Immigration

Migration expert says 64,000 visa overstayers ‘frustrating’ given focus on asylum seekers

Airline passengers make their way through Melbourne Airport in 2014. Source: AAP

Latest figures from the Immigration department show Malaysians lead in overstaying visas, though the overall number has been static for years

Australia’s population of 64,600 lapsed visa holders is more than triple the size of last year’s refugee intake, newly released Immigration data has revealed.

Malaysian visa overstayers were the most highly represented, with around 9,440 living in the country in June 30 last year.

By comparison, the 2015-16 refugee intake was 17,555, including the extra places for 12,000 Syrians and Iraqis.

The data shows the vast majority of visa overstayers were on tourist visas – an estimated 47,000 – followed by student visas at around 10,000.

Marianne Dickie, who teaches a Masters in migration law at the Australian National University, said the numbers were “frustrating” and evidence that the Immigration department was failing to tackle the issue.

“I don’t know if compliance [Immigration officers] chase people that much. Often you hear of raids on cafes and that sort of thing, but it’s not frequent,” Ms Dickie said.

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“It’s frustrating because a lot of people overstay on purpose. And sometimes they overstay on purpose for a little while and it ends up being years, and then the punitive nature of resolving it stops them from going in and fixing it up.”

The data also breaks down the length of overstays, with around 12,000 people staying in the country without a visa for more than 20 years.

The Immigration department told SBS World News it conducts regular “targeted field compliance activity” to locate people residing in the country on expired visas.

An Immigration spokesperson said the rate of people reporting themselves to the department had increased in recent years, including some long-term overstayers.

“The vast majority of people coming to Australia comply with Australia’s migration laws and overall compliance with Australia’s migration programme is high,” the spokesperson said.

Ms Vickie said the issue of visa overstaying never captures the public's attention for very long, compared with the more contentious issue of asylum seekers. 

"It's interesting, because the attitude towards asylum seekers, who are here quite legitimately, is often a negative one," she said.

Ms Dickie said the Immigration department’s push to shift its operations online had made it difficult for people to sort out their visas face-to-face.

People in regional areas, even cities as large as Canberra, are told they can only speak with the department in Sydney, she said.

“Then when you get to Sydney, they’ve streamlined everything there. You can no longer really access offices easily, there’s a big line of computer banks.”

“It’s all geared to dissuade you from talking to somebody directly and to go back online.”

“They’ve made it easier for people to overstay and harder for people to comply in many ways.”

The Immigration spokesperson said the department had “numerous channels” for contact with the public, including offices “around the country, where people can speak to a Departmental officer”.

There is also a ‘Status Resolution Service’ available to visa overstayers at no cost, according to the department spokesperson.

Stable rate

The number of visa overstayers has hardly shifted for years, sitting at around the 60,000 mark since at least 2011, according to Immigration data seen by SBS World News.

But Jonathan Granger, a practicing migration agent and vice president of the Migration Institute, said the department had done well to keep the rate steady since 2010 given a “massive increase” in the number of tourists and foreign students over the same period.

He said there had been a 500,000 increase in the rate of temporary visas since 2010, when the number of visa overstayers was 53,900.

There were 62,100 in 2014 and 58,400 in 2011.

He said the data was no cause for alarm when the “vast majority would be benign, people who forgot their visitor visa was expiring”.

Why Malaysians?

Malaysians are the biggest group in the visa overstay data, beating much more populous countries like China, India and the United States.

Many high-profile Malaysians, including members of parliament, were educated in Australia under the Colombo Plan.

“Major business leaders and political leaders in Malaysia who have degrees from ANU and UTS and Sydney University are now sending their children here too, which is a success of the program.”

Those highly educated, low-risk Malaysians have led to the country receiving a 'low-risk' visa rating from Immigration, which makes it easy for them to get visas with minimal vetting, Mr Granger said.

Malaysia is covered by the Electronic Travel Authority, which means their tourist visas are essentially approved automatically.

But both wealthy and working-class Malaysians come to Australia, Mr Granger said.

“Passport holders from the other end of the socio-economic scale in Malaysia are able to access the same visitor visa program.”

But Mr Granger said he would not support any change to Malaysia’s 'low-risk' classification, saying that would be a “kneejerk” reaction that would damage regional ties and trade links.

SBS World News has contacted the Immigration department for comment.

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