring of student attendance

More than 80,000 student visa applications from China, and more than 60,000 from India, were approved for 2018-19.

Source: SBS News Australia

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