Freedom of Information documents show the ACT Government knew about the visa problems back in April but didn't do anything until June when it suddenly closed its immigration program for hundreds of applicants already residing in Canberra for months.
Hundreds of international students in Canberra held a protest demonstration on Friday against a policy reversal by the ACT Government that has now rendered them ineligible for state nomination of their permanent residency application.
The ACT Government suddenly announced the partial closure of its immigration program on 29th June for overseas applications and temporary Canberra residents whose occupations were not ‘Open’ on the ACT list of in-demand occupations.
During the months preceding the move, thousands of international students moved to the nation’s capital following the introduction of a policy in July 2017 under which the ACT Government supported the permanent residency applications of those who had been Canberra residents for at least 12 months and had completed at least a certificate III course from a local education provider.
The Government said it changed the policy due to a “significant increase” in the demand for “the relatively small number of nomination places” allocated by the Department of Home Affairs.
However, documents released under the Freedom of Information indicate the ACT Government was made aware of the problem back in April itself.
“The reduced permanent pathways is placing increasing pressure on the ACT Skilled Migration program as demand for ACT 190 nomination now exceeds the 800target of nomination set by the Department of Home Affairs, which cannot be exceeded,” Skills Canberra informed ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr in a ministerial note sent in the wake of introduction of Temporary Skill Shortage visa.
The note says Skills Canberra was considering its options to “proactively manage the increasing demand for ACT nomination” for visas.
In another brief sent to Mr Barr in June this year, Skills Canberra discusses that a significant number of students had moved to Canberra since the introduction of the policy in July 2017 to “position to access the ACT nominated pathway”.
“This advice is supported by an eight-fold increase in private business college enrolments in Canberra from January to March 2018,” a 15th June brief states.
It stated that the increasing demand for nomination creates serious challenges for Skills Canberra in managing the program, leading to “a lack of control” over applications and lengthy processing times.
“Currently the only way to manage the influx of applications is to close the ACT nomination program without notice,” it suggested.
"The recommended solution is the only way forward this coming year - but we do need to manage this better in future," Mr Barr said in an email while signing off on the recommendation of Skills Canberra.
But those caught up in the policy reversal say the ACT Government’s policy was an implied promise and it has backed off from its word.
“I saw the ACT Government’s policy and responded to that. I didn’t have even an inkling that a state government could go back on its word and change its policy overnight,” Indian student Divya* who moved to Canberra in September last year told SBS Punjabi.
She would have been eligible to apply for a state nomination in September this year.
She was among the hundreds of students who protested against the move and demanded those students who moved to Canberra before the changes were announced on 29th June should be given a chance. They are also asking the Department of Home Affairs to allocation extra 1500 places for the ACT.
Nicholas Houston of VisAustralia who is representing several students caught up in the situation says many of his clients were going to be eligible in just days when the program was closed down to them. He says the government should have known about this problem back in November last year.
"I met the government officials last year after there was some backlash when the program was closed for offshore applicants. I told them there were thousands of students who had moved to Canberra, how would the government process their nominations," Mr Houston told SBS Punjabi.
"But they [the government] kept advertising the program and hundreds and hundreds more kept coming from everywhere in Australia. If they had pulled the plug on the program back then, all these students wouldn't have been in the situation that they are now."
Mr Houston says the government "entirely mismanaged" the program that has created a "chaos".
The ACT Government has ordered a review of the program and the changes from it would be implemented in December this year.