Italy-born Francesca Roma arrived in Australia in 2015 after spending ten years in London, where she met her Australian husband.
“We had our first child in London, the second was born in Italy. We were happy in Europe, but my husband wanted to be closer to his family, so we decided to embark on this new family journey.
“I am happy here, my girls have an excellent quality of life, there is a lot of space and time to enjoy our family life fully,” she says from her home in Surrey Hills, in Melbourne’s inner north.
After the family moved to Australia, Ms Roma’s mother Laura Baldoin would pack her bags and travel halfway across the globe to be with her granddaughters, Sofia and Beatrice.
Their favourite activity – reading Italian books so the kids would not lose their language.
“It was a good balance because she could continue living in her home in Treviso, that she loves, and we would have her with us for four-five months a year. But after some time, the journey started to be very difficult for my mum,” Ms Roma says.
‘The more you pay, the less you wait’
Being an only child, Ms Roma wanted her 70-year-old mother to live with her in Australia, and not alone in Italy.
So, in February this year, Ms Baldoin applied for a permanent parent visa. But she is unlikely to get the visa before she is 100 years old.
“We did not really have a choice; the Contributory Parent Visa fee is $47,755, and we could not financially sustain it. We applied for an Aged Parent Visa that costs a lot less. The thing is, the more you pay, the less the wait.
“If you agree to pay the fee, the wait is around four years, whereas, with the visa we have requested, the waiting period is 30 years,” Ms Roma told SBS Italian.
The application charge for a non-contributory parent visa that Ms Baldoin has applied for is $6,415.
At the end of the 2019-2020 financial year, the Immigration Department had over 50,000 non-contributory parent visa applicants at hand. Because of the current administrative cap, only 1,275 of these visas can be granted every year, pushing the waiting time to over 30 years.
While there are 55,000 contributory parent visa applicants awaiting an outcome of their visa application, which is currently taking five years for processing new applications as this category is capped at over 6,000 visa grants every year.
In 2014, the federal government sought to repeal some visa subclasses, including onshore aged parent visa, carer visas and remaining relative visas, which was disallowed by the Senate. The government then capped the number of visas that could be granted in a particular year in these subclasses.
‘Visa of little value’
Kerry Murphy, an accredited Immigration Law specialist and lecturer at the Australian Catholic University, says these visas are of “little value” now because of the long waiting time.
“The tragic result for families was the waiting times for decision on remaining relative, carer, aged parent and aged dependant relative were made very long,” he says.
“Aged parents may not pass their medicals by the time of their application was due for assessment.”
Ms Roma says she is aware that her mother may face this situation.
“We joke with mum that when she is called in for the medical tests, she will be 100 years old.”
Her mother now has a Bridging Visa A that allows her to stay in Australia indefinitely. Still, she will have to apply for a Bridging Visa B before going overseas, to be able to return to Australia.
But the whole family is happy that nonna Laura wasn’t alone in Italy when the country was hit by COVID-19, and can now stay in Australia without having to go back after every few months.
While the annual cap on the Parent category, including contributory visas, has been reduced from over 8675 in 2015-16 to under 7371 in 2019-2020, the Other Family Visas category outcome shrank last year to 444 from 524 in 2018-19.
A 54-year wait for a visa
The Remaining Relative Visa, which is one of the four in the Other Family category, allows non-citizens who have no relatives other than an Australian citizen or Australian permanent resident, to live in Australia permanently.
In three years between 2016-17 and 2018-19, 199 Remaining Relative Visas were granted. The Department of Home Affairs doesn’t report figures for individual visa subclasses under this category, but a total of 8,785 applications were awaiting processing on 30 June 2020.
The processing time for the Remaining Relative visa is even longer than the non-contributory parent visa.
“The waiting time for the remaining relative is now 54 years, which means it is for all practical purposes defunct,” Mr Murphy says.
“I know of a case where an application was lodged in 2011, refused but successful on review in 2014 only to be then caught up in the capping of visas. This meant that the family was unlikely to be ever reunited in Australia, not because they did not meet the visa criteria, but because of the policy to reduce the number of such visas dramatically meant the goalposts were shifted against them.”
The Department of Home Affairs won’t reveal the number of applications for the Remaining Relative Visa awaiting an outcome, but a spokesperson said the number of applications received each year for Remaining Relative and Parent (non-contributory) visas outstrips the number of places available for each migration program year.
The spokesperson said other options had been made available for a family reunion in Australia.
“Australian Government introduced the new Sponsored Parent Temporary Visa (SPTV) to support migrant communities and enable overseas parents to visit their children and grandchildren in Australia for up to 10 years.”
Placing an economic value on family relations
Emanuela Canini, a migration agent based in Sydney, says she has witnessed a shift in Australia’s migration program.
“There has been a progressive transformation within the immigration program since the late ’90s as a result of the economic boom and the Howard government, in order to bring in more skilled workers. The subsequent governments have maintained the same approach, by reducing the family visa options, relying more on temporary visas. The department’s motto was ‘People our business’.”
A productivity commission report in 2016 recommended shifting the cost of parent migrants to families and narrowing down the criteria for non-contributory parent visas. The report found that with average older age and shorter duration of economic contribution, parent migrants cost the health and welfare system billions of dollars.
But Mr Murphy says it’s parochial to view family reunion in terms of money.
“In many cultures being able to keep a family united is important, and it can be a very supportive and strengthening part of the migration program.
“To simply value family members on the basis of their potential costs to the community is too narrow a focus.”