Onshore protection visa applications from those who arrived by plane from the People’s Republic of China jumped from 2,269 in 2016-17 to 9,315 in 2017-18, the data reveals.
Despite the surge in claims, Chinese nationals had one of the lowest success rates for protection visas, with the Department only recognising 10 per cent of those claims as being genuine.
The total number of onshore asylum claims for all nationalities soared 225 per cent from 8,587 in 2014-15 to 27,931 in 2017-18 with Chinese nationals making up a third of all claims over that period.
Refugee Council of Australia director of policy Joyce Chia told the ABC the number of student visas had increased with the booming international student industry in Australia, now worth an estimated $32 billion.
“I think the fact that Chinese people have increasing access [to Australia] is a large factor,” she said.
“We are seeing a massive increase in people coming by plane generally, and obviously with the massive increase in international students from places like China, it’s now much easier for those students to get to Australia.”
‘Not an evil cult sect and neither am I a pagan’
Transcripts from hearings at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), which has the power to overturn decisions made by the Department of Home Affairs, reveal a range of reasons applicants claim to be refugees, including being: a love child, Christian, a cult member or LGBT.
Chinese student ‘cash cows’
One young woman from China told the tribunal that as a child born outside marriage in violation of China’s strict family planning laws, commonly known as ‘black children’, she would have no access to healthcare or education and her parents were required to pay a compensation fee for breaking the rules.
All were rejected by the tribunal.
“I think [it is impossible for] my mother … to take us to China, as the children of a single mother, we could not be registered into the household in China, we will become the black children,” she told the tribunal in a statement.
“As a result, we are not able to attend the school. We cannot get the social welfare. My mother does not want us to live in the unfair environment.”
Another woman from Fujian province who came to Australia on a student visa said she feared to return to China because her parents had become members of the banned Eastern Lightning Church that became infamous after some of its members beat a woman to death at a McDonald’s in China in 2014.
“The Church of Almighty God is not an evil cult sect, and neither am I a pagan,” she said.
Many claimants are arriving on temporary migrant visas such as international student visas, of which there are 652,000 currently studying in Australia — including almost 200,000 are from China, according to the federal Department of Education.
Bridging visas surge 330 per cent in a year
Associate professor of law at Murdoch University Mary Anne Kenny said an obvious reason for the spike in questionable protection claims was the bridging visas you could obtain while awaiting a decision.
“Once you are in the country, either as a tourist or a student, if you then apply for a protection visa, you are eligible for a bridging visa,” she told the ABC.
“Depending on the type, [it] may give you the right to work and can take some time [to process] depending on how long it takes the department to process the application.
“It doesn’t cost very much to make an application and you can then extend your period of stay here, because you will be on the bridging visa while your application is [being] determined.”
In August 2018, there were 176,000 people on bridging visas in Australia — a massive jump from 40,000 at the same time last year.
China’s frontier of fear
Ms Chia said that while the Department of Home Affairs continued to receive genuine refugees such as Falun Gong members and persecuted minorities such as Uyghurs from Xinjiang province, those cases were comparatively rare.
“In general China is not a refugee producing country, however there are certain groups that would have valid asylum claims because of the repressive government,” she said.
“Some of them may qualify under the refugee convention, but to be honest many of them on student visas [are not].”
There has also been a surge in the number of asylum seekers appealing protection visa rejections to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).
The Tribunal’s 2017-18 report said the number of appeals from Chinese nationals had increased by 135 per cent since the last financial year, now making up 25 per cent of all protection visa appeals.
It added that only 5 per cent of all appeals were successful.
Experts say the significant number of appealing applicants who do not show up to hearings raises further concerns that the process is being abused by fraudulent claims in a bid by some visa holders to extend their stay.
The Department of Home Affairs does not publish processing times for protection visa claims.
The average time the AAT took to decide migration cases was about a year, allowing students who had a visa cancelled or expired to extend their stay by appealing.
If unsuccessful they could then apply for a protection visa, which took an average time of about eight months to be decided.
‘Fraudulent migration agents promising the world’
Ms Chia said cases of migration agents fraudulently lodging asylum claims for protection visas on their client’s behalf was also an issue.
“We also have certainly heard of fraudulent migration agents promising the world to people in relation to protection visas,” she said.
“This is also what the department has indicated to us in relation to Malaysian claims, as well that there are certain agents who are promoting it as a way to stay in Australia often unregistered or beyond the regulatory regime.”
‘Stop relying on Chinese students’
Associate professor Anne Kenny said it was possible the number of false claims was rising because word was spreading among temporary visa arrivals of the success of others in lengthening their stay.
“There may well be fraudulent behaviour with people making false claims because they may very well know that this has been successful for other people in extending the time of their stay even though they are not genuine refugees.”
A spokesman from the Department of Home Affairs told the ABC in a statement that “Australia takes its international obligations seriously and provides protection consistent with these obligations, as set out in the Migration Act 1958”.
“An assessment of whether an asylum seeker engages Australia’s protection obligations is based on the individual merits of each case.”