A crackdown targeting unscrupulous migration agents and employers is underway to combat what Labor claims are rampant abuses of temporary visa holders, particularly during the Coalition government’s tenure.

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil and Immigration Minister Andrew Giles have released the findings of a review on visa system exploitation conducted by former Victoria Police Chief Commissioner, Christine Nixon.

Nixon’s report emphasizes the need to safeguard temporary migrant workers from egregious abuses, including sexual exploitation, human trafficking, and organized crime. Nixon highlighted the continued secrecy surrounding exploitation issues, as law enforcement priorities were often focused on higher-profile matters like drugs, tobacco, and unauthorized maritime arrivals.

The review revealed a significant reduction in immigration compliance staff, from 380 in 2013-14 to approximately 200 in 2022-23, signaling a concerning lack of attention and care, according to O’Neil. Giles viewed this as a serious indictment of former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s record.

The Albanese government plans to expand its authority to revoke the visas of migrants found to have exploited other temporary migrants. It will establish a new division within the Department of Home Affairs dedicated to immigration compliance, with an additional $50 million allocated in 2023-24 to bolster compliance resources by 43%.

Operation Inglenook, an Australian Border Force operation primarily focused on human trafficking and modern slavery within the sex industry, will be extended to address other forms of exploitation. The targets are individuals who exploit others, and the goal is not to remove the victims from Australia.

O’Neil stressed the importance of addressing the issue of individuals overstaying their visas in Australia. Compliance targets will be set, and additional resources will be provided if the population in immigration detention increases.

The Nixon review exposed that on average, 40% of migration agents used by those seeking to come to Australia were unregistered. To address this, the government will enhance fit and proper person assessments for registered migration agents and increase the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority’s size. This office will gain greater authority to impose conditions on migration agents, extend deregistration periods, and raise penalties for misconduct. An investment of $27.8 million will be made to enhance biometrics for improved identity verification of migrants.

Nixon’s recommendation to prohibit temporary migrants from working in the sex industry was rejected by the government, citing international human rights commitments and practical difficulties for sex workers in making complaints if they were exploited.

Former Home Affairs Minister Dutton refuted allegations of weak compliance and accused Labor of being unable to make tough decisions to secure Australia’s borders. He pointed to a decrease in visa cancellations and an increase in onshore asylum seekers arriving in Australia.

The Nixon report reveals that exploitation has become pervasive in many labor market segments, with over 45% of backpackers and more than 40% of international student victims earning below the minimum wage of $15 an hour.

While the government has introduced legislation to strengthen employer compliance, Nixon recommended that employers found to breach the Migration Act should face permanent bans from hiring temporary migrants.

The report also highlighted significant delays in reviewing refugee claims, enabling thousands of asylum seekers to stay in Australia for up to a decade, accessing merits and judicial reviews of their claims. The report recommends reducing the volume of non-meritorious and non-genuine protection claims. It also suggests that protection claims should be made through migration agents or lawyers, a recommendation noted by the government.

The report noted a rapid increase in refusals of international student visa applications, rising from 15% mid-year to over 35% in September.

In an effort to enhance the integrity of the international education system, education agents will be banned from receiving commissions for poaching students enrolled in other institutions. Further announcements regarding unmeritorious refugee claims are expected.

The Albanese government is also considering raising the bar for international students and graduates and contemplating creating a separation between the Fair Work Ombudsman and Home Affairs.

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