Posing as an international student whose visa is soon set to expire, SBS Vietnamese reporter Olivia Nguyen met with a marriage broker, seeking to stay in Australia by obtaining a fake marriage. She was offered a 'dummy husband' at a price $100,000. As part of an investigative collaboration with SBS Viceland's 'The Feed', here Olivia tells her story of how the broker revealed how to forge evidence, polish her visa application to fool the Immigration Department and explains how the marriage would work.
"Do I need to make love with him?" I ask, concerned.
"Don't think of it as fake marriage, it's a true marriage, everything is true," answered the marriage broker.
"Everything is real, you just don't sleep together, and that’s all.
"You can divorce then if you want to."
Sham marriages for visas
There are several different ways to become an Australian citizen, but for many Australian migrants, getting married appeals as probably the fastest and cheapest way.
No qualifications are required, no English requirements, nor a certain amount of time spent living in Australia: the applicant can live in Australia right after submitting their visa application and enjoy government welfare benefits.
Unsurprisingly, this has helped create a thriving underground industry, where supply meets demand for fake-marriages, regardless of the risk it might entail.
Rumours about how pricey a fake marriage is, how to cheat the Immigration department, organise a fake wedding, or polish the visa application to persuade Immigration officers have been widespread among Australia's Vietnamese community.
It is not easy however to find the fake marriage brokers, as both seller and buyer never want to disclose their deal.
All purchases are done in darkness. The only way to approach this black market is if you are a customer.
After doing lots of online research, I stumbled across a post by a young man in a Vietnamese-language Facebook group.
He shared that his English is only good enough to order a take-away bubble tea and go shopping in Vietnamese market, but he has a great deal of money and is looking for a way to stay in Australia.
His story attracted dozens of sympathetic responses and shares from fellow migrants.
Some of them suggested he should marry a Vietnamese Australian girl to access Australian citizenship and they even introduced some matchmaking services that they considered "pretty effective."
It was a rare chance for me to learn how the underground marriage market works for an Australian passport-holder.
As an undercover reporter, I pretended to be a student in Melbourne, due to finish my course next July and aspiring to stay in Australia beyond then for a better life, I created a reliable cover for myself.
I talked to people who had introduced the marriage service to the man mentioned above and shared my own desire for staying in Australia.
Among the people I talked to, a Vietnamese girl who gave me a Cambodian man’s contact. She said the man, N*knows a lot about how to help me stay in Australia.
The girl told me she knew him and that I should call him directly.
After a several calls to N with no answer, I wasn't feeling hopeful.
After one day though, N called me back. Having had time to prepare beforehand, I stuck to my script.
N is Cambodian-Australian and can only speak English and Khmer. We choose to communicate in English.
After 20 minutes spent chatting, I had enough information to convince me that N is a professional matchmaker, who has connected many couples before.
"How much you can afford?"
An acquaintance of the Vietnamese girl in the Facebook group, who provided N’s phone number also reassured him that I was trustworthy.
"I shopped around and know the price is very high," I said, probing for a price. "I’m not sure if I have enough money."
"How much did people tell you," N asked straightaway.
"$100,000 in one case."
"How much you can afford?" N asked me.
"Less than that, about $60,000," I answered hesitantly.
In response to this price, he said, "It's hard.. it's quite hard, quite hard."
I was afraid that N was going to refuse my case because I couldn’t afford it.
I tried to convince him.
"My student visa will expire next July, other brokers cannot find the sponsor immediately for me," I said. "If you can do it quickly, help me get married early next year to get a visa, then I will try to have money."
N was pleased and reassured me that he had a list of "some great guys" for me to choose from and that obtaining a new partner visa before next July would be easy.
Our call ended with an appointment at a coffee shop in Sunshine, Melbourne.
Despite the preparation and a list of questions to learn the trick of marriage brokers, I was still nervous to meet up with N face-to-face.
Would N detect my cover? Would he provide enough information that I want to know and how safe would I be?
In collaboration with SBS Vicealnd's The Feed, we set up the meeting at the Melbourne cafe, which was to be secretly recorded.
At 2pm, I get a call from N.
"Where are you sitting?” N asks.
"I’m sitting at the table inside, close to the glass door," my voice feels a little shaky.
The broker man looks nearly 40-years-old, of Asian appearance. He does not look fierce or scary - in contrast, if anything he looks quite trustworthy.
He wears a the uniform of a car manufacturer and quickly walks over to me.
"I’m Anna," I signal, (my psuedonym) as per our phone conversation, and invitehim to sit.
I use the same tactics that helped me during the first call: appearing naive, needing help, and not knowing much about fake marriage in Australia.
Our conversation goes straight to the primary issue - the service price.
"$100,000 is a bit expensive," I say. "I heard that women want to get fake marriage easier than man, so the price should be cheaper."
"For a man, it costs $100,000; but for woman is just about $70,000."
"No, $100,000 is the market price," N answers coldly. "But I can discount for you a bit, if you introduce my service to your friend."
"This price is a package A-Z, [fully comprehensive] right? I do not need to pay any additional cost?" I ask.
"This money gets given to the guy who is married to you," N replies. "There is another $7000 visa fee and $4,000 lawyer fee."
"Can I pay instalments? Or all at once?" I ask.
"You split it two times, the first time is $25,000 at the beginning when I introduce you the guy, you pay the rest $75,000 after submitting the visa application," N explains.
"Who will pay you a commission? Me or the guy?" I ask.
