Sex trafficking claims tipped to trigger regulatory crackdown

Report into ‘grotesque’ abuses of Australian international education emerges when visa processing system is already straining at the seams

八月 1, 2023
Melbourne, Australia - April 10, 2014 Passengers stand at an Australian Customs and Border Protection checkpoint in Melbourne airport. The agency responsible for the safety, security and commercial interests of Australians
Source: iStock

Students smuggled Down Under by a network of corrupt education agents are being put to work in Australia’s sex industry, a report commissioned by the federal government alleges.

The network, linked through “family ties and business co-ownership”, is thought to have enrolled at least 128 “non-genuine” students in colleges in which it has “controlling” interests. The students pay up to A$5,000 (£2,600) apiece to the agents, who in turn pay the colleges to “obfuscate” the students’ failure to attend classes or do assessments.

The network’s “complementary fields of specialisation” give it the wherewithal to “facilitate migration fraud”, managing all aspects of the visa procurement process including “study-related transactions”. Signatures “digitally lifted” from the students’ passports appear on visa applications and documents authorising third parties to act on their behalf – practices considered “conducive to trafficking and exploitation of sex workers”.

The allegations by the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) appear in a leaked report by Christine Nixon, a former Victorian police commissioner, whose “rapid review” of Australia’s visa system was sparked by media revelations of criminal activity.

Ms Nixon told home affairs minister Clare O’Neil that she had been “appalled” by the “grotesque abuses” she had uncovered. “Unscrupulous people are always looking for ways to exploit and make money. It is clear that gaps and weaknesses in Australia’s visa system are allowing this to happen. Australia [must be] reaffirmed as a safe destination for those who wish to visit [and] study.”

In a chapter on education agents, Ms Nixon recommends a series of interventions starting with direct oversight of agents. Instead of placing the “regulatory onus” on individual colleges, she says, Australian authorities should adopt a US-style system of certifying agents, including offshore agents.

The report also recommends a three-month “targeted compliance operation” and close monitoring of colleges’ reporting of students’ non-attendance. While such activities would mostly focus on private vocational colleges, from where an estimated 15 per cent of overseas students remain in Australia after absconding from their courses – in violation of visa conditions – higher education would also be targeted.

Ms Nixon estimates that up to one in 25 foreign higher education students is not meeting visa requirements after abandoning degrees. She says institutions should be scrutinised for compliance with attendance reporting requirements, and a newly established DHA “immigration enforcement” squad notified of lapses.

Visa policies and compliance frameworks should also be reviewed if abuse by private vocational colleges proves “significant”, with a “broader” review undertaken “if it is considered that student and training visas are being used to support a need for low-skilled workers” – something observers say is clearly already happening.

While the developments pose reputational risks, Abul Rizvi, an immigration expert, said the bigger danger for Australian universities was the potential for regulatory overreach.

Dr Rizvi said the revelations of “nefarious” activity had emerged amid unprecedented numbers of visa applications and soaring rejection rates, while hundreds of thousands of temporary residents were in Australia on graduate or “pandemic event” visas – all of which placed extreme demands on immigration staff.

“[DHA is] basically drowning with those sorts of numbers, and it just can’t continue,” Dr Rizvi said. “[It needs] to be able to process the applications reasonably quickly and without a very, very high refusal rate. High refusal rates just soak up resources.”

Newly released DHA data show that the number of student visa applications lodged last financial year was more than 25 per cent higher than the pre-pandemic peak. Almost 50 per cent more visas were granted than before the pandemic, despite a rejection rate roughly double the average of previous years.

Dr Rizvi said he anticipated a regulatory tightening. “The key is to make the clampdown targeted and effective, not [one] that basically just strangles bits of the industry.”

He said immigration authorities tended to “either undershoot or overshoot”, going “soft” on emerging issues and then suddenly overreacting. “Given the perfect storm that’s taking place, the likelihood of panic is high.”



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