Senator James Paterson – Estimates questions regarding visitor visas to people in Gaza

photo of Senator James Paterson
February 12, 2024

I just have one matter in outcome 2, and then the opposition is keen to move on to outcome 3. It’s in relation to the visitor visas to people in Gaza. There was a media report in November that 860 visitor visas to residents of Gaza had been granted since 7 October. Is there any update on that figure? Is it still 860, or has it changed?

Senator PATERSON: I just have one matter in outcome 2, and then the opposition is keen to move on to outcome 3. It’s in relation to the visitor visas to people in Gaza. There was a media report in November that 860 visitor visas to residents of Gaza had been granted since 7 October. Is there any update on that figure? Is it still 860, or has it changed?

Mr Willard : I have an update for you. Just for clarity, you referred to Gaza. The numbers I’m referring to are grants of visitor visas to people who hold a Palestinian Authority travel document.

Senator PATERSON: So it may include people from the West Bank as well?

Mr Willard : It may include people from other parts of the world as well. Between 7 October and 31 December 2023 the department granted 2,127 visitor visas to people declaring Palestinian citizenship, and an additional 148 migration and temporary visas were granted.

Senator PATERSON: How many were rejected?

Mr Willard : The approach we’ve been taking in response to the Israel Hamas conflict for affected people is to prioritise those who are on track to be approved. If people are not on track to be approved, we’re not prioritising them.

Senator PATERSON: Have any been rejected?

Mr Willard : Let me see if I can find those numbers for you. I don’t have a number in the brief. But I am aware the number’s in the hundreds.

Senator PATERSON: Hundreds of rejections. What would be a reason for rejection?

Mr Willard : There’s a wide range of reasons. The most common one in assessing a visitor visa is that there’s an assessment the person doesn’t intend to genuinely visit. But there’s a wide range of reasons that go to every aspect, every visa criterion.

Senator PATERSON: What’s the average processing time for a visa like this?

Mr Willard : Globally, for a visitor visa the median processing time is one day.

Senator PATERSON: There’s been some controversy about this in the media, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, among others, has reassured the public that no processes were expedited, no corners were cut—all the usual processes were followed. But there was also a media report by the ABC on 9 December, entitled ‘Australians turn to WhatsApp group for help to get family members out of Gaza’, in which some individuals claimed their visitor visas for relatives were approved within one hour. Does that sound right to you? Is it possible that a visitor visa was approved in a single hour?

Mr Willard : It is possible. I’d make this point in terms of the way we assess a visitor visa: we draw on a vast range of information that we hold, and we apply that information to the circumstances presented in a visitor visa application. There could be circumstances where someone, for example, has a strong travel record, is well known to us and has a routine that we’re familiar with, where the visitor visa could be granted in that time frame.

Senator PATERSON: Sure. But how could you possibly do all the necessary security and other checks in just an hour for an applicant? That’s lightning-speed approval.

Mr Willard : When we apply that vast range of information to consideration of visitor visas, if you look globally, a very large number of our visitor visas would be done inside an hour. The assessment is essentially looking at all the information we hold and applying it in a number of ways to the application in front of us.

Senator PATERSON: Sure, and this is no fault of the people applying for the visas, but most people who apply for visas are not applying from war zones, and they’re not applying from jurisdictions that are controlled by terrorist organisations. You would think that that would necessitate greater scrutiny.

Mr Willard : I’m very confident that, if someone wasn’t meeting all of the criteria for the grant of a visa, then the visa would not be granted.

Senator PATERSON: How can you know, if you’re taking only an hour or less to consider it?

Mr Willard : Because it’s the application of all of the information we hold to the individual’s particular circumstances, which might be such that we already know this person or we hold overwhelming information that makes us confident that the person meets the criteria.

Senator PATERSON: Just finally on this matter, was anything about the process expedited or modified in any way to facilitate applications?

Mr Willard : No. The assessment of the individual applications against the criteria was complete and was a standard assessment. What we have been doing is taking a similar approach to what we’ve taken in previous situations where there’s been unrest or war zones—and this goes back to Afghanistan, but also Ukraine and Sudan. It is that we do apply priority processing to people who have strong Australian connections who are seeking to travel.

Senator PATERSON: What about any flexibility about identity verification or documents that they have provided?

Mr Willard : No flexibility—if we’re not satisfied of identity, we won’t be granting the visa.

Senator PATERSON: If someone didn’t have their original documents, you would say: ‘I’m sorry. You have to be able to provide the original documents’?

Mr Willard : It would depend on the circumstances. Identity is always a consideration of what’s in front of the person, what we hold, and other corroborating information that we might have about a particular applicant.

Senator PATERSON: You wouldn’t have allowed, in this instance, a copy of an original ID to suffice, for example?

Mr Willard : Again, we hold a lot of information that we can use to give us confidence about documents that are presented.

Senator PATERSON: That’s not answering my question.

Mr Willard : It could be that a copy would be considered adequate.

Senator PATERSON: Is that normally allowed?

Mr Willard : Yes.

Senator PATERSON: So, if I’m applying for a visa to Australia, I don’t have to provide original documents?

Mr Willard : No. Most applications for visitor visas to Australia around the world are lodged online through an online service.

Senator PATERSON: But I don’t need to provide an original copy, or a certified copy, or—

Mr Willard : Well, you provide a copy of a document.

Senator PATERSON: Presumably, I just scan my passport or take a photo of my passport or my driver’s licence. If I don’t have that and I’m providing you with a copy of it, that would be sufficient?

Mr Willard : If we could be satisfied of identity based on that, it would be. Again, we draw on a whole range of information when we make decisions about visitor visa applications. Not in this particular instance but in some instances—and this has been in play for coming up to 30 years now—we issue the visas through an electronic travel authority, which is a process we use. We’re just simply using the biodata on the passport to grant the visa.

CHAIR: Senator O’Neill, you have the call.

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