Australia's visa system is outdated, risking mistakes and fraud and not up to the challenge of international crime and terrorism, the Home Affairs department says, justifying the push for privatisation.
Australia had been targeted by "foreign governments or their proxies" trying to undermine its "sovereignty, values and national interests, through covert, deceptive and clandestine means", the department said in a submission to a Senate inquiry.
Governments, universities, the media and "our culturally and linguistically diverse communities" were all vulnerable to this foreign interference, including attempts to subvert the visa system.
The government is introducing a new privately owned visa processing system, and has received tenders from two consortiums bidding to operate the new "global digital platform".
Home Affairs has now put its case to a Senate inquiry, sounding a strong warning about the risks to Australia unless its visa system is brought up to date.
The changing face of terrorism was the paramount concern, the department said.
"Terrorist actors, ideologues, financiers, recruiters, and on-line supporters all take advantage of easier international travel arrangements and streamlined visa processes," it said.
Australia's visa system was still rooted in paper processing and no longer fit for purpose. Already, it couldn't keep pace with applications, and over the coming decade, officials expected a 35 per cent growth, to 13 million applications a year.
In the most recent 12 months, the department had received 9.6 million visa applications - up one million in the space of two years.
More were being refused, with 156,000 applications refused in 2018-19, about 3.8 per cent of the total.
In a decade, the number of visitor visas had ballooned from 3.7 million to 5.9 million. International student visas had reached a record 406,000 in the most recent 12 months.
The department said it was hamstrung by outdated systems which couldn't capture "robust and comprehensive risk assessment and intelligence". The system was creating real pressure for the department and dissatisfaction for people applying for visas.
Manual processing increased the risk of error and fraud. And the department needed to make better use of available - and confidential - data to keep pace.
"The threat and risk environment has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. The mass mobility of growing middle classes in emerging economies, through cheaper and more accessible air travel, has meant some groups who would never have possessed the means to come to Australia previously are now seeking to travel here," the department said.
A decade ago, people from China, India and Indonesia were just 11 per cent of visitors. Now, they made up 23 per cent - an extra 916,000 visas. In 2007-08, just over half of visitors were from Britain, Japan, the United States, South Korea and Germany. That had now dropped to 37 per cent.
The world was facing the highest level of forcibly displaced people, generating border risks. Some displaced people had no reliable identity documents. Criminals were using visa and identify fraud to smuggle drugs, exploit foreign workers and traffic people into Australia, "all at significant cost to our safety, the economy and social cohesion".
"Transnational organised crime networks continue to seek to embed themselves into legitimate supply chains to obfuscate their activities or to exploit visa arrangements for human trafficking and exploitation, drug or weapons importation, illegal labour and other nefarious purposes," the department said. "Their methods continue to evolve, including the masking of activities using encrypted communications and use of professional facilitators."
Broad, nationality based assessment of risk was no longer good enough. Rather, "more granular and nuanced assessment of the risk posed by individual visa applicants - irrespective of nationality - is required", using intelligence and checking.
The department insisted it was "not privatising Australia's visa system", with the department keeping control over decisions.
The new system would allow add-ons, including matching migrants to jobs in regional areas. The system would also improve visa compliance, the department said - presumably referring to easier tracking of people in Australia. It would allow "enhanced verifiable digital data collection and intelligence capability", the department said. It would be faster, and allow automated data collection and checking.
It would pay for itself through "a modest service fee on applications", with the average fee set at $35. It could also charge for extra services, the department said, citing banking or telecommunications services, hotel or transportation providers, settlement or relocation assistance. It could offer help with government services such as tax file numbers, but no extra fee would be charged for the government add-ons.
The department was adamant that threat and risk assessment would stay with the department, and not be handed to the private partner. The department would remain responsible for decisions, even when they were made through automation - because the department set the rules. All visa refusals and cancellations would be done by the department. No jobs would be lost, with staff working on visa processing freed up for more complex cases.