Partner Visa Processing Times in 2024: Is the Department of Home Affairs really cleaning out the Partner Visa Backlog?

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by Rofia Mavaddat - LL.B - Registered Migration Agent [MARN 1467678]

March 27, 2024

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This isn’t my typical blog post – it’s not about teaching you how to put together your Partner Visa, or providing tips and tricks BUT I still think it’s important information. If anything, it might give you a little bit of insight into the politics around Partner Visas (if that interests you at all?). More specifically, we dive into the politics surrounding Partner Visa processing times and the infamous Partner Visa backlog.

So what’s this all about?

On 1 February 2024 there was an inquiry by the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit (JCPAA) into policy program design and implementation. The JCPAA looked into the management of Migration to Australia, and particularly family migration. 

Mr Julian Hill MP is Chair of this committee. Mr Hill is also the Member for the Bruce electorate in Melbourne, one of the most multicultural electorates in Australia. 

During this enquiry, Mr Hill asked some challenging questions addressed to the representatives of the Department of Home Affairs, including Deputy Secretary Michael Willard. 

I watched the whole hour and half inquiry and I’m not going to lie, I had my popcorn. I might be a migration geek (it is my job after all), but in my opinion, the Department of Home Affairs had a lot to answer for. After all, partner visas are not just another stream of visas.

For most couples, their lives and futures depend on the grant of a partner visa, and in many cases, a timely grant. The partner visa program needs to take into account the ‘human impact’ (as Mr Hill so correctly puts it), and an ineffective partner visa program has led to many couples experiencing hardships and sufferings that in my opinion could be avoided with the correct strategies put in place. 

I don’t expect for everyone to watch the full enquiry, but if you find yourself with nothing to do a Friday night, then you can watch it all here:

I’ll share with you all some of the topics that were touched on during the inquiry, and my key takeaway points: 

Let’s kick off with some fun stats. The Department stated that they had taken steps to reduce the processing times of first stage Partner Visas. From 1 July to 1 December 2023, there was a 54% increase in temporary partner first stage visa finalisations, compared to the same period in the previous year. 

There was a 52% reduction of on hand temporary partner first stage applications aged over 2 years compared to the same date in the previous year and an increase in the number of permanent partner second stage visa finalisations of 158% compared to the same period last year.

Some more stats – despite a 23% increase in lodgements, the Department has seen on hand permanent partner visas reduces to 29,335 applications from 54,000 applications on 30 June 2021.

These statistics are promising and show that the Department is taking steps in the right direction when it comes to clearing out the Partner Visa backlog. The hope now is that processing times are further reduced, particularly for ‘higher risk’ countries, which I’ll talk about soon. 

The Department of Home Affairs noted that there was a significant number of increased resources allocated to processing the visa backlog. Specifically the family visa program branch, there has been approximately 130 additional staff which has resulted in more applications being processed.

But do all applicants wait an equal amount of time? Does the Department take into consideration the humanity of the human impact delays in the processing of partner visas?

It was argued that not all partner visa applicant’s are treated the same. The example was used of a person applying from the US or Germany having to wait a significantly shorter period than an applicant applying from African countries. The phrase ‘stuck in the Nairobi black hole’ was used, which I have also seen and dealt with. 

So why do some applications take longer than others to process? Unfortunately there wasn’t a clear answer during this inquiry.  The Department did confirm that there has been a significant increase in terms of consultation the Department does in respect to the partner visa program and also outreach to affected communities. 

As a practitioner in this space, I’ve seen the disparity between applications being processed faster, or slower depending on an applicant’s background and it would be helpful to have more information from Home Affairs why this disparity exists.

A question on everyone’s minds – why is the Australian Partner Visa Fee so high! Why is there such a high cost? 

Have you ever wondered how an Australian Partner visa compares to partner visas from around the world? Well it’s the most expensive. 

So you pay $8,850 for an Australian Partner Visa, but have you ever wondered what the cost is to actually process one from the Department’s end? The Department wasn’t able to provide a figure during the hearing, however they took it on notice to give a figure. I’ll be following this one and I’ll be sure to provide you with an update once the Department does publish some statistics around how much it costs to process a Partner Visa.

