'They’re taking advantage of people’s relationships'
If you’re an Australian citizen who marries someone who is not an Australian resident, you may have to fork out a big amount of money to get your partner here. A partnership visa in 2016 comes with a hefty $6,865 application fee, one of the highest in the world.
The UK charges less than half that for an equivalent visa – $2,428 AUD – and the US charges less than a third – $1,477 AUD.
If your partner has children, each one will cost another $2,370.
“It’s enough to make you never want to come back,” one Australian with a foreign partner told us.
The steepest price rise was announced in December 2014 under the Abbott government, but that already followed a series of significant increases. Five years ago the application fee was just $1,735.
Migration agent Zeke Bentley from The Migration Place says it doesn’t make sense for the partnership visa fee to be rising faster than any of the other fees. “They’ve all been going up, but nowhere near this particular one, ” he told SBS.
“If there’s any place where they shouldn’t be trying to gouge out an immigration fee, it’s when an Australian wants their loved one to live here,” he said. “It affects an Australian’s right to be with their partner… they’re taking advantage of people’s relationships.”
“A more appropriate one to crank would be business visas,” Mr Bentley says.
When the government announced the most recent 50 percent increase in partner fees, it also announced a one per cent increase in business fees.
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection told SBS they don't receive any of the money raised from these fees, it goes into general government revenue. The Migration Institute of Australia says the fees should be linked to the services so that service standards improve.
Mr Bentley said the government has also been making the process more difficult. Wait times have increased to 12 months or more, and options for bridging visas are limited, meaning it’s increasingly difficult for couples to be together in Australia while they wait.
The department told SBS it aims to finalise 75 per cent of visas within one year of application, but they sometimes run out of visas.
"Strong demand for partner visas, in excess of the number of places available in a programme year, has led to processing times exceeding the service standard in some cases," a spokesperson said.
The department said applicants are able to access Medicare benefits as soon as they apply, and in "most cases" permission to work in Australia was also granted, when it is applied for.
M. Bentley said waiting times are sometimes so long that health checks performed at the time of application expire and need to be re-performed before visas can be granted.
On top of the visa fees, couples face airfares, health checks ($300), police checks ($50-150) and potential migration agent or lawyers’ fees ($3,000-5,000). If a couple of children are involved who also require visas, the cost of merely relocating to Australia can exceed $25,000.
Mr Bentley said the increase in prices has meant that more people are preparing applications without a representative or lawyer, leading to increased rejection rates and more work for the immigration department.
Official figures show roughly 80 percent of applications are successful, with thousands refused or withdrawn each year. If an application fails, the department doesn’t provide a refund.
SBS understands the department searches social media and other public records to verify partnership claims, sometimes suggesting applicants withdraw if they suspect the relationship is a sham.
Applications can be even more onerous on same-sex partners, who may have to go to increased lengths to prove their relationship is genuine. They are often not able to rely on a marriage certificate.
SBS is aware of one case where the department initially rejected an application from a same-sex partner who came from a prominent Middle Eastern family. Representatives had to explain to the department why there was no public evidence of the relationship in a country which still has the death penalty for homosexuality.
The money and the waiting time can be stressful for couples, Mr. Bentley said, and that's especially true when applications are refused and you're undertaking the process independently.
"It's hard not to be emotional when you get a call from an officer to say your relationship isn’t genuine," he said.
Mr. Bentley told SBS he didn't expect the hike in fees to feature in the current election campaign. While immigration was a hot-button issue, he said, fee hikes and departmental efficiency won't be what's on voters' minds.
"Inevitably boat people will be," he said.