The 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast officially concluded on April 15th featuring athletes from 71 nations. However, when eight Cameroon athletes went missing during the Games it was clear there were some who had no intention of going home.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said he or Border Force officials couldn’t do anything until their visas expired on May 15, however, he vowed: “They aren’t going to game the system, they aren’t going to stay here”.
That May 15 deadline has now passed and it has today been revealed that the total number of athletes who overstayed their visa is 255. Of those 205 are now legally in the community on bridging visas with 190 applying for protection visas and 15 for other visa categories. 50 are still missing and remain unlawfully in the country. The overstaying athletes come mainly from African nations including Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria.
Athletes also went missing at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games and were granted bridging visas. The fact that they were athletes with the potential to win medals in future competitions made even the hardline Howard Government sympathetic to their visa protection applications. Many of them actually competed for Australia at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
These athletes because they were in Australia when they made their protection application cannot be put into immigration detention, unlike those who come by boat who are not covered by Australian law. This was confirmed by a frustrated Peter Dutton telling the Herald Sun “Australia is now obliged under international law to consider these protection visa applications.”
The cost to taxpayers in considering these visa applications is likely to be in the millions as those on bridging visas can access benefits including welfare. Refugee advocacy groups who are representing these athletes such as Refugee Advice and Casework Service are likely to drag out this process by appealing any rejected applications. Peter Dutton had no hesitation in calling these athletes queue jumpers “Australians hate being taken for a ride by freeloaders”.
This post-Commonwealth Games crisis has exposed a key flaw in our border security. Anybody who comes to Australia for an event who obtains a valid visa can stay if they claim they are being persecuted. Even if they are eventually found not to be refugees they can still enjoy the benefits Australia has to offer for many years.
If the federal government continues to say it has its hands tied, then it will only encourage this type of visa overstaying at the next international event, potentially creating a new immigration crisis. Many who are critical of Australia’s immigration as whole have often said although the government stops people coming by boat they can still come by plane. The fact that Australia is signed up to United Nations’ Refugee Convention also exacerbates this reality.
This is a key test for the Turnbull Government on border security and on Peter Dutton’s conservative leadership credentials. They may have mastered stopping the boat, but can they stop this new loophole? This immigration crisis has only just begun.