Crisis in the refugee assessment program: Part 1

The refugee assessment program in Australia is in crisis..

  • the ‘fast track’ process for assessing legacy Irregular Maritime Arrival cases is four years behind schedule;
  • the air arrival section is 8 years away from catching up on its workload even in the midst of a global pandemic; and
  • the number of failed asylum seekers residing in the community grows by over 1000 every month whilst the randomly targeted Biloela family languish on Christmas Island.

This is the first in a three part series looking at what has gone wrong in the system and how to fix it from someone who spent five years working in the area. In this part we look at how the so-called fast-track system for assessing IMAs blew out from a three year project to one that will likely take closer to seven to complete. 

Part two will look at how similar problems replicated in the air arrivals section led to an unprecedented explosion in fraudulent applications and the creation of what could be described as a de facto, low integrity, 457 temporary work visa.

Finally, part 3 will look into why this is important and some potential ways to try to get the system back on track.

Part 1: The Irregular Maritime Arrival caseload

Back in 2015 when resolving the status of the so-called asylum legacy caseload was one of the government’s top priorities. Dutton himself described it as one of the government’s ‘core commitments’. In 2021 it’s not so clear that commitment is very core at all.

The government’s original intention was to have all cases assessed by mid-2018. The obvious reasoning behind this was to avoid processing renewals of the three year temporary protection visas at the same time as the department was going through initial applications. With 4395 cases still to be finalised as of March 2021, you’d have to be an optimist to believe that it will be finished by the end of this calendar year. So how did the government get it so wrong?

The fast track assessment program started in September 2015. Initially it was quite slow going as new procedures and templates significantly slowed the process down. For the first year only 5019 applications were processed due to these inefficiencies.

As unnecessary processes were weeded out and templates became streamlined the rate of assessment rose to around 800 to 1000 applications a month, but it still wasn’t enough.

Both internal and external reviews suggested that meeting the government’s target required a significant increase in staffing in the area. This advice was ignored by Dutton.

Instead what happened was a steady reduction in staffing levels across the area as part of broad staffing losses across what was then known as the Immigration and Citizenship Services Group. In just one year between 2016-17 and 2017-18 the area lost almost 500 staff, going from 5090 to just 4612 according to annual reports.

Visa processing staff were disproportionately affected, and the impacts started to show. By the time I left the department in late 2018 there were so few of us in the Melbourne office that the question of who would be left to train new-comers was a genuine concern.

Unsurprisingly, this significantly impacted the output of the area. As the mid 2018 deadline approached it was clear that we would miss it by a solid 12,000 cases. The only word we got from on high was that the minister was ‘comfortable’ with this situation.

The decline in the area is evident in the numbers. In the first three years of the program the department managed to get through over 19,600 primary decisions. In the last three they’ve failed to achieve half of that. Between June 2018 and March 2021 there have been fewer than 8000 decisions made. 

To be fair to the government, Minister Coleman did attempt to help with the issue in early 2019 by expanding the numbers of case officers. This has had limited impact for two main reasons. 

The first is that build up is painfully slow. It’s generally accepted that, due to the complexity of the job, it takes about 9 months for new case officers to be productive. This includes a period of three months being mentored. With so few case officers left to do that mentoring, building up from next to nothing is something of an issue.

The second is that because the whole thing has taken so long the department needs to reassess the Temporary Protection Visas that have come up for renewal. At present there have been over 18 thousand temporary visas granted. This means that, even with expedited review for certain cohorts, there’s a significant body of work that some of the area’s already depleted resources need to be directed towards.

These two factors are keeping the assessment rate stubbornly low, around 200 a month. As of March there remains 3478 primary decisions to make meaning, at this rate, the whole thing is likely to be finished sometime in mid 2022. Four years behind schedule.

It appears that the government has, finally, become aware of the problem. Asylum seeker legal support groups in NSW are reporting that the government is aiming to have all IMA asylum seekers in the state interviewed by the end of June.

Whilst on the face of it, this may look like a positive development there are significant risks with such a strategy.

The first set of risks are that asylum seekers who haven’t been in contact with legal support services by this stage could be disadvantaged as important parts of their claims are overlooked in the rush. As there is no right to provide new information at the review stage, any serious claim that is missed or not presented appropriately can have serious ramifications for that applicant.

The other risk is that this will, counterintuitively, actually lead to delays in finalising the caseload. 

Whilst there’s likely to be a significant surge in productivity in the weeks immediately following such a blitz this will taper off quite quickly as all of the simple cases are dealt with. This will leave just the complicated cases, likely to be refusals, that may take longer for a few reasons.

The first is that the longer it is since the interview was held the more likely it is that a case officer will have to go back to listen to the interview again to make a legally sound decision. This can become time consuming as you struggle to remember the reasons a case made it into your ‘no’ pile.

Compounding this, as case officers will have less time to prepare for cases there is a greater chance important things will be missed at interview. This means case officers will need to prepare more natural justice letters and delay cases whilst waiting the statutory time limit for a response.

Finally, as the first two issues delay final decisions you run a greater risk that the interviewing case officer will leave the area, meaning that, effectively, the case needs to be started from scratch by a new departmental officer.

The combination of the above factors mean that proposed interviewing blitz will likely do little to bring forward the ultimate end date for assessments being finalised. Overall it appears to be an attempt to placate a minister and give them excuses rather than a concrete attempt to speed up the processing timelines.

So why does this delay matter? Well it has had a few major negative impacts. The first is that it has kept genuine refugees in a state of uncertainty for four years longer than needed, and it is known that this uncertainty is corrosive to mental health.

The second major problem that delays like this inevitably lead to more complicated cases that are much harder, and more expensive, to resolve. The most obvious example of this being the Biloela family. The more time drags on the more distortions like this we’ll see.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the impact that the delay is having on the capacity of the department to get on top of the out of control fraudulent asylum claims from air arrivals. An issue that, seemingly, not even a global pandemic has been enough to resolve.

We look at this issue in more detail in part 2. 

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