Many sponsors (most commonly Australian citizen sponsors) are very surprised to find out that obtaining a permanent Australian visa is a far more difficult task than they imagined. Sponsors frequently are shocked to find out how adversarial the Department of Immigration is and how much evidence is required in determining partner visa applications for their spouses and de facto partners. Why is the Department giving us such a hard time, can’t they see we are genuine?

What is not commonly publicised is the extent to which people seek to exploit Australia’s immigration laws to obtain visas unlawfully. One of the most exploited visa programs is the partner visa program. This is because it is rather difficult for a case officer to truly assess whether a relationship is genuine or not – after all, it is a very subjective thing. So the Department has developed tools to assist them in making a determination about a relationship – that is, what kind of evidence is sufficient to make a decision about a relationship. But historically people have learnt what the Department looks for in deciding whether to grant a partner visa, and have constructed their circumstances and evidence to give the appearance of genuineness.

The Department this week announced the arrest and charge of 5 people over fraudulent partner visa applications. Your author is certain this will become a more common occurrence as the Department continues to ‘crack down’ on what they see as a prevalence of bogus relationships to secure visas. We have witnessed an increase in scrutiny of partner visas over the last few years, and the refusal rate of self lodged applicants seems to be growing.

Last year the Government announced some radical changes to the partner visa rules. These are yet to pass through Parliament, however if enacted, will cause a great deal of difficulty and hardship for Australians and their partners.

First, the Government wants to crack down on Australian sponsors who have criminal records – denying them the opportunity to sponsor their partners for a visa in Australia. Any sponsor with a domestic violence or sexual crimes history will almost certainly be barred from lodging a partner visa application. Others with violent crime histories will also face serious difficulties. In the future we may see other criminal records being prevented from sponsorship. Remember, we now routinely see citizenship and visa applications refused for traffic offences, which would have been unheard of 5-10 years ago. But the biggest impact on the whole program won’t be on those with criminal records, it will be on those sponsors who have no record at all. Otherwise perfectly law abiding good sponsors in genuine relationships will suffer hardship. How?

The Government wants to make the sponsorship approval process a prerequisite for lodging a partner visa. So a spouse/partner of an Australian is prevented from lodging a partner visa until their sponsorship application is approved. This approval process will initially be deceptively simple. Application form, some identity documents, and… a police clearance. If the sponsor has lived outside of Australia they may need an overseas clearance as well. Australian Federal Police clearances take on average around 1-2 weeks to process. No big deal, I hear you say. Overseas clearances? They can take months in many countries if they arrive at all. So if the sponsor can’t get their clearance in time? Their partner must leave Australia and apply from overseas (unless there is another visa they can apply for in Australia – this is most often not the case). Offshore processing times for partners are currently anywhere from 6 months to 24 months, perhaps longer if an appeal process is required. Unnecessary hardship for otherwise good Australian sponsors and their partners who just want to get on with their lives.

All this disruption and hardship is caused by the noble pursuit of locking out bad sponsors. But they are very much the exception to the rule – a very small percentage of sponsors deserve being locked out of the partner visa program.

Also, it will be a slippery slope – in the initial phase only a police clearance will be required and only truly serious offences will cause a refusal of a sponsorship. But who knows how sponsorships will be addressed in the future. Currently there is no income requirement to be a partner visa sponsor (though there may be issues if the sponsor is heavily reliant on government benefits). Could we see an income test for partner visa sponsors? In which case tax returns and income evidence will be required, thus slowing down the process even further?

These changes could be passed at any time during a sitting of Parliament. The message is clear for potential partner visa applicants – plan ahead to avoid disappointment. It is also prudent to begin gathering evidence of your relationship as soon as possible.

We are here to make your immigration process as painless as possible. For advice about your eligibility for a partner visa, and mapping out timelines and strategy, book a consultation with an experienced migration agent to ensure you are not a victim of heavy handed administrative decision making protocols.