Hundreds of foreign criminals are being handed back their cancelled visas

February 17, 2019 11.45pm

Hundreds of foreigners who had their visas cancelled after committing serious crimes are being spared deportation by national security officials, with the government facing questions over how a drug trafficker was allowed to remain in Australia despite spending nearly a decade in prison and offshore detention.

Amid a heated political clash between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten over border integrity, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age can reveal criminals are using an opaque process to have their mandatory visa cancellations overturned by Department of Home Affairs officials, the minister or assistant treatment.Bill Shorten offers banking victims a compensation scheme

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton last week cited the need to secure Australia’s borders from criminals as a reason for the government opposition to the refugee medical treatment bill that passed Parliament.

In one case expected to be raised in Parliament this week, William Sualauvi Betham was granted freedom and is now enjoying life on the Gold Coast despite being jailed for more than 10 years in 2008 over his role in a drug trafficking syndicate.

Betham’s visa was cancelled by the government in June 2016 but his appeal was still under way at the time of his release on parole in October that year. He was transferred to the Christmas Island immigration detention centre ahead of potential deportation to his home state of New Zealand.

But Betham was later handed back his visa and released in 2017 after arguing to bureaucrats that he had a low risk of reoffending, had undergone rehabilitation and had a child in Australia whose mother was unable to provide appropriate care.

However, a man who claims to have been a fellow detainee of Betham on Christmas Island has alleged Betham bragged to him about having connections enabling him to secure the return of his visa.

The man, who remains in detention while fighting his own visa cancellation in the courts, told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that Betham asked him about his own case and said there was “no point wasting money on lawyers.”

“He [Betham] said, if you want to get out, get back to your family, organise
$80,000 and transfer it into an account, I have a good connection … and
you will be out in a matter of months, &” the man alleged.

Betham’s lawyer Jennifer Samuta said she was not aware of any information that her client had made that claim to fellow detainees.

“We are not aware of Mr Betham bribing any official that may be in a
position to make or impact a visa-related decision in his favour,” she said.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has powers to overturn visa cancellations but says he did not do it in the case of William Betham.

Told of the claims, the Department of Home Affairs said in a statement that it “takes all allegations of misconduct and corruption seriously” but declined to comment whether it was investigating.

Betham was among 640 non-citizens whose visas were cancelled automatically after serving jail time for serious crimes. Almost one-third got their visas back after lodging an appeal with the department within 28 days.

While some restorations are obtained through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal or Federal Court, others like Betham are assessed within the Department of Home Affairs and the decisions never made public.

The Coalition government, which is planning to fight the May election with a message that it is tough on immigration and border protection, is expected to face questions about the case in Senate estimates this week.

Mr Dutton has exercised his ministerial discretion to cancel the visas of dozens of foreign nationals living in Australia on character grounds under section 501 of the Migration Act, mostly for serious offences such as child sex abuse, murder and organised crime.

A spokeswoman for Mr Dutton said the Betham case had not crossed the minister’s desk and that the decision to hand back his visa was made at the Restoration of a visa cancelled under section 501 of the Migration Act can only be made by the minister, their assistant minister or a departmental official exercising delegated ministerial power.

Under the refugee medical bill passed in Parliament last week against the government’s wishes, the immigration minister is able to block a transfer from Manus Island or Nauru to Australia if the person has been sentenced to prison for 12 months or more.

In sentencing Betham to more than 10 years in prison, Queensland Supreme Court judge Peter Dutney said Betham had played a key role in the drug trafficking ring over a period of 16 months in 2002 and 2003.

The seriousness of the offence “automatically brings with it a declaration
that this is a serious violent offence with the consequent effect on your
parole eligibility”, Justice Dutney noted.

Ms Samuta said there was nothing unusual about her client getting his visa back.

“Whilst the Australian community would not condone Mr Betham’s serious offences they would offer him the chance to redeem himself, return to the community and play an active, present role in his child’s life here in Australia,” she said.

She added her firm had acted on behalf of at least four other clients convicted of trafficking in dangerous drugs who had their cancelled visas reinstated by either the minister of the day or their delegates in the department.