Settlement Guide

Here’s how migration agents work in Australia

Source: Getty Images/Weekend Imaes

Desperate visa applicants are turning to migration agents as their hope for a new life in Australia. But according to some registered migration agents, not all agents can be trusted.


  • Registered migration agents follow a code of conduct set out by the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority. 
  • If you’ve been scammed, you can report your case to the Department of Home Affairs’ Border Watch Online Report.
  • Overseas-based unregistered migrants do not fall under the Australian jurisdiction. 



Migration to Australia is often a long and complicated process. According to Blaise Itabelo, a former Congolese refugee turned migration agent, while people with a good level of English are capable of submitting their own visa application, engaging a registered migration agent ensures that legal requirements are followed. 

Sometimes, you don’t even know what is required of you. That is where the complexity comes.

Refugee Advice and Casework Service, or RACS, provides free legal advice, assistance and representation for financially disadvantaged and vulnerable asylum seekers. 

Its principal solicitor and centre manager Sarah Dale says if an applicant’s visa is refused, that person could potentially go through multiple processes before reaching a final outcome. 

She believes it is therefore essential for an asylum seeker to have legal representation to navigate the complex legal system.

Dale explains that if the Department of Home Affairs deems an asylum seeker who arrived by boat as a non-genuine refugee and ineligible for the visa they have applied for, that appeal is generally sent to the Immigration Assessment Authority (IAA).

Otherwise, that decision could be appealed at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). 

If the AAT or the IAA agree with the Department, then your only option is to explore judicial review in the courts and that could be three levels of courts you could potentially go through in order to appeal that decision.

Migration agent at work
Getty Images/Artem Peretiatko

As of December 31 2019, there were 7249 registered migration agents in Australia, 30 per cent of whom are legal practitioners.

These registered migration agents are regulated by the OMARA or the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority run by the Department of Home Affairs.

A recent amendment of the migration bill means that legal practitioners no longer need to simultaneously hold a migration agent’s registration to provide immigration assistance.

It is illegal for unregistered agents to provide advice or assistance on migration or visa matters. 

Registered migration agent Johanna Nonato says offshore self-proclaimed agents are not bound by the rules and regulations of the OMARA. 

There are people who do that in Australia but there’s a lot of people doing that overseas. 

Nonato refers to a group of overseas nurses who sought migration advice from an overseas-based education consultancy. 

They were advised to study for a three-year bachelor's degree costing around $35,000 a year.

In actual fact, qualified nurses only need to study for a three-month bridging program to gain Australian registration.

Moreover, they can gain permanent residency if they meet the minimum points requirement. 

It’s not fake, it’s just that their business is to sell education. 

Nonato also warns of illegal agents who guarantee jobs in Australia. 

She says an applicant’s occupation should be on the skills list for the particular work visa they apply for. 

They are applying for a visitor visa for you. You are not allowed to work and that’s when you find out that you’ve been scammed.

Dale encourages shopping around to compare prices and services registered agents can offer you. 

She says scammers often promise successful visa outcomes but the only person with that power is the Minister for Immigration. 

Family reunion at airport
Getty Images/michaeljung

According to Itabelo, a telling sign is that unregistered agents either under-charge or overcharge. 

The first port of call is to check if someone is a registered migration agent on the OMARA website as registered migration agents are regulated and follow a code of conduct in Australia.

He says registered migration agents are required to sign an agreement to confirm their clients’ instructions in writing. 

Fake migration agents will not because they are not trained to be legally bound to anybody. There must be an agreement. 

Nonato explains that the OMARA’s code of conduct asks agents to attend yearly continuing professional development training.  

It also keeps a close watch on the bank accounts of registered migration agents every year to ensure that the fees are kept in a client account.

At RACS, Dale has heard stories of vulnerable asylum seekers falling prey to unethical agents as the stakes are so high that it is literally a situation of life or death. 

They had saved to pay an agent’s fees to then discover they were needing to pay more fees or additional fees, then of course, that agent won’t release that client’s document to them until they’ve paid those fees.

Dale says it is important to make complaints to the OMARA if you believe a registered migration agent has not adequately assisted you or has scammed you.

Complaints can also be made with the Legal Services Commissioner. 

Asylum seekers on Manus Island
AAP Image/Eoin Blackwell

According to the OMARA’s latest annual report, 70 per cent of complaints against migration agents were dismissed partly due to insufficient evidence or where the OMARA has no jurisdiction. 

Nonato says unfortunately the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority does not have jurisdiction over offshore illegal agents.

It’s really about how they get policed by their own country where they are. But Australia doesn’t have a way of controlling that.

Initial consultation fees range approximately from $100 to $300 depending on whether you spoke to a junior registered migration agent or an immigration lawyer. 

Prices for visa processing also vary depending on the type of visa you are applying for.

According to Nonato, fees for permanent residency visas range from $3000 to $5000 as it involves a long process. 

Education agents usually don’t charge for student visas because they are not licensed to give advice on visas but they do make money from the tuition fee as a percentage.

Itabelo says the coronavirus pandemic has extended visa processing times to unimaginable lengths, causing a high degree of stress among many applicants who are not tech-savvy and find it hard to communicate online. 

There is no hope of belonging because even if they are on temporary visas, there is not much support for them. But they cannot go back and they can’t go elsewhere.

Nonato recommends seeking advice from registered migration agents even if you plan to lodge your own visa application as migration law often changes and has become more complicated due to the pandemic. 

Try to get advice first, at least make sure that you’re on the right track.

Disclaimer:Please note that the comments provided in this article are general advice only and do not apply to all circumstances. If you are concerned about your visa status, it is best that you seek legal advice as soon as possible.

Australian citizenship ceremony
Credit: AAP Image/Dan Peled

You can follow the migration journeys of migrants and families on the new SBS four-part documentary series “Who Gets to Stay in Australia?” 8:30pm on Wednesdays.  

If you believe you’ve been scammed, you can report your case to the Border Watch Online Report.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Find out what restrictions are in place for your state or territory.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.




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