Certain visa categories have caps on them (such as parent visas), meaning that only a certain number of visas in that particular stream can be granted each year. 

Partner Visas are exempt from ‘caps’. This is actually legislated under the Migration Act, so effectively it’s illegal to impose caps on Partner visas. After all, you can’t put a cap on love. But have you heard of planning levels? What exactly are they? 

A question was raised to the Department. If more people fall in love and lodge partner visas, does the Department grant more visas or does it result in longer waiting times? 

That’s something I’ve also wondered for years now! This is where planning levels come into play.  If the Government sets higher planning levels, then more visas are processed, however similarly, lower planning levels result in less visas being granted and wait times would also increase. 

This is where the waters get a little muddy. The Department agreed that no caps were set for Partner Visas (as the Migration Act doesn’t allow for this), however planning levels are set each year, and the department will then allocate resources accordingly. 

So what was the outcome during the inquiry? Is it technically a cap or no cap? From my understanding, and also my experience, the Department uses planning levels as a means of getting around the Migration Act by not calling it a ‘cap’ but it definitely feels like one. There was no real resolution to this during the inquiry and the Department maintains that there is no cap in Partner Visas. 

Have you heard of global processing before? If you haven’t, I’ll give you a quick rundown. The Department introduced ‘Global Processing’ to try and help fill in gaps where some parts of the world may have been at capacity with processing partner visas, while others weren’t. Prior to this for example, if you lodged a Partner visa from inside Australia then you knew your application was going to be processed from inside Australia. 

Now, if you lodge a Partner visa inside Australia, it might actually not be processed here. In fact, it could be processed anywhere in the world. I’ve had applications lodged from Australia be processed from Thailand, UK, Germany, etc. 

I believe the Department’s intention of introducing global processing is great – that as Mr Hill put it “ The Department states that it runs a global allocation model, which in theory should mean that there’s broad consistency across the world”.

Examples during the inquiry were provided where, even with the global processing model, some regions of the world were receiving faster outcomes (such as the Americas) versus other parts of the world (such as the Middle East). 

The Department denied that there was any discrimination based on race, ethnicity or nationality, but rather that there was criteria that applied to everyone. But what is the reality of this? I’m not saying that the Department specifically goes out of their way to discriminate against certain countries, but based on the experience I have had with certain applications, and the experience some of my colleagues have had, it can be a frustrating area to navigate.

Although it’s our reality in practice, it never feels like a good enough answer to tell a client that their application is still not processing because they are from a ‘higher risk’ country.  Why is a very well put together application processing out of Kenya taking longer than a badly put together application processing out of London? As I touched on above, the Department maintains that applications that meet the criteria are processed the same, regardless of the applicant’s country of origin. But again, in practice, that doesn’t align with the experiences of many Migration Agents. 

I draw the conclusion that the Department of Home Affairs is taking steps in the right direction. I can see in practice, applications that do meet all the relevant criteria are being processed faster (as a general rule). 

The Department is consulting with relevant stakeholders and there has been more outreach to affected communities, however we still have huge disparities between different parts of the world processing partner visas, even with the global processing model. 

As we approach the end of the financial year, I wonder, as I’m sure thousands of couples out there do, whether there will be yet another increase to the Partner Visa Fee. 

There is definitely work to be done in the effectiveness of the Partner visa program but I am optimistic that we are headed in the right direction. 

So what can be done? I would encourage couples to contact their local members of Parliament to take action. As MP Julian Hill has been doing for his electorate, your MP can also take a stand. You can also share this article with your local member of Parliament and see what they are doing about clearing the Partner Visa backlog.

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Rofia Mavaddat - LL.B - Registered Migration Agent [MARN 1467678]

Rofia was born in Perth, Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Law and has been a Registered Migration Agent since 2014. Rofia chose to specialise in Partner Visas because of a deep-seated belief in the power of love and family unity. She has seen firsthand the joy and fulfillment that comes from reuniting couples and keeping families together. Her work in this area allows her to witness and be a part of the beautiful stories of love and togetherness - what could be more rewarding? 

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