Crime syndicates and people smugglers are involved in widespread rorting of Australia’s work and student visa programs, according to whistleblowers and a former top immigration official.
The claims come as the immigration department is facing more than 100 allegations of corruption, including suggestions that some immigration officers may be supporting the rorting, a Fairfax Media and ABC 7.30 investigation can reveal.
Immigration chief Michael Pezzullo has referred 132 cases of alleged corruption involving immigration officers to the under-resourced federal law enforcement watchdog in the past 12 months, more referrals than the watchdog has received in any year since its creation in 2006.
The revelations point to a failure to deal with endemic crime in Australia’s visa system involving some licensed migration agents and education providers, and a thriving cash-for-visa black market.
A former Immigration Department investigations head has alleged “fear mongering” on refugees and asylum seekers has been used to deflect attention from the real problems in the immigration system.
Joseph Petyanszki, who jointly headed the department’s investigation office between 2007 and 2013, said the department had ignored tens of thousands of cases of rorting perpetrated by migration agents and dodgy employers who game the student and work visa systems to allow foreigners to pay for entry.
Mr Petyanszki’s investigators uncovered thousands of fraudulent visa applicants in Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia. In most cases, no charges were ever brought.
The investigators identified one major corruption case inside the department involving an officer who subsequently fled overseas.
Mr Petyanszki called for a major overhaul in the fight against migration crime.
“In the border security debate, it has been easy to deflect the public’s attention to boat arrivals. But this fearmongering has totally ignored where the vast bulk of real fraud is most significantly undermining our immigration programs,” he said.
The Fairfax Media-7.30 investigation includes interviews with two whistleblowers, and a covertly filmed sting, which captures a fixer saying that for $50,000 in cash per foreigner, his syndicate can create phantom jobs and visa sponsorship.
The revelations suggest corruption infects every level of the visa supply chain – migration agents, employers who sponsor workers, education providers and immigration officials. There is little effective deterrence for perpetrators.
In a follow-up report on Tuesday, Fairfax and 7.30 will reveal how organised criminals are infiltrating the border security system, along with claims that the existing watchdog, the small Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, is badly outgunned.
The large number of immigration corruption allegations referred to the commission has prompted Senator Nick Xenophon to call for Australia’s anti-corruption measures to undergo major reform.
“It’s worse than a toothless chihuahua. At least a chihuahua tries to bite,” Senator Xenophon said of the law enforcement integrity commission.
The comments are likely to be backed by several independent senators and the Greens, who are pushing for a national Independent Commission Against Corruption. However, government sources defend the existing integrity commission, saying that even though it is under-resourced, it has helped uncover major corruption and quietly driven vital reforms.
Mr Petyanszki’s concerns are supported by serving immigration and security officials who, speaking confidentially, say organised crime figures are among those rorting the visa system to set up criminal enterprises in Australia. These include prostitution rackets, drug importation networks and financial crime enterprises.
In claims also backed by serving officials, Mr Petyanszki said the overwhelming focus by both major parties on stopping asylum seeker boats reaching Australia had enabled endemic visa rorting by those arriving by plane: “There remain major flaws in the integrity management of our immigration programs, including a major lack of resources.”
A departmental spokesman said the immigration department and the Australian Border Force had spent 12 months ramping up its attack on visa and migration fraud.
“The department’s activities are focussed on defeating visa fraud at the systemic level, including investigating and prosecuting networks involved in criminally exploiting Australia’s visa regime,” the spokesman said.
He cautioned that many of the 132 corruption allegations had not been verified and some involved allegations about people who falsely claimed to be Border Force staff.
However, two whistleblowers have revealed their personal experiences, claiming the policing of migration crime is woeful.
Indian community leader Jasvinder Sidhu said he was aware of dozens of cases in which Indian nationals had paid crooked fixers sums of up to $80,000 to get visa sponsorship for jobs that did not exist, or for education courses that the applicant never attended.
A fixer subsequently filmed by Fairfax Media and 7.30 claimed he was unable to keep up with demand for the corrupt services offered by his Korean boss, who is a migration agent operating in Sydney and Melbourne.
Indian nationals who have paid unscrupulous bosses to sponsor them have, according to Mr Sidhu, been exploited or, in some cases, sexually assaulted by their employer. They do not complain to police for fear of losing their visas.
A second whistleblower, Queensland project manager Clint Raven, has revealed he was a key witness for the Immigration Department in its investigation into his former employer, contractor Murphy Pipe and Civil, which works on several major Australian infrastructure projects. The company is accused of sponsoring dozens of unskilled foreign workers to obtain skilled visas, at the expense of local workers.
Fairfax Media first revealed the allegations about Murphy Pipe and Civil in 2014, leading to raids on the business by the Immigration Department and denials of wrongdoing by the company.
Mr Raven has revealed he provided sworn testimony to the department about “blatant” visa rorting – which he described as “people smuggling” – but said the case was hand-balled between investigators who appeared unwilling to conduct in-depth investigations and prosecutors.
Despite evidence of potentially criminal breaches, Murphy Pipe and Civil has been fined just $3500, and in December was banned from sponsoring more workers for four years.
“I can see why people don’t speak up,” Mr Raven said “I feel like I have been given no support or no encouragement … These people aren’t just here to work, they are here to get permanent residency, which is something many of them have gained.”
In a statement, Murphy Pipe and Civil denied rorting the visa system and said it was appealing the ban on sponsoring more foreign workers as it “is wholly unreasonable”.