MPs Split as ‘Hijacked’ Inquiry Urges Cancellation of Young Offenders’ Visas

Labor and Greens oppose migrant settlement inquiry suggestion that those over 16 who commit serious crimes have their visa revoked.

Migration benefits Australia economically and socially, however, more English lessons, cultural orientation and community support hubs would help new arrivals and make their settlement easier, a parliamentary inquiry has reported.

But, in a disputed recommendation, the inquiry has also called for mandatory cancellation of the visas of migrants, including children, who commit serious crimes.

About 190,000 people move to Australia each year under the migration program for skilled and family migrants, split roughly into two-thirds in the skilled streams, and one-third in the family intake. In addition, Australia’s humanitarian migration program accepted 17,555 people in 2015-16.

The chairman of the parliamentary joint standing inquiry on migration, Jason Wood, said Australia’s migration program was inarguably a success “and the thousands of people who make their home here each year make a real contribution to society”.

“If we are to continue this, we need to focus on early intervention and support programs for new arrivals to make sure they have the best start possible in their new homeland.”

Wood, the MP for La Trobe in Melbourne’s east and a former policeman, focused significant attention of the inquiry on the so-called Apex gang, allegedly formed by Sudanese youth, that rose to notoriety in Melbourne after rioting at the Moomba festival in 2016.

But Victoria police told the inquiry the gang was a “non-entity” and the majority of its members were born in Australia.

Giving evidence, the Victoria police deputy commissioner Shane Patton said that, at its peak, the gang consisted of about 130 people loosely affiliated and who came from a broad range of backgrounds.

“Predominantly, a large cohort of that gang was, in fact, Australian-born offenders,” he said.

Patton said police had “broken the back” of the gang.

“We have charged the leaders of that gang and imprisoned them,” he said. “We would call them a non-entity in terms of a gang.”

Labor and the Greens criticised the emphasis, saying the entire inquiry had been “hijacked to highlight issues specifically affecting the chair’s own electorate … as such, the report does not reflect the evidence received and ignores the wider context of Australia’s migration situation”.

The committee recommended that any visa holder convicted of a crime before a court should be issued with a warning that their ability to become an Australian citizen could be jeopardised by further offending.

The committee also recommended that the migration act be amended to mandate the cancellation of the visa of young offenders – aged between 16 and 18 – convicted of a serious violent offence, such a car-jacking or serious assault.

“We need to make it clear to those who commit serious and violent crimes that their actions will have consequences,” Wood said, “whether it’s a community protection intervention order, forfeiting eligibility for citizenship or even deportation.”

But this recommendation was opposed by Labor and the Greens. Labor argued it “does not objectively reflect the evidence… ignores crucial contextual details and places an undue emphasis on others”, while the Greens said the entire inquiry sought to “demonise particular groups of new migrants”.

The committee also recommended broadening and strengthening the scope of section 501 of the migration act, the section used to cancel the visas of people who commit serious crimes in Australia or who, in the view of the minister, fail the “character test” to stay in Australia.

The use of section 501 to cancel visas on character grounds has grown exponentially in the past four years, increasing more than tenfold to 1,284 last year. This recommendation was also opposed by non-government committee members.

Recommendations from the committee’s report that attracted unanimous support included allowing all migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds access to the government-funded adult migrant English program (Amep) of 510 hours of English lessons and giving migrants longer to enrol, and longer to complete their classes.

“Amep’s services need to be more flexible in order to meet the needs of migrants from diverse backgrounds and circumstances,” the report said. “This can be done, in part, by adjusting and extending the eligibility requirements of the Amep, which will improve English language outcomes for migrants.”

The inquiry said the community hubs program – 57 hubs are operating across the country – that provides support to newly arrived migrants and other initiatives such as the neighbourhood migrants mothers’ outreach program should be given extra federal government funding.

Community hubs improved English skills and child literacy, the inquiry heard, and “also made migrants feel more connected to their community and school and increased their knowledge of community services”.