"You do not have to worry about that, I work out with that guy," the marriage broker confirms.
"Don't think of it as fake marriage, it's a true marriage, everything is true. Everything is real, you just don't sleep together, and that’s all."
Expressing my doubts that handing over cash without invoice or proof could be risky, N convinces me that once I apply for a partner visa, all I need to do is wait peacefully wait for the visa without a worry.
N recommends that I make a contract in the form of a loan. But I would have to negotiate this with my fake husband.
It seems to me that in all fraudulent visa marriage arrangements, with no formal agreement recognised by law, the risk is that the partner will just take money and run.
What about a quickie divorce?
To enquire about divorce right after acquiring Permanent Residency, I make up a story that I have a boyfriend in Vietnam, and just want to get married to secure a visa. I will sponsor my boyfriend later.
"Both [partners in the marriage] should go out together a few times and take some photos to save the memories," says N.
"Then book flight tickets, travel together - to Sydney or Gold Coast for example," N says, showing me how to proceed.
"But I do not want to travel far," I say. "My boyfriend doesn’t like it."
"Then just book your flight tickets and take some pictures, you do not need to go out," says N. "It’s up to you."
"Not a big [wedding], just find a celebrant, sign documents, take some photos for Immigration. Just a few hundred dollars."
One thing I’m concerned about is how to provide proper evidence of these fake marriages.
How can these ghost marriages cheat the Department of Immigration with hundreds of staff experienced in identifying dishonest marriages?
N says is a very experienced marriage broker, and instructs me step-by-step.
"How long after [we start] 'going out' I can submit visa application?" I asked.
"Two or three months is enough, but we will say in application you guys have been in relationship for a year," N says firmly.
"I heard when applying for a partner visa, I need two witnesses to verify this is genuine relationship," I say. "But I don’t know anyone in Australia."
"I will be a witness," says N. "Another friend of that guy (my dummy husband) will be the second witness."
"Do I need to organise a wedding ceremony?" I ask. "It would cost me a fortune."
"Not a big one, just find a celebrant, sign documents, take some photos for Immigration. Just a few hundred dollars," says N.
"Do I have to live with him?" I ask.
"You have to rent a house together, have a shared power bill. Then make a joint bank account as husband and wife," says N.
"But I said at the beginning that I have a boyfriend, this is a fake marriage. Living together? Do I need to sleep with him?" I ask, clearly reluctant.
"Don't think about fake marriage, it's a true marriage, everything is true. Everything is real, you just don't sleep together, and that’s all. You can divorce then if you want to," the marriage broker says.
N says repeatedly that this is a real marriage, but not "having sex or sleep together as a spouse."
"If you do not love each other, then divorce, easy."
His concept makes me feel ridiculous. Since N seems upfront, I keep asking him a series of questions.
There are a lot of fake marriages uncovered by the DIBP, when their compliance teams suddenly come to the house to check or obtain information via phone interview, how could my case not be detected?
N explains that he was familiar with this and that both sides would spend time learning about each other and practising for the interview.
N tries to prove me that he has success with his previous matches, showing me photos in his phone of "successful couples and living happily."
N proudly says he just recently matched three different pairs who now have a visa to stay in Australia.
Looking at their forced smiles, I'm not sure if they are really happy or just playing it up for Immigration.
"At first, they did not fit well," concedes N. "But it changed, I instructed him [N points to the man] to buy flowers for the girl. They went to Bali together."
"Where do you find men or women who want to make money from marriage?" I ask.
"My friends, my relatives and acquaintances," N replies without thinking.
As I worried whether the man that N introduces me is decent, he reassures me that he picked the best person for me.
N says my fake husband is Malaysian Chinese with a stable job; he is not playboy, very gentle, over 30-years-old.
N also promises that if I do not like this person, he still has two guys lined up for me to choose from, so now I just need to be ready to meet the first man.
"I know a good lawyer," says N. "She has done many visa applications for me before: student visa, partner visa."
In the case of such a speedy marriage, N also helps set out a roadmap for a divorce after getting a visa.
"Does the Malaysian Chinese man agree to divorce me when I get Permanent Residency?" I ask.
"You guys work out together," says N. "If you do not love each other, then divorce, easy."
"My case is quite difficult and I do not know a reliable lawyer," I say.
"I know a good lawyer," says N. "She has done many visa applications for me before: student visa, partner visa."
"So I can tell the lawyer this is a fake marriage?" I ask.
"Who should say that, do it as a real marriage," he says. "Give them evidence, that’s it."
I suggested that if the Malaysian Chinese guy loves me genuinely and wants me to get married, then we are an official couple, do I need to pay anything.
N says the $100,000 is a tribute and do not count on it.
"In Asian culture, when a girl gets married, her parents will give her husband a large sum of money to buy a house as a gift," says N.
"Don’t count that money - please consider it as a gift."
"But true love is not about money," I say.
"It's a tradition, if you get married, you're paying $100,000," he says.
Our conversation lasts an hour, before saying goodbye, N points to the well-known car manufacturer's logo on his uniform to insist he is a decent man. This is his extra business, he says, so he'll never cheat me.
Before leaving the cafe, N did not forget to ask me consider his deal and contact him with a promise.
"I will give you a discount if you introduce your sister,' he says.
N. is just one of many brokers who are taking advantage of the Australian Immigration Law. The underground market of selling illegal visas is revealed on SBS' Viceland's The Feed, in collaboration with Fairfax media, SBS Vietnamese and other SBS Radio language groups
Watch the full investigation below: