Coalition’s immigration ‘crackdown’ could be an illusion, expert says | Australia news

Labor and migration experts have questioned the integrity of the Coalition’s “crackdown” on permanent migration, suggesting ballooning numbers of bridging visas indicates longer waits rather than more rejections may be driving the numbers.

On Friday the Australian newspaper published home affairs department figures – still not publicly available – that reveal just 163,000 people permanently migrated to Australia in 2017-18, well under the 190,000 cap and down from 183,608 the year before.

The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, said the reduced numbers are the result of his department applying additional scrutiny to applicants, such as asking for more evidence people seeking spousal visas are in genuine relationships.

But demography expert Liz Allen, from the Australian National University, and Labor’s shadow immigration minister, Shayne Neumann, have questioned the claims.

The most recent departmental statistics show that on 31 March there were 194,875 people in Australia on bridging visas, up by 41,066 on the same date last year.

Bridging visas are issued to people already in Australia who are seeking to transition from one visa to another.

Allen told Guardian Australia that while there may be “a number of factors” that could impact the number of bridging visas, the “sizeable increase over the last period, alongside a substantial decrease in permanent visas granted, raises some serious questions”.

Allen said the “partial migration statistics” released on Friday “don’t paint a picture of a genuine crackdown on the number of migrants”.

“The current political environment is one which demands tough action on borders,” she said.

“I’m concerned that the latest migration statistics suggest more of an accounting quirk, or magic trick, to give the illusion the government is reducing migrant intake when there’s actually little to no real change in net overseas migration.”

Neumann called on Dutton to “stop playing a game of smoke and mirrors and explain why the number of people on bridging visas has blown out of control on his watch”.

“How many of the 194,000 people in Australia on bridging visas are currently waiting for Peter Dutton’s department to process their visa applications?”

Neumann accused Dutton of “beating his chest about permanent migration numbers” while “ignoring real problems – like the ballooning processing times of his department as well as the 1.6m people currently in Australia on temporary visas with work rights which undercut the pay and conditions of local Australian workers”.

Abul Rizvi, a former deputy secretary of the immigration department, said the increase in bridging visas was “astonishing and is indicative of a system in serious trouble (in both efficiency and integrity terms)”.

Rizvi said the increase could be caused by longer processing times for employer-sponsored visas, spouses coming to Australia to apply for family visas onshore, students applying for temporary graduate visas or onshore asylum applications.

Rizvi said the reduction in migration is not illusory because although the increase in bridging visas “will have some upwards impact on net migration”, net migration will fall due to deeper cuts in other areas.

He warned the 12,500 reduction in skilled visas is likely to be “even bigger than the headline figures suggest” because New Zealanders already resident in Australia on skilled independent subclass 189 visas who apply to remain now count as permanent migrants.

Rizvi said references to the “integrity” of the system were “largely a furphy to avoid Dutton being seen to be contradicting [treasurer Scott] Morrison on the benefits to migration”.

A spokeswoman for Dutton said the government would not take lectures from Labor. “There is more demand for these programs – especially in the family and skilled visa streams – and as we have said, we are cracking down on those who don’t deserve a place,” she said.

On Saturday the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive, James Pearson, told Guardian Australia the government was “effectively throttling back the rate of migration by stealth”.

“We know that processing times have slowed right down, we know that visa application costs and the cost of [employer] sponsorships have gone up and the government has reduced the number of eligible occupations,” he said.

Allen said delays in processing visa applications “could be quite harmful for those waiting … [limiting] their ability to plan for the future”.

“While there are benefits in conducting the appropriate vetting, people on bridging visas are already living here. Processing should be timely, for both national security and migrant wellbeing.”