Management of the Processing of Asylum Seekers
The objective of this audit was to assess the extent to which PV applications in Australia are processed in accordance with relevant laws and policies, and whether DIMIA employs appropoiate mechanisms to ensure compliance with those laws and policies.
The Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs' (DIMIA) Onshore Protection Program is an element of Australia's Refugee and Humanitarian Program. It assists people who have arrived within Australia's migration zone either lawfully (and who have been staying in the Australian community) or unlawfully (by air or sea) who make an application for Australia's protection. These people are often referred to as asylum seekers.
Australia provides protection for asylum seekers who meet the United Nations definition of a refugee, as defined in the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. Asylum seekers who are found to be refugees, may be granted a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) in the first instance, if they arrived unlawfully. If they arrived lawfully, they may be granted a Permanent Protection Visa. The grant of a Protection Visa (PV) is subject to the applicant meeting health and character requirements.
The environment in which DIMIA manages the Onshore Protection Program is complex. The client base is drawn from a wide range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. In an increasingly volatile and difficult international environment, it is essential that protection against refoulement be provided to those in need through an efficient and speedy decision-making system. The Onshore Protection Program is centrally managed with Regional Offices in three States, NSW, Victoria and Western Australia responsible for the processing of PV applications.
The objective of this audit was to assess the extent to which PV applications in Australia are processed in accordance with relevant laws and policies, and whether DIMIA employs appropriate mechanisms to ensure compliance with those laws and policies.
Compliance with procedures and the integrity of decision-making (Chapter 2)
Compliance with procedures
The ANAO undertook compliance testing of a sample of 209 completed Protection Visa (PV) applications to assess the key elements of the decision-making process. The ANAO found the results of the compliance testing relating to the timeliness of the processing of applications were in line with the quality measures outlined in DIMIA's Portfolio Budget Statements that measured the timeliness of internal processing. However, the ANAO found cases where PV applications took longer to process than the times set down in DIMIA's published performance indicators. These were cases where external factors, including factors outside the Department's control influenced the timeliness of processing PV applications. These included clearances and checks processed by police and health officials in other countries.
The ANAO also found that the overall standard of record keeping on the case files of PV applicants was high, 99 per cent of files examined contained a record of the decision and in 92 per cent of cases the reasons for the decision were adequately documented.
In most cases, the decision record provided a clear and comprehensive assessment of the applicant's claims against the Refugee Convention, and the reasons for the decision. However, the ANAO found a small number of cases in one of DIMIA's three processing offices, where the decision record for a grant, consisted of a two-page document that referred back to the file for information rather than outlining the reasons for the decision in full. In light of the complexities associated with the processing of PV's, the risks involved with the use of abbreviated decision records for grants are significant. Using an abbreviated decision record, including for grants, provides a lower level of assurance than the detailed analysis that accompanies the majority of PV decisions.
The ANAO found that DIMIA has adequate formal and informal quality assurance mechanisms in place to monitor and enhance the quality of decision-making for onshore PV's. The results of DIMIA's formal Onshore Protection Quality Assurance program are communicated to Regional and Central Office managers and any training issues that are identified, are rectified through the provision of training to decision-makers.
Support for decision-makers (Chapter 3)
The ANAO found that the training needs of decision-makers processing PVs are addressed through a Training and Coordination Committee. In addition, an Onshore Protection Training Strategy has been developed that identifies training that has been undertaken, identifies the core competencies required by decision-makers, identifies stakeholders and provides a plan for the implementation of future training programs.
Decision-makers have access to a comprehensive and well defined set of procedures and guidelines that are updated to reflect changes to legislation and policy by a dedicated branch in Central Office. However, there were administrative shortcomings. In particular, there was a significant time lag between the announcement of a change in legislation and/or policy and the provision of updated guidance to decision-makers. During focus group discussions with PV decision-makers, staff advised the ANAO that it was difficult, at times, to determine what the current guidance regarding a certain aspect of PV processing was. This issue has intensified in the past few months, as there have been a number of changes to the legislation and regulations. The ANAO considers that DIMIA's more timely incorporation of policy changes into guidelines would reduce the risk that decisions on PV applications are not in accordance with guidance and legislation.
In line with an earlier review undertaken by DIMIA internal audit, the ANAO also identified shortcomings within the Country Information Service (CIS). In particular, the ANAO found that there was a need for an analysis of emerging trends to be undertaken, in addition to historical trends, when assigning priority ratings to countries. This approach would decrease the delays to decision-makers in obtaining up to date and relevant country information. In addition, decision-makers stated that at times the information contained within the CIS did not provide them with the level of detail that they required, and they needed to access other sources of information such as the internet to supplement information gained from the CIS. There is a risk that information gained from sources other than the CIS is not up to date or accurate. One way to mitigate this risk would be to highlight this potential exposure during training sessions.
The ANAO found that, overall, DIMIA had a number of information systems that supported the Onshore Protection Branch. Central Office primarily uses the Integrated Client Service Environment (ICSE) for reporting, which allows the analysis of statistical data and reports to provide quantitative information. Regional Offices have developed local systems, which are typically excel spreadsheets. The ANAO notes that locally developed systems require data to be entered twice. This practice carries risks to data quality and has the potential to affect DIMIA's accuracy in management reporting. DIMIA advised that the issue of locally developed and incompatible software will be resolved with the introduction of the Xanadu project later in 2004. The project will introduce a control environment which will not allow for locally developed and incompatible software.
Managing and monitoring program performance (Chapter 4)
The ANAO found that the specification of DIMIA's quantity indicators for the Refugee and Humanitarian (Onshore) Program comply with better practice. The quantity indicators specified are good workload indicators that provide DIMIA with targets to work towards, and assist Parliament to assess the outputs it is purchasing. However, the ANAO found DIMIA's quality indicators, measuring the timeliness of processing for detention and community cases, do not provide a complete indicator of the quality of the decision. Processing PV cases are often complex and there are external factors outside of DIMIA's immediate control that impact on timeliness. These factors include new information presented by the applicant and delays while applicants receive overseas penal clearances and other necessary health and character checks.
The ANAO notes, as discussed in Chapter 2, the Onshore Protection Branch has a formal quality assurance program in place. The quality assurance program consists of audits of randomly selected cases, and is undertaken twice yearly by senior Onshore Protection managers in each processing state. The quality assurance program examines a number of aspects, including correct citations in decision records, appropriate level of documentation and whether the correct security checks had been undertaken. The ANAO has made a recommendation that incorporating the results of DIMIA's formal quality assurance would provide a more complete measure of the quality of decision-making.
The ANAO found that DIMIA management has access to a number of reports that monitor the progress of PV processing. However, the ANAO notes, as discussed in Chapter 2, the audit found cases where applications took longer to process than the times set down in DIMIA's published performance indicators owing to external factors beyond DIMIA's immediate control. The ANAO has made a recommendation that enhanced monitoring of that part of its caseload where processing times are affected by external factors beyond its immediate control, would enable DIMIA to identify common causes of extended delays and any actions DIMIA could initiate to improve timeliness.
Managing stakeholder relationships (Chapter 5)
The ANAO found that DIMIA has a positive and constructive relationship with the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) at the Regional Office level. There is regular communication with the RRT regarding file transfers and training. Both DIMIA and the RRT include each other in consultative meetings with stakeholder groups. However, at the Central Office level, although formal meetings with the RRT are scheduled quarterly, these meetings do not always go ahead. DIMIA advised that its preference was for these meetings to be held bi-annually. The ANAO suggests that the Refugee and Humanitarian Branch discuss with DIMIA's Visa Framework section and the RRT the frequency of formal meetings.
Other stakeholders reported to the ANAO that, on the whole, consultation occurred regularly, DIMIA was willing to listen to suggestions made and, where possible, act upon them. The ANAO notes the importance of DIMIA continuing to hold consultative meetings with stakeholders to maintain a constructive and mutually beneficial relationship that enables a productive flow of information.
The ANAO concluded that the Onshore processing of asylum seekers is managed well. The overall standard of record keeping, including the documentation of the reasons for decisions was high. This reflects DIMIA's decision to use higher level and more experienced officers to make decisions in processing PV applications. These officers are also supported with appropriate training and guidelines.
Specifically, the training needs of decision-makers are addressed through a Training and Coordination Committee, and decision-makers have access to a comprehensive and well-defined set of procedures and guidelines that are updated to reflect changes to legislation and policy. However, the information contained within DIMIA's CIS does not always provide decision-makers with the level of detail of a situation in a particular country that they required. As a result, decision-makers were required to supplement the information gained from CIS with other sources. This increases the risk that the information is neither up to date nor accurate.
The specification of DIMIA's quantity indicators for the Refugee and Humanitarian (Onshore) Program comply with better practice, in that they are good workload indicators that provide DIMIA with targets to work to, and assist Parliament to assess the outputs it is purchasing. However, by only measuring the timeliness of internal processing, the quality indicators do not provide a complete indicator of the quality of the decision. In addition, the ANAO found cases where applications took longer to process than the times set down in DIMIA's published performance indicators owing to external factors. While outside DIMIA's immediate control, enhanced monitoring of this part of its caseload would enable DIMIA to identify common causes of extended delays and take action to improve timeliness.
DIMIA has formed positive and constructive relationships with stakeholders, based on the sharing of information and regular consultation. While the frequency of formal consultative meetings needs to be agreed, stakeholders on the whole were satisfied with their level of consultation with DIMIA.
Summary of DIMIA's response
The processing of asylum claims through the protection visa process is one of the most complex areas of administrative decision making undertaken in the Department. Given the importance of the decisions made in this area, it is understandable that some negative decisions will be contested and that there is continuing public scrutiny of the decision making process. In this context, external reviews, such as this audit by the Australian National Audit Office, can make a useful contribution to the Department's continuing work to maintain the integrity of protection visa processes and to identify any emerging opportunities for improvement.
DIMIA welcomes the overall finding of the ANAO that the onshore processing of asylum seekers is managed well and uses experienced officers supported by appropriate training and guidelines. DIMIA notes that the report has identified some opportunities for refinement of existing activity.
The ANAO made two recommendations aimed at improving the performance indicators and monitoring of PV applications. DIMIA agreed with both recommendations.