Waiting decades for a visa decision for their parents, migrants say immigration backlogs make life planning impossible

Waiting decades for a visa decision for their parents, migrants say immigration backlogs make life planning impossible
  • PublishedOctober 6, 2023

Stephany does not get to spend much time with her parents, because while she has been living in Australia, they have been waiting in Colombia in a years-long queue to migrate here.

“[We] don’t know what is going to happen and when it’s going to happen, so the uncertainty is really, really hard on us,” Stephany said.

Stephany’s parents are visiting her on a one-year tourist visa, but once they go back to Colombia, she doesn’t know when she’ll see them next.

Before this visit, Stephany had not seen her parents for six years — they applied for permanent visas in 2019, so with current backlogs listed by Home Affairs, they expect to wait another eight years before receiving a decision.

Meanwhile, both her parents and her children are getting older.

It’s great to have them around the kids, show them the culture and of course look after them,” Stephany said.

“[And] it’s so hard because we want them to be part of our lives, part of our kids’ lives. We really want to know and have clear time frames, how long this is going to take,” she said.

An older couple stand with three boys, their arms around each other and smiling.
Stephany wants her children to maintain a connection to Colombia and to have their grandparents around as they grow older.(ABC News: Steve Keen)

More than 143,000 parents wait on growing list

The government is close to releasing a new migration strategy to address some of the existing holes and backlogs in the system.

Parent visas are one of the most tricky areas, and there’s still no obvious solution.

Tens of thousands of parents hope to reunite with their families, but the system only allows for around 8,500 permanent places a year, so the waitlist quickly balloons.

At the moment, the waitlist is around 143,842 over several parent visa categories.

Shahri Rafi is an immigration lawyer in southern Sydney, and said the current system just isn’t fair.

“The government’s position is driven by that fear that elderly people will become a burden on the government and a burden on the taxpayers,” she said.

“But we have to keep in mind that these are human beings we are talking about, families we are talking about.”

Concern more older migrants will further strain health system

As Australia’s population ages, there is a concern that allowing in older migrants will strain Australia’s health and aged care facilities.

Abul Rizvi, a former deputy secretary of the Immigration Department who has studied the issue closely, said there’s no easy answer.

“At the moment, access to health and aged care services in Australia is at a crisis point, and we are struggling to manage to deliver services to existing elderly residents,” Mr Rizvi said.

But he said the government could look at partnering with the private sector.

“I suspect what they will look at is health insurance products. That’s the way to do it, let the private sector manage the health costs,” he said.

Rizvi stands in a parliament courtyard smiling.
Abul Rizvi says there is no easy fix for the long waitlists of parents hoping to acquire a visa.(ABC News: Krishani Dhanji)

Ms Rafi said the decades-long wait times also reduce the chance for younger parents to contribute.

“They can be young, and they can work as well if they can come to Australia and the processing time isn’t very lengthy,” she said.

The wait times for some visas are extraordinary.

Home Affairs currently estimates a wait of 29 years on average for newly lodged parent and aged parent visas, based on the current number of places available each year.

The $5,000 parent visa in particular has a wait time of up to 50 years because so few are granted, and has a backlog of more than 32,700 applicants.

The more expensive contributory parent visa, which costs almost $50,000 to apply for, has a wait time of about 12 years and a backlog of more than 78,000 applicants.

Ms Rafi says there are serious consequences to those long wait times.

“The challenge sometimes people face [is] totally giving up or their parents unfortunately die, or they become very ill and very old,” she said.

Looking at alternative options

A migration review commissioned by the government earlier this year recommended the government consider a lottery system.

Mr Rizvi said he did not expect the government to choose that path.

“I can’t see the point of a lottery system for permanent residents, that makes no sense to me,” he said. 

The Coalition government introduced a three or five-year temporary visa for parents in 2019, capped to 15,000 places, though between 2020 and 2023 just under 9,000 visas were granted.

Mr Rizvi said longer-term temporary visas could be an alternative option.

“I think they may look at a long-term visa where the person can come into Australia for a period of six, 12 or 18 months and then have to depart, but [they would use] one temporary visa that’s valid for 10 years,” he said.

He pointed back to using the private healthcare sector to create health insurance policies that migrant parents could buy, so they take away that ongoing cost from taxpayers.

Stephany said she knew just how strained the system is, working within the aged care sector herself, but that there’s more to it than just cost.

“Working in the aged care sector, I understand we’re facing a lot of challenges right now,” she said.

“But from the family perspective, I know that we’re all going to face this at some point with our parents and what we want to do is keep them here and have them here with us, and support them in the future.”


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