Giorgio Motta and Rebeca Vonk Marins (Image: Supplied)

Migrants will be key to Australia’s economic recovery.

The lack of arrivals since the pandemic began has affected our workforce, our GDP, our universities and our population growth. This financial year there’ll be a net loss of 72,000 migrants, compared with a net gain of 154,000 in 2019-20. Population growth is expected to drop to 0.2%, down from 1.5% in 2018-19.

The number of permanent visas available for 2020-21 has been set at 160,000, but getting into Australia is tough. Caps on international arrivals were further slashed by states earlier this month in response to the more infectious UK variant of COVID-19. Those hoping to arrive have to have a valid visa, be granted an exemption by Australian Border Force, return a negative COVID test before departure, score a flight, and pay for hotel quarantine.

Of all the steps in that long process, the hardest is scoring an exemption. Tens of thousands of migrants have their applications rejected and decisions have been made in as little as 10 minutes.

‘No rhyme or reason’ to exemptions

Immigration lawyer Adam Byrnes tells Crikey he’s seen huge inconsistencies in the way exemptions were granted.

“Criteria is published on the Department of Home Affairs website for the various exemption categories, and what we’re seeing is people who clearly meet that category … such as those with marriage certificates … being refused,” he said.

Despite the huge amount of work and evidence involved in submitting an application, some applications were rejected almost instantly.

“There’s obviously discretion but how that is applied I have no idea,” he said. “Is it based on caps, the individuals assessing, is it the algorithms?”

The ABF told Crikey that from March 20, 2020, to the end of December, more than 32,780 foreign nationals had inbound travel exemption requests approved. During that same period, more than 50,221 were denied.

“Each case is unique and is considered on its own merit based on the information provided in the application, and supporting evidence must be provided,” the ABF said.

Exemption applications are free, and there’s no limit to the number a person can make. The main exemption categories are for immediate family, compelling or compassionate reasons, or those with specialist skills needed in Australia.

Most applications are accepted or rejected within seven days, the ABF said.

Families apart and on hold

Rebeca Vonk Marins found out she was pregnant three days after her partner, Giorgio Motta, flew back to Australia for work. Motta, a Brazilian national, has been living in Australia as a permanent resident for 11 years.

The pair met in Australia in January 2019 and travelled to Brazil together in early 2020. As the pandemic worsened, they travelled to stay with Vonk Marins’ parents in the Netherlands.

Vonk Marins, who has a work and holiday visa for Australia, has submitted more than 70 pages of evidence and applied for an entry exemption on compassionate grounds more than 30 times. She says she didn’t understand why their applications were rejected.

“We are now expecting a child which runs the risk of being separated from his father for up to two years,” she said.

“If our situation isn’t compassionate, what is? People are being put through a true personal hell.”

It’s a similar story for Australian citizen Sophia, who lives in Tasmania, and Petr, who lives in Russia. They have an intimate wedding planned in Hobart next month, although Sophia acknowledges it will probably not take place. The pair had been undergoing fertility treatment before the pandemic.

They’ve applied for an exemption — using registered migration lawyers — on compassionate grounds, compelling circumstances, immediate family and critical skills (Sophia develops and manages healthcare databases). They’ve been rejected 15 times. In one instance, ABF staff amended their application category before rejecting them.

Sophia and Petr (Image: Supplied)

Sophia says having to reveal to ABF staff the effect fertility treatment and miscarriages had had on her mental health, along with other personal information, was challenging.

“I am experiencing some misplaced anger — randomly bursting out at my computer whilst writing another application after work hours, obviously misdirected and completely out of character for me,” she said.

“This is reminiscent of feelings I experienced seeing other couples pregnant whilst Petr and I were having fertility procedures: ‘Why not us? What’s wrong with us?’ “

A method to madness … with long-term consequences

Immigration lawyer Jackson Taylor tells Crikey he got the impression application rejections were less about making a decision in a legally appropriate manner and more about managing the queue of people waiting to come into Australia.

“There are no flights and there’s no space in quarantine placement,” he said. “It appears that maybe informally the federal officers are deliberately going slow in granting people exemptions so as not to have a huge backlog of people who are authorised but can’t get in.”

Taylor says that in his experience, more well-known clients with larger platforms tended to get exemptions more often. Other times politicians had speculated clients had been rejected because they were travelling from a country with high COVID rates.

University of Sydney global migration expert Associate Professor Anna Boucher tells Crikey that while visas were being approved, very few applicants had made it into the country.

“This will be very challenging for the government,” she said. “We could have an influx of people disproportionate to the annual flows … There could be pent-up demand.”

Australia is no longer the key migrant destination it once was, either. While last year it was ranked as the top destination for talent attractiveness, online sentiment analysis shows potential migrants are turning their attention elsewhere.

Although Australia’s intake numbers remain low, Boucher stresses the government had been lenient for those already in Australia by extending visas and giving those on bridging visas spousal status.