Getting an Aussie skilled migrant visa can take years

Family-sponsored applicants are in the lowest-priority category

During a holiday in Australia after finishing high school in her home city of Milan, Ms Ilaria De Fusco decided she wanted to stay a little longer.

She enrolled in university and completed a degree in business and marketing and then worked full-time in Sydney on a graduate visa before eventually applying for Australian residency back in 2009. That was when her troubles began.

Along with thousands of other would-be skilled migrants, Ms De Fusco has been forced to wait years to have her residency approved, following changes to Australia's immigration system.

Despite spending A$15,000 (S$15,600) on her application and living in Australia since 2001, she is still waiting for her application to be processed.

"This limbo situation does not allow me to get on with my life," she told The Straits Times.

"I can't even have a mobile phone plan because they require a two-year visa. I can work, but not all organisations allow me to apply for a position because some require you to be a permanent resident."

Ms De Fusco is not alone.

Following a series of measures introduced between 2001 and 2009 to adapt migration to demand for specific skills, Australia's immigration department has not considered applications in the order in which they are lodged but according to a set of priority categories. Australia takes in large numbers of skilled migrants - 130,000 are to be accepted this year - and the government says it needs to prioritise them according to job demands.

The top priority categories currently include visas such as those that encourage people to work in rural areas. The bottom category is for those seeking skilled migrant visas with sponsorship by a family member in Australia.

Ms De Fusco, 36, said she has an uncle in Australia and chose to apply for the family-sponsored visa because a migration agent actually advised that it would be processed more quickly.

But for those who happen to fall in this bottom category, the result has often been years of waiting with no end in sight. It can mean limited job opportunities and restricted or no access to health, education and family benefits.

As of Jan 31, there were 21,325 in this visa category, a government spokesman told The Straits Times. This reportedly includes more than 20,000 who have waited more than four years and 3,000 who applied from Australia, including many who originally entered as students.

The Migration Institute of Australia, which represents migration agents and lawyers, said the government should process the applications immediately and could do so within months.

The institute's national president, Ms Angela Chan, told The Straits Times these applicants are skilled and have strong ties to Australia but have been left in a "deep dark hole". "Their life is in limbo - it must be hard for them."

The government has closed the category of family-sponsored skilled migrants but the priority processing system remains.

The office of the Assistant Immigration Minister, Mrs Michaelia Cash, said large numbers of skilled migrant applications made it necessary to prioritise them.

"The government is aware that priority processing arrangements have impacted many applicants waiting for their visa to be processed," her spokesman told The Straits Times. "However, the government must also take into account the state of the labour market."

Earlier this year, Ms De Fusco started a Facebook group for others in a similar position. The group quickly attracted more than 200 members, many of whom have posted details of their long waits.

"I have been in Australia almost 10 years and on bridging visa for five years," said one commenter. "If I knew I had to wait for this long or forever, I would have searched for a different visa at that time."

In the earlier story, we said Ms Ilaria De Fusco was on a student visa. This is incorrect. She was on a graduate visa. We are sorry for the error.

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