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A focus on stopping migrant boats as millions of people arrived on planes with inadequate scrutiny meant authorities missed widespread exploitation and abuse in Australia’s visa system, according to the former top cop who led the Albanese government’s immigration rorts inquiry.
In her most damning comments to date, former Victoria Police chief commissioner Christine Nixon also warned that seismic and sustained reform was needed to address problems in the multibillion-dollar international education sector and to combat the normalisation of foreign worker exploitation.
Christine Nixon hands over her report to minister Clare O’Neil.Credit: Jason South
Nixon described how the economic benefits of Australia’s demand-driven, user-pays international education market had clouded discussion about the entrenched integrity problems in the sector, including ghost colleges and the use of the student visa system as a means of supplying foreign workers.
“Our economy has become accustomed to having cheap overseas labour, and migration system reform will have to take that into account,” Nixon said. “Why is it OK to bring people into this country to be exploited? It isn’t.”
Nixon also said the Home Affairs department needed to undergo significant change to respond to the problems.
“We were told the department’s energy went into the boats [with asylum seekers] but people were just flying into Australia in their millions,” she said.
Nixon said one case involved a woman from China in her 50s on a student visa who was picked up at the airport and put in the underground sex industry.
Nixon’s interview came after the Albanese government announced sweeping reforms to the visa system aimed at curbing corruption in the overseas education sector, combating human trafficking and worker exploitation and reducing lengthy delays in dealing with fraudulent protection visa applications.
Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said Labor would beef up the immigration compliance section of her department after cuts under previous governments, spending $50 million. It would also crack down on registered migration agents, with more funding to the regulatory body, and strengthen the fit-and-proper person test for international education providers.
The reforms were prompted by the Trafficked series of reports by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, 60 Minutes and Stan, which forced the Albanese government to commission the Nixon inquiry.
In her response, O’Neil took aim at Opposition Leader Peter Dutton saying his tough-on-immigration stance as home affairs minister was “one of the great frauds in Australian politics.”
Dutton responded that O’Neil was “a very angry person, always very angry and very aggressive”.
Nixon found there was a system-wide enforcement failure partly due to a severe lack of resources.
“Border force has very limited investigative capacity. The federal police is spread thin enforcing all types of commonwealth crimes and also has limited investigative capacity. It gets even worse when you look at enforcement within the overseas education system,” Nixon said.
“What I discovered is that there was nobody really in firm control of the whole visa system. There are always arguments about the levels of permanent migration but no one seemed to have control of how many temporary visas are being granted each year and how some were being abused.
Organised crime boss, Albanian Diego Biba outside court.Credit: 60 Minutes
“Until recently Australia has been running a visa system with multiple owners impacting multiple ministers and portfolios without asking, ‘what are the flaws? How do we stop the exploitation’?”
In her inquiry report, Nixon concluded that it was clear that “gaps and weaknesses” in Australia’s visa system were enabling criminal organisations to exploit people and make money.
Nixon’s comments come as O’Neil deported a second organised crime boss, Albanian Diego Biba, who was at the centre of some of The Age’s reporting series.
As in the case of recently deported sex trafficker Binjun Xie, Biba managed to spend years in Australia committing alleged serious criminal offences despite compelling evidence he was rorting the visa system.
In her interview with The Age, Nixon called for ongoing monitoring to ensure the government’s proposed reforms are adequately implemented and effective, while describing how more work needed to be done in understanding exploitation of Australia’s migration system.
Binjun Xie is escorted to a plane after being arrested.
“It might be that half the people coming to Australia on temporary visas don’t want to go home. We don’t know. What are the exploitation levels? What are the abuse levels? Finding more data is critical,” she said.
The latest statistics reveal that there are over 2.5 million foreign nationals in Australia on temporary visas, including 650,000 international students, 200,000 graduates and 450,000 people with various working rights, including holidaymakers and skilled workers.
The Albanese government is expected to soon release further reforms aimed at matching genuine skills shortages to visa supply.
Inside a brothel linked to trafficking.
Nixon said her investigation began with leads generated by the Trafficked series, a significant data sweep of previous reports and a deep dive into intelligence holdings of state and federal agencies.
“I realised very early on that things were bad,” she said.
The ex-police chief was struck by the frustration of some law enforcement officials who briefed her about the human cost of the failure to stop organised crime groups rorting visa streams.
“One police officer I spoke to couldn’t get over the idea that there was so little they could do to combat sexual servitude,” she said, while describing her own revulsion at discovering case studies that exposed abject human suffering.
She said one case involved a 50-something year-old woman from Northern China who entered Australia on a student visa to study English.
Rather than attend school, the woman was picked up at the airport and entered the underground sex industry where she was “appallingly abused”.
Nixon noted that the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus was seeking to improve the response to human and sex trafficking and that the federal police and border force employed committed investigators. But she said they have a tough job in front of them.
“There was an incredible lack of investigative capacity to deal with these issues,” said Nixon, explaining that this was why she had recommended a multi-agency taskforce, a reform implemented by Labor.
But in a reform still being considered, Nixon said that, as in Canada and New Zealand, temporary migrants should be barred from working in the sex industry.
If they were found to do so, they and their employer could be deported or otherwise sanctioned.
“I’m not blaming the victims. It is about targeting these people who are exploiting these women. This is organised crime,” Nixon said.
“The same nationalities are exploiting each other. They should have their visas cancelled.”
Nixon also attacked the long-standing failure of successive governments to strengthen Australia’s anti-money laundering regime, given that greed and vast international money trails underpin the visa rorting scandal.
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