Gaps and weaknesses in Australia’s immigration system have allowed organised criminals and unsavoury characters to thrive, triggering a $50 million compliance blitz.
Criminal syndicates have exploited visas to facilitate human trafficking, modern slavery, illegal sex work, drug importation and money laundering.
Former Victoria Police commissioner Christine Nixon conducted a review of migration at the request of Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil.
The government received the Nixon report in March and chose not to declassify it until it could respond to its findings.
Many of the contents are neither new nor surprising.
“These horrible people are committing the worst crimes known to humanity and abusing our migration system in order to do it,” Ms O’Neil told reporters on Wednesday.
Temporary migrant workers are at such an elevated risk of being abused and exploited by their employers, it is almost a design feature of the immigration system.
Sex workers in particular are more likely to be trafficked, underpaid, or forced to work in conditions that fail to meet health and safety regulations.
At a time of record skills shortages, the visa processing backlog has surged to almost a million applications.
Protracted processing times have ballooned with some migrants waiting up to two-and-a-half years, which has encouraged bad actors to lodge increasing numbers of non-genuine applications for protection, shifting resources away from authentic claims.
Many of these failures stemmed from the previous coalition government’s neglect of the home affairs department under former minister Peter Dutton, Ms O’Neil said.
“The responsibility for a lot of these problems falls directly at Peter Dutton’s feet,” she said.
The number of visa processing staff shrunk by a third between 2015 and 2022 as onshore protection claims went through the roof.
The immigration compliance team also halved during the coalition’s nine years in power.
“It was a lack of care, lack of attention and lack of basic interest in what is one of the most important things that the Australian government does,” Ms O’Neil said.
The opposition leader hit back at the accusations, claiming the coalition prevented asylum seekers from arriving in the country by boat, cancelled thousands of criminals’ visas, and released immigrant children from detention.
“The fact is (the Labor government) lost control of our borders,” he told reporters.
“There are many more criminals staying in our country today because ministers like Clare O’Neil and Mr (Andrew) Giles have no capacity to make the tough decisions to keep our borders safe.”
The Nixon report offered sweeping recommendations, some of which the government has begun to implement.
It has moved to crack down on dodgy international education providers and bolster protections for exploited international students.
A multi-agency team that investigates worker exploitation in the sex industry will be made permanent and expand its scope to exploitation and wrongdoing across the immigration system.
The Labor government also committed $50 million to improve compliance, with a separate strike force to identify and attack integrity concerns.
It also plans to double the number of staff at the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority.
NSW anti-slavery commissioner James Cockayne said the changes were an important first step.
“To break the silence around migrant worker exploitation and human trafficking we need to make our reporting systems much more victim-centric,” he said.