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Passing go

Gone are the days when Australian immigration officers would conduct spot-checks of the bedrooms and bathrooms of applicants for a spouse visa. These house searches—disinterested inquiries in the name of the law—reflected a presumption within the Department of Immigration that those seeking to migrate to Australia on the grounds of marriage were guilty of deception unless proven otherwise.

Two toothbrushes by the basin. His and her underpants in sufficiently proximate drawers. Letters addressed to both parties as a couple. Such were the critical pieces of evidence which guarded our borders.

The form may be different, but the spirit of spot-checks remains alive and well. When Marina, my wife, wished to apply for permanent residence in Australia, the tranche of evidence required by the Australian Government seemed like the paper equivalent of bathroom inspections.

Although planning to live in Spain, we had decided to apply for Marina’s residence to avoid reliving past experiences at Tullamarine airport. On Marina’s first journey to Australia prior to our marriage, she was made to feel like an intruder at the gate by an earnest, humourless immigration official who was innately sceptical that anyone on a tourist visa could possibly want to return home after seeing what Australia had to offer.

In addition to the residence application, we needed statutory declarations by friends and family detailing our history as a couple, our own statements detailing where and when we met, our periods of cohabitation, our commitment to each other and even our plans for a family. Documentary evidence of joint economic responsibility, financial solvency, medical perfection, photos of us together and all letters between us during periods of separation soon swelled our dossier to a weighty 2kg pile.

For this abrogation of the right to privacy, we were charged €10 (around A$17) for the explanatory booklets and application forms, plus €780 (A$1,335) as the application fee.

The application form itself was a minefield. Wedged in between ‘Have you, or any other person included in this application, ever committed, or been involved in the commission of war crimes or crimes against humanity or human rights?’ and ‘Do you and your partner intend to maintain a lasting relationship?’ (would we really pay $1,335 if we didn’t?) was the ultimate lie detector test: ‘Did you enter this relationship with your partner solely to gain permanent residence in Australia?’

And all of this before the interview.

As a former refugee lawyer, I was accustomed to hostile interrogations of my clients. After a Refugee Review Tribunal hearing, the Algerian brother of an applicant emerged sweating, with the words: ‘I feel like I’ve just gone 15 rounds with Mike Tyson’. Four days after a particularly adversarial interview at the Department of Immigration, my 68-year-old Iraqi client died of a heart attack. When she learned of the applicant’s death, the immigration officer said, ‘I hope the interview didn’t contribute to this. I was going to approve him and his wife anyway’.

On another occasion, I was present at a Department of Immigration liaison meeting. In the course of the meeting, I complained on behalf of one of our clients who had begun convulsing under interrogation, so aggressive was the questioning and so reminiscent was it of a prelude to torture she had experienced in her own country. The head of the department’s Compliance Division—those responsible for border control, detention and the rounding-up of illegal immigrants—said simply: ‘If I had an applicant who started convulsing in an interview, I’d know that I had them right where I wanted them’.

It was thus with some trepidation that we entered the interview. To his eternal credit, the embassy official who interviewed us at the Australian embassy in Madrid did so with impeccable politeness, not to mention an efficiency that put the two-year wait demanded of asylum seekers to shame. He did, however, admit that some Spanish applicants asked whether the application fee also included a return ticket to Australia.

My own experience of obtaining residence here in Spain was significantly different. In the first place, after falling illegal with the full knowledge (and lack of concern) of the Spanish police, these same policemen took me out to lunch and insisted on paying.

Then, after two years of uncertain legal status—during which time a German policeman at Frankfurt airport was the only official to ask how long I had been in the European Union—I made my formal application.

The only documents asked of me were my passport, Marina’s identity card, our marriage certificate, a medical certificate and an Australian fingerprint check. There was no application fee and there were no intrusive questions.

Most of this took place under the reign of the Popular Party (PP) Government of Prime Minister José María Aznar who had nominated border control as a major priority. After the 14 March, 2004 election, the new Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) Government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero announced a new approach to illegal immigration. Under the plan, most illegal immigrants employed in Spain are eligible for residence. It is safe to expect that this will be granted regardless of what they have in their bathrooms.

Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent



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