More than 3,000 foreign students overstayed their visas in Australia last year, raising fears that some students are using their enrolments in education institutions as a means to remain permanently and illegally in the country.
The Australian Immigration Department located 13,000 overstayers - 3,400 of them students -- out of the 55,000 known to have exceeded their visas. The department says the cost of locating and repatriating the illegals runs into millions of dollars a year.
Australian universities enrolled more than 60,000 foreign fee-paying students in 1998 and they expect this figure to rise by at least half again this year. The students now contribute an estimated Aus$100 million (Pounds 40 million) annually to university coffers.
Countries whose students have a good history of complying with visa conditions are listed in a special edition of the Commonwealth Gazette and visa applications from these countries enjoy streamlined processing.
Students from "non-gazetted" countries have to undergo a "genuineness assessment". This involves an investigation by immigration officials.
The gazetted countries cover almost all those in Europe and North America, as well as a significant number in Asia, including Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. China and India are conspicuously classed as non-gazetted.
Under new rules, students are required to remain with the education provider with whom they originally enrolled for at least the first 12 months (or the duration of the course if it is less than 12 months) unless they obtain permission from the immigration department to transfer.
Students face cancellation of their visas if they are not enrolled on a registered course and have at least an 80 per cent attendance rate. If evidence is not produced, the student must have a satisfactory academic performance.
Technology is being used to locate overstayers, in particular to match electronic records held by government agencies. All passengers arriving in and departing from Australia are required to hold visas and their entry details are recorded on a database. The immigration department can identify those whose visas run out.
The names are then matched against lists of people held by other government agencies such as social security and the tax office, to find a last known address. A data-matching pilot project is also underway with the Health Insurance Commission.