What happens when you get caught without a visa?

A former immigration officer tells SBS News what it’s like to spend your days hunting down visa overstayers in Australia.

Only once did someone jump out of a window.

More often, the people approached by Christopher Levingstone would break down and weep - sometimes with relief, he says.

All of them had overstayed their visas in Australia, and all of them - whether it was months or years later - had just discovered their time was up.

Mr Levingston worked for the Department of Immigration and was there to tell them they had finally been caught.

“Imagine having to wrap up your life, out of the blue. In 10, 15 minutes, pack your bag,” Mr Levingstone tells SBS News.

“It’s a nightmare, isn’t it? Poor devils.”

Imagine having to wrap up your life ... in 10, 15 minutes.
These days Mr Levingstone works as a migration lawyer helping people, including overstayers, negotiate Australia’s complex visa system. But before he left the department in about 1990, he said he caught “hundreds” of people in the country without a valid visa.

Evading arrest

The recent case of the missing Commonwealth Games athletes and officials has drawn the public’s attention to the issue of overstaying, but they account for only a small fraction of the thousands who stay on in Australia each year once their visas expire.

An estimated 62,900 “unlawful non-citizens” remained in the country in 2016/17, according to the Department of Home Affairs, which tracked down 15,885 of them during the same period.

The department undertakes activities, such as community information sessions, aimed at “encouraging voluntary compliance”. People caught overstaying can face detention, deportation and bans from re-entering Australia for a minimum period of three years.

Despite those stakes, Mr Levingstone said he did not reflect too much on the massive implications his arrival signified every time he turned up unexpectedly at someone’s door.

“I’m afraid that I probably have mildly sociopathic tendencies, so I can honestly say that I wasn’t terribly emotionally troubled by that,” he says.

“I was interested in the job; I was interested in locating people; I was interested in arresting people and making sure that people didn’t run away or get hurt.”

Christopher Livingston
Christopher Livingston has caught “hundreds” of visa overstayers in Australia. Source: Supplied

Like the guy who jumped out of the window, who was among a group of Filipinos detained.

“We went there I think on a Sunday night to arrest him … there were quite a few people there and they were all arrested,” he said. “Unfortunately this man thought it would be a good idea to jump out the window”.

This man thought it would be a good idea to jump out the window.
He was very badly hurt, Mr Levingstone said. “But thank God he didn’t die.”

'Dobbing in' others

On some occasions a random traffic stop would be an overstayer’s undoing, he said. But 99 per cent of the time they were found through “dobbings” - or tips to the department, often from people within their own community.

Sex, money and malice were the main motivations for doing so, he said.

“Somebody owes them money, they dob them in,” he said. “Somebody’s having an affair with them and their partner’s upset about it, and they dob them in; or they just want to punish them.”

For others, the constant threat of being caught was its own kind of punishment.

“I imagine that life on the lam, or life on the run, would be pretty stressful,” he says. “But some people were very good at it; the longest time I ever had anyone overstay their visa was about 40 years.”

In that case, a family crisis overseas finally led a Malaysian national to seek out migration lawyer Mr Levingstone.

The man, who it turned out was entitled to citizenship as an “absorbed person”, was one of thousands Mr Levingstone estimates have approached him in 26 years to “regularise their status”.

Limited options

It is often possible to find a way to stay on officially, rather than run the risk of getting caught, he said. He added it was becoming harder and harder to remain “at large” in the community.

“If you have to produce 100 points of ID to open a bank account, then you’re going to find it very difficult to open a bank account if you don’t have a valid visa,” he said by way of example.

The department told SBS News those in Australia without a valid visa were expected to resolve their status, such as through its Status Resolution Service, or leave the country.

“Individuals who do not do this will be liable for detention and removal,” a spokesperson said.

Mr Levingstone said a person’s options narrowed if they were caught and sent to detention - where they could remain indefinitely if there was no clear option for them to either stay or go.

“If you’ve already overstayed for 10 years, they’d say well why would we let you out?” he said. “It is very, very hard to get out of detention once you get into it.”

Visit  for more information about expiring or expired visas.

Would you like to share your story with SBS? Contact

5 min read
Published 5 June 2018 at 5:26pm
By Leesha McKenny