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Partner visa processing backlog keeping couples apart as Department of Home Affairs wait time blows out

Source: ABC News, 09/08/2020

Key points:
• The visa application costs $7,715 but couples often fork out much more paying agent fees, tourist visa fees and flight costs
• As of March, the backlog for applications awaiting assessment had blown out to 91,717. Five years ago, it was 74,214
• A migration lawyer the delays are costing Australia in terms of skilled migrants
They have spent just five months of the past three years together, with Mr Audi having to return to Kenya days after they married.
The couple has been waiting nearly two years for Mr Audi`s partner visa to be approved.
Theirs is among a growing backlog in partner visa applications which is causing some couples to fear they will miss out on the chance to have children together.
Offshore partner visa applicants are facing waits of around two years to be approved to live with their spouses in Australia.
Celia and Moses Audi have joined with other Australians in the same situation to launch a parliamentary petition.(Supplied: Celia and Moses Audi)
Ms Audi said the uncertainty of not knowing when the visa would be granted was frustrating.
`It means that we can`t plan anything and it means that we can`t have a sense of any security around it,` she said.
`If we had a date, we could then work around it, he would know how to prepare to come over here but the not knowing has just left us in limbo indefinitely.`
They have spent just five months of the past three years together.
Ms Audi is worried the delay will mean she and her husband will lose the opportunity to have children.
`For us, it could cost us the chance to have a family, because I`m not getting any younger,` she said.
`That feels really painful and it feels like every day counts. We need the partner visa to be able to build our lives together.`
Ms Audi has teamed up with other Australians in the same situation to launch a parliamentary petition.
Celia and Moses Audi say the delay has `left us in limbo`.(Supplied: Celia and Moses Audi)
The petition is calling for the Federal Government to overhaul its partner visa process to make it more streamlined and transparent.
`There`s no transparency, we can`t ring Immigration and find out what`s going on because they won`t tell us,` Ms Audi said.
`So, the petition has come about to say that it`s not okay to be keeping families ripped apart in Australia and it`s not okay when we`re paying nearly $8,000 per application to be not communicating with us about it.
`There are children who are growing up without their parents because they can`t see each other due to this.`
Blowout in application processing
In the 2014-15 financial year, the Department of Home Affairs approved 52,018 partner visa applications. Last financial year, it planned for partner migration to reach 39,799.
In the meantime, the backlog for applications awaiting assessment had blown out to 91,717 by March this year. Five years ago, it was 74,214.
Bowie Domingo said the delay in processing was taking its toll on him and Amelia Elliott
Melbourne couple Amelia Elliott and Bowie Domingo are also behind the campaign for change.
Ms Elliott said families were struggling with the instability and insecurity of not knowing whether their applications are progressing.
`We really want to unite the voices of people who are going through this visa process,` Ms Elliott said.
`A lot of them feel very alone, a lot of them feel powerless.`
Mr Domingo, who is from the Philippines, applied for his partner visa in 2018 around the same time as their wedding in Australia. The wait time was estimated at 11 to 16 months.
Mr Domingo is still waiting to hear the outcome of his application 22 months later.
Amelia Elliott and Bowie Domingo say couples caught up in the process `feel very alone and powerless`.
Off-shore partner visa applicants can enter Australia on visitor visas, but they cannot work.
The visa application costs $7,715 but couples often fork out much more paying agent fees, tourist visa fees and flight costs.
Ms Elliott sold her apartment to help cover the costs of the visa process.
`We have spent $11,500 on the actual partner visa, agent fees and of course the over $7,000 government fee,` she said.
`We`ve spent $11,500 on tourist visas, agent fees and medicals, and $10,500 on flights.`
Mr Domingo said the delay in learning about their future was taking its toll in many ways.
`Financially, it`s always hard because my wife is the only one that`s looking after us at the moment and it`s really upsetting me mentally,` he said.
`It`s really frustrating not being able to work, I`m the type of guy that I don`t want to just be relying on someone, I want to be a provider, I want to work hard for my family, for my wife.
`We have these plans of building a family, of children, but to be able to build that future you have to have work, to have money.`
`Unnecessary strain on relationships`
Under the rules for offshore applicants, Mr Domingo would have to leave the country when the Department of Home Affairs is due to decide on his application.
Ms Elliott said that requirement should be removed during the coronavirus pandemic.
`Currently with flights and quarantine it can cost in excess of $6,000 [to travel out of the country] just for the Government to tell them something they could basically tell them over the phone and grant while they`re here,` she said.
Amelia Elliott sold her apartment to help cover the costs of the visa process for Bowie.
Melbourne migration lawyer Erskine Rodan said it was sad and regretful that people were having to wait so long.
`We believe it requires urgent attention from the Department of Home Affairs,` he said.
`The partner visas are there to ensure that partners can be here together as quickly as possible. I believe the program at the present moment is not taking too much notice of that particular issue.`
Mr Rodan said the delays were placing unnecessary strain on relationships.
`It`s impossible for the relationship,` he said. `It doesn`t matter how good the relationship is, it makes it tense, it makes it stressful and it becomes emotional.`
He recommended couples look at whether a skilled migration visa would be a better option as it can be a shorter wait time.
`There are special programs for highly skilled people, which can get visas very quickly,` he said. `In the next 12 or 18 months, we`re going to need as much skills as possible from overseas as we can because the COVID-19 lurgy, as I put it, is causing a lot of problems economically, socially and for the migrant intake.`
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said demand for partner visas is exceeding the planning level for that category, which is contributing to processing times.
`Priority within the family stream is given to visa places for partners and children, with partners accounting for the bulk of family migration program places,` the statement said.
`All visa applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis. Processing times vary according to individual circumstances and the complexity of the application, for example in relation to assessments of identity, health, character and national security.
`Applications are generally processed in the order in which they are received. This is to ensure fairness and equity to all visa applicants.`


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