"My partner and I are students. We just paid. It was our whole life savings."
The Australian government's high partnership visa fees and lengthy processing times are pushing Aussies to leave the country for good to avoid the substantial cost and hassle of bringing their partners to Australia.
Partnership visa fees have increased almost 400 per cent in the last five years, currently sitting at $6,865 – significantly higher than the fees in comparable first-world countries.
There are other costs as well, for police checks, health checks and immigration agents.
Processing times of over a year are not uncommon, leaving tens of thousands of couples in limbo.
A report released yesterday by the Australian Productivity Commission notes that the high visa charges could risk Australians leaving the country altogether in order to be with their overseas partners.
"This is the exact reason we decided to settle in Germany over Australia," Australian ex-pat Callum Dahner-Mclean told SBS. "My visa is 30 euros per year and my application for citizenship cost a total of 175 euros."
The fees have generated hundreds of millions of dollars in government revenue, but there appears to be little other justification for them.
The Productivity Commission says there appeared to be no systematic approach to the way visa charges are set.
When we asked the Immigration Minister’s office about the high fees earlier this year, they justified the cost by pointing to social services such as HECS and Medicare that partners become eligible for.
But the Minister’s own department contradicted that reasoning, stating that immigrants on the partnership visa program pay more in tax than they use in services.
In 2008 an Immigration Department commissioned report showed the government was making a net profit from the visa stream. Back then the fee was just $1,390.
According to numerous reports the government has commissioned, foreign partners tend to have a net positive impact on the federal budget and are more likely to work than natural-born Australians, despite initially being paid less than Australian counterparts.
The fee is a particularly heavy burden for young couples, which make up the majority of applicants. Approximately 56 per cent of partners applying for the visa are younger than 35.
While the latest Productivity Commission report recommends a substantial rise in parent visa fees, it explicitly states there should be no change to partnership and dependent child visa fees.
For many couples, that recommendation comes too late, leaving them feeling like their lives are on hold.
"My partner and I are students. We just paid. It was our whole life savings," Liza* tells SBS. "We paid them at the expense of being able to see his family in Canada."
They've been told the Australian visa could take 12 to 15 months to process - she says her current visa to Canada was $500 and took four months to come through.
Liza says the application process has been exhausting, and they're still waiting on a final decision.
"It feels like we are just waiting to be allowed to begin our real lives, and are being penalised for wanting to do so," she says.
Jade* told SBS that she left her partner in Germany to return to Australia to continue studying and to save up for the visa.
She's been doing shift-work here while he works at a bakery in Germany - they need to save for the visa, flights and backup funds for the potential 12 month wait during the approval process.
"The price is so extreme that at this stage we cannot afford it at all," she says, "the fear of it not being approved and losing all $7000, airfares, and time is also a restricting factor."
Others have given up altogether.
"My Canadian partner and I had begun this process, but decided it would be smarter to use our savings to build a better life elsewhere," Carl Hamilton tells SBS. "The uncertainty and financial outlay was too difficult and stressful to follow through."
"We're unlikely to return to Australia to live now. For young people just getting started in their careers, it can be prohibitive," he says.
Hamilton says he's recently received Permanent Residency in Canada, the entire process amounting to less than a third of the cost of an Australian partnership visa.
"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," migration agent Zeke Bentley told SBS earlier this year.
"They’re taking advantage of people’s relationships,” he said.
*surname removed for anonymity.