The Department of Home Affairs mistakenly sent outdated letters to visa applicants erroneously telling them to immediately book international return flights out of Australia in the middle of a pandemic or risk having their applications derailed.
Ordinarily, the migration system requires applicants for some permanent visa types – including parent visas and partner visas – to be outside of Australia at the time they are granted.
Such travel is highly risky during the Covid-19 pandemic, however, which was recognised by the federal government when it introduced temporary time extensions to prevent unnecessary travel by visa applicants.
Despite the changes, those waiting for parent visas are still receiving official advice from the government telling them they must leave the country to have their visa granted – or risk compromising a process that can cost tens of thousands of dollars and take years.
The Guardian can reveal the Department of Home Affairs has been erroneously sending out old standardised letters – written before the pandemic – to visa applicants. The letters contain unequivocal language telling applicants they must immediately book travel overseas.
“All applicants who are in Australia have twenty-eight (28) days to provide a scanned copy of their proposed departure travel arrangements,” the letter states.
“Applicants should allow a minimum of three (3) working days for a visa to be granted following their departure from Australia. Current health clearances will expire on [date] and police clearances on [date] which means for visa grant decision the clearances must still be valid, and the VAC2 amount paid. We cannot extend the health clearance beyond this date. Please advise travel arrangements so that we can monitor departure and complete the visa grants.”
The letters make no mention of the coronavirus pandemic and do not canvass any special arrangements available to give applicants more time to avoid international travel.
The department has now conceded the letters were sent out “inadvertently” – including to people who had been granted extensions on their visa applications.
“Some standard letter requests with regard to completing visa requirements were inadvertently sent to applicants, including to those who may have been granted extensions of time,” the department said in a statement.
“The department has updated the standard correspondence to parent visa applicants, and published information on the department’s website, to reflect the availability of extensions of time for completion of parent visa requirements.”
The department is now phoning parent visa applicants in Australia who are in the final stages of visa processing to “reassure them that extensions of time are available in order to meet requirements”.
The department has not previously conceded this mistake despite questions from the Guardian and Channel 10 on the issue.
Federal Labor is pushing the government to change the Migration Act to give the minister the power to award visas onshore during the pandemic to avoid the “madness” of forcing unnecessary international travel.
The Labor MP Julian Hill said he was shocked by the department’s response.
“Words fail me. I mean seriously, what kind of government tells vulnerable people they have to fly overseas in the middle of a pandemic, then when caught out says ‘Oops, we didn’t really mean it’,” Hill said. “Does anyone really believe these letters were sent by accident when they just reflect the government’s policy and hundreds of people got them?”
Late last year, the then immigration minister, Alan Tudge, announced he would end the offshore requirement for partner visas, but did not extend that same exemption to other visa types that require applicants to be outside of Australia at the time of granting.
Parent visas are the next most popular visa type that have such a rule although the numbers of those applying for parent visas are relatively small.