Era of stranded Australians not over, as visa backlog hits home

The border closure to fight the COVID-19 pandemic is over, but the era of stranded Australians is not.

Sydneysider Tristan Ram is one of nearly 9000 permanent residents stuck outside Australia because of the delays choking the immigration system, a situation Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil has described as an “enormous backlog” inherited from the previous government.

Ram has been stranded in Canada, and separated from his two children, since July when he made what was intended to be a four-day trip to visit his mother in Toronto. Two months later he is still waiting for a resident return visa, which would allow him to re-enter Australia as a permanent resident.

“It’s really tough because I’m really close to my children, and I’ve not seen them in over two months,” Ram said. “I’ve never missed a birthday before, so it was tough missing my son’s 8th birthday. Then we were hoping to see each other for Father’s Day, but I missed that too.”

Ram said he shared custody of his sons, aged 10 and 8, with his ex-partner. He has been talking to his sons on FaceTime and said both boys were suffering, and his younger son was experiencing anxiety.

Department of Home Affairs figures show, as of August 31, there were 8960 permanent residents outside the country waiting for a resident return visa. Department figures suggest most applications for this visa are processed in a day, but about 25 per cent take up to three months, or longer.

Ram has held permanent residency since about 2010 and applied for citizenship earlier this year. When immigrants are first granted a permanent visa, they have the right to travel in and out of Australia for five years. After that time, they must apply for and secure a resident return visa in order to return as a permanent resident. This can be done either in Australia or overseas.

Ram had not been out of Australia for four years, including the two years of the border closure when Australian citizens and permanent residents were not permitted to travel.

He said he did not realise that his resident return visa had expired until he tried to board his flight from Vancouver back to Sydney.

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After spending several nights sleeping at the airport to try to conserve money for his flight home and about $5000 on hotel bills, Ram is now back in Toronto staying at his mother’s place while he waits for his visa.

He lost his contracting job at the aged care commission, has missed child support payments, and is struggling to pay his mortgage. If he is not back by October, he could risk his upcoming job as an airline pilot which is a return to his pre-pandemic profession.

He acknowledges he made “a big mistake” though he added that advice from the department was sometimes contradictory. In normal circumstances, the error would have been resolved quickly.

Former deputy secretary of the immigration department, Abul Rizvi, said there were a lot of people caught out by processing delays, and the department was ”so snowed under with work and has such little resources that it may take some time”.

“The wider story is of a department completely unable to manage its workload,” Rizvi said.

A department spokesperson said the government was committed to clearing the backlog, and was focused on finalising applications lodged outside Australia, especially visas for temporary work, study and visiting Australia. From June 1 to September 9, the department had finalised nearly 1.84 million visas.

Since the start of May, the department had added 215 more staff into roles supporting visa processing, including transferring staff who were previously focused on travel exemptions.

An outcome of the jobs summit was the announcement of an additional $36.1 million to recruit 500 more visa processing staff as the government tries to increase the permanent migration intake.

O’Neil has also announced a review of the immigration system to finish in September.