Since the reopening of Australia’s borders, there has been a surge in the number of visa applications, with a simultaneous explosion in the number of holders of bridging visas. This article examines some of the issues surrounding these developments.
What are bridging visas?
Everyone present in Australia who is not an Australia citizen is legally required to hold a visa.
Often migrants or visitors to Australia will enter on a time- or event-limited visa, and while here decide to make a further application ‘onshore’. For example, a person may initially come to Australia on a student visa to begin a degree, and upon finishing their studies, immediately apply for a graduate visa or a skilled visa without leaving Australia.
Given the current demands on the migration system, it is probable that in such a circumstance their student visa would expire before a decision is made on the new visa. . Therefore, when someone applies for a visa onshore, the Migration Act 1958 allows for the granting of a bridging visa to allow them to remain in the country lawfully until a decision on their application is made.
Bridging visas are usually granted automatically upon making an onshore visa application, although they are not ‘activated’ until the expiration of the previous ‘substantive’ visa.
Bridging visas are by their nature temporary visas, which do not grant the right to permanent residency.
The most common bridging visa is the Bridging Visa A, which typically attaches to a valid onshore application for a substantive visa. A holder of a Bridging Visa A is granted permission to work and study in Australia for as long as their substantive visa application remains undecided.
Other bridging visa categories also exist, of which the most important are: Bridging Visa B, which allows the holder of a Bridging Visa A to travel overseas during a specified travel period; and Bridging Visa E, usually granted where there has been a visa cancellation, on the expectation that the holder will use the grant to make arrangements to leave Australia.
The current situation
It is difficult to obtain the precise number of bridging visa holders. The Department of Home Affairs does not publish it in their annual report. Moreover, unlike other visa categories, the number is constantly changing as new onshore applications are made (meaning new bridging visas are issued), onshore substantive visas are issued (which supersede the bridging visas), and bridging visa holders depart Australia.
Nevertheless, we do know that the volume of visa applications lodged in 2021–2022 increased by 121.9% compared to the 2020–2021 financial year. Over 2.8 million applications had been lodged as of 30 June 2022, and the Department of Home Affairs expects that the volume of applications will continue to increase throughout 2022–2023.
We can therefore expect that the number of noncitizens present in Australia on bridging visas will increase for some time.
There has been little discussion about the implications of this situation. To be the holder of a bridging visa is to live in an ongoing state of uncertainty; unable to make definite plans for the future, and living on tenterhooks regarding a visa decision that may come at some arbitrary point in the future.
It may soon be the case that a substantial portion of Australia’s workforce will be composed of bridging visa holders existing in an uncertain, probationary state of limbo. Even when working, bridging visa holders may find it difficult to access bank loans, credit and other services. At the same time, Australian employers are unable to engage in effective workforce planning.
Moreover, many bridging visa holders are particularly vulnerable to exploitation in their employment. It has been well established that threats by employers to report unauthorised work to the Department of Home Affairs are a key driver of employment exploitation.
Reforms to the system are needed to ensure that Australia’s workforce does not become reliant on a precarious and probationary underclass of employees. Neither the bridging visa holders nor Australia benefit from this situation.
‘Your visa application is important to us, please continue to hold’
The situation is made worse by the opaque processes of the Department of Home Affairs. Visa applicants (and their employers) have limited options to follow up or receive a status report about their applications. Processing times are published, but like the pirate’s code in the 2003 film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, they are ‘more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules’.
Unlike other government departments—and unlike private companies—there is no realistic way a visa applicant can call the Department, give a reference number and be given an update on the progress of the case. All communication must be through the Department’s own online ‘ImmiAccount’ portal—that is, on the Department’s own terms. Requests for status updates lodged on the ImmiAccount often go unanswered and ignored.
There are also limited options for judicial or tribunal scrutiny of visa processing times (and in any event, courts and tribunals continue to deal with their own backlogs).
The Commonwealth Ombudsman has published a fact sheet on its website about complaining about visa and citizenship application delays. Although it contains some useful information for applicants, it also notes that ‘We do not consider complaints if the application is within the published timeframe.’ Note that the ‘published timeframe’ is set (and regularly amended) by the Department of Home Affairs itself.
What may be needed is for the Ombudsman, and perhaps a Senate Committee, to undertake a systematic review of the processes and procedures of the Department of Home Affairs with a view to establishing some external accountability mechanisms regarding processing times.
At the very least, greater transparency concerning the status of visa applications would obviate some of the anxiety felt by applicants.
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 Migration Act 1958, section 37.
 Islam v Minister for Immigration and Citizenship  FCA 201 at  per Jagot J.
 Department of Home Affairs Annual Report 2021–22, p. 114, available at https://www.homeaffairs.gov.au/reports-and-pubs/Annualreports/home-affairs-annual-report-2021-22.pdf
 See discussion in Berg L and Farbenblum B (2018). Remedies for migrant worker exploitation in Australia: lessons from the 7-Eleven wage repayment program. Melbourne University Law Review 41(3):1035–1084.
 For example, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal currently estimates that the average time to finalisation for a migration decision is between three and five years: https://www.aat.gov.au/resources/migration-and-refugee-division-processing-times