Investigations

Exclusive: Government quietly relaxes controversial visa policy affecting people with disabilities

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Applicants with permanent medical conditions or disabilities will no longer be assessed in terms of their lifetime care cost, in a move that migration agents and human rights workers say is a step towards reducing discrimination in the immigration system.

A controversial migration requirement that results in more than 15 people with disabilities or illnesses having their Australian visa application rejected each year has been quietly relaxed by the government after decades of campaigning by disability and immigration advocates.

The government’s immigration health requirement prevents any migrant with an illness, disease, or intellectual or physical disability from obtaining a visa if it is deemed their condition will be too costly to the Australian taxpayer or put the general public at risk.

New cap and assessment period

Prior to 1 July, the policy underpinning the requirement set the threshold for significant cost at $40,000.

This has now been increased to $49,000.

The formula used to calculate the cost of people with permanent disabilities or conditions seeking permanent residency has also been updated.

Previously, people with permanent conditions could be rejected if the hypothetical cost of their care exceeded the cost threshold over their lifetime. Now, the hypothetical cost will be calculated over ten years.

“It is a very significant change and it does impact on people with health and disability issues very profoundly,” health and disability specialist and registered migration agent Jan Gothard told SBS News.

She said the changes were most likely to positively affect people with permanent disabilities, or those with conditions including hepatitis B, down syndrome and cerebral palsy who are hoping to live in Australia permanently.

Government quiet on changes 

Dr Gothard, who works at Western Australia migration law firm Estrin Saul, said she had not been aware of the changes - which came in with the new financial year - until her colleague stumbled across them while reviewing the government’s policy recently.

“She noticed that the figure for significant costs had gone from $40,000 to $49,000, at first she thought she was looking at a typo,” she said, adding that she was surprised by the move.

“But then we double-checked and yes it had indeed gone up.”

Immi website
No announcement was made about the changes but the Department of Home Affairs updated the requirement details on its website.
immi.homeaffairs.gov.au

A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs told SBS News the department had recently developed a new calculation methodology for the significant cost threshold which will allow it to be updated every two years to keep up with the changing cost of healthcare.

In regards to reducing the costing period to ten years, the department said it would improve the reliability of cost estimations.

“The changes will benefit both the department and visa applicants by streamlining the application of the policy while balancing the need to minimise public health threats and public expenditure,” the spokesperson said.

Discrimination persists 

Advocates have been fighting for a loosening of the regulation for many years, with a number of high profile cases recently drawing attention to the issue. 

This year, SBS News brought to light the case of Mollie Manley, a great-grandmother in Perth, originally from the UK, who after 11 years in Australia was facing deportation for failing the health requirement. The 93-year-old died in June.

But while advocates and migration agents welcome the changes, they are quick to point out that they are only a small step forward.

Vice president of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) Natalie Wade told SBS News: “The very heart of what our issues are as lawyers, as advocates, as migrants, is still that the significant cost threshold is very low when you compare it to what the cost of living with a chronic health condition or disability is.” 

“At the centre of all of this, is the public policy principle of whether it is appropriate, or in fact just to apply a significant cost threshold, to migrants with disabilities or their families when they are seeking permanent residency in Australia.”

At the centre of all of this is the principle of whether it is appropriate to apply a cost threshold to migrants with disabilities or their families.

- Natalie Wade, Human rights lawyer

Ms Wade, who heads up the ALHR’s disability subcommittee, said she was pleased to see the reduction from lifetime to 10 years for permanent visa cost calculations as “at least now there’s a cap on it”.

“Before it was their whole life, which was just an insurmountable hurdle for any applicant to get over,” she said.

For families facing deportation because their child has a permanent condition - like the Wangchuk family who were threatened with deportation back to Bhutan this year because of their son’s hearing impairment - Ms Wade hopes this change will be particularly useful.

Dr Gothard also said there were lots of things missing in their policy reform, including to the health requirement waiver system which only applies to certain visa classes.

“The fact remains that people who apply for a visa which has got no health waiver, if they exceed the threshold of $49,000 by $1,000, they're out, they've not in a position to argue a case,” she said.

A parliamentary inquiry into the health requirement in 2010 found the system unfairly discriminates against migrants with a disability and their families, but many of the report’s 18 recommendations are yet to be implemented.

“If you look at a child, then ten years of education support, that's still going to take you way over the threshold very quickly in two years,” Dr Gothard said.

“It's not an open door by any means.”

The changes also mean that the government’s disability support pension - which was previously counted in the cost calculations - will not be considered, as migrants are not eligible for the payment until they have been in the country for more than ten years.

The department spokesperson said all Australian visa applicants are treated “in an equal and fair manner”.

“Neither the current or previous policy discriminates against applicants who have a disability or illness,” they said.

Have you been affected by the immigration health requirement? Get in touch at maani.truu@sbs.com.au or at @maanitruu on Twitter.

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