Marina Shatalova has been trying for years to get enough points so the Australian government will let her stay permanently.
“It has been a very emotional and difficult journey,” she told the ABC.
“I am Russian and there is no home for me in that country because of the political situation.”
With the unemployment rate at record lows, the federal government has made finding skilled workers from overseas a priority and promised to make the pathway to permanent residency easier.
But many qualified applicants already living here are struggling with a byzantine visa system in which they are given points based on their educational backgrounds, work experience, language skills, age and other characteristics.
Those with higher point totals are prioritized and have their applications processed more quickly.
Applicants say the system is confusing and occasionally arbitrary, and sometimes the goal posts are moved without warning.
A teacher in Russia, Ms Shatalova first tried to get a skilled independent 189 permanent residency (PR) visa for the same profession.
PR applicants first make an “expression of interest” and if they have enough points the government invites them to apply.
The 189 visa holders aren’t restricted to living and working in regional areas and don’t need a sponsor but have to be under 45 years old and have skills Australia needs.
Ms Shatalova, who immigrated 12 years ago and has a 10-year-old son, got an Australian teaching degree and passed her teaching skills assessment and English proficiency test.
She ended up taking the English test 11 times, costing about $400 a pop, before achieving a “superior English” result, giving her a total of 80 points.
But after lodging her expression of interest, she heard nothing from the government until her teacher skills assessment qualification expired two years later.
“I am educated, healthy, and paying taxes but was never invited to apply for a permanent residency visa even though there has always been a shortage of teachers,” she said.
Sean Dong, a Melbourne-based migration agent, said getting a 189 visa had proven to be difficult in recent years.
“Australia’s immigration system is very complicated,” he said.
“The benchmark for PR invitation is 65 points but for the past two to three years, 189 visa applicants almost had no invitation even though some of them can reach 95 or 100 points.”
Mr Dong said Australia’s skilled migration policies were serving the needs of the international education sector but not employers or migrants.
“It fails to bring solutions to Australia’s labor market,” he said.
“In terms of higher-level skilled migrants, we should use the employer sponsorship visas to adopt the demand-driven model rather than the supply-driven model.
“Australia should grant international students the PR if they can contribute to our society.”
High standards for education and language ability, waiting periods of indeterminate length and rigid work experience requirements are not the only challenges that PR applicants face.
Sunny Patel, who comes from India, got his master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Deakin University in Geelong last year and moved to Sydney.
The 25-year-old had planned to apply for the 190 visa, a PR for applicants that have skills identified as lacking in the state.
But on September 7, the NSW government updated its skilled occupation list for visas and significantly lifted the minimum scores for invitation and years of work experience.
Critically for Mr Patel, the mechanical engineer occupation had been removed from the list.
“So all mechanical engineers who have been working here don’t have any chance of getting an invitation for PR,” he said.
Mr Patel only has a temporary graduate visa with less than one year remaining.
“It’s now like a dead end for me and my friends who are working in the same industry,” he said.
Why permanent residency is so important
Apart from the security and government support entitlements PR provides, some employers reportedly discriminate against temporary residents.
Sravan Reddy Palvai, who also comes from India, said that not having permanent residency was the reason he was working as an Uber driver rather than as a software engineer.
Mr Palvai graduated from Charles Sturt University in Melbourne in 2019 with a master’s degree in information technology, a qualification considered to be in high demand in Australia.
With five and half years of overseas work experience, the 32-year-old lodged his expression of interest for a skilled independent PR visa right after graduation.
He’s still waiting to hear back from the government to be invited to apply.
Mr Palvai said he had been interviewed by several Melbourne IT companies but he missed out each time because he only had a temporary visa.
“When I said about my visa condition, they said, ‘Sorry, we are just only looking for permanent residents’,” he said.
Mr Palvai said working in the IT industry was the main reason he came to Australia.
“I used to share all my details with the Uber customers whoever was coming to my car,” he said.
“I tried to explain to each and every one of them like I’m looking for an IT job. My profile is very strong.”
In a statement, the Department of Home Affairs spokesperson told ABC the government acknowledged that migration was critical in addressing Australia’s labor shortages and stimulating economic activity.
“That’s why we are committed to reducing on-hand visa applications to pre-COVID-19 levels, and we are investing resources to accelerate processing times,” the statement said.
The statement did not address questions about modifying the system.
‘It’s just so overwhelming’
Having seemingly been stymied in her attempts to get PR as a teacher, Ms Shatalova came up with a plan B, and moved to a regional area so she could get a five-year temporary visa.
There she obtained a qualification to become a real estate agent and in 2019 started her own business.
But then her application for the visa was rejected because the Department of Home Affairs said the first year she was working as a real estate agent was a “qualifying period” and didn’t count.
“If you claim work experience for more than three years, you get 10 points” Ms Shatalova said.
“If it’s less than three years, you get five points.”
After appealing that decision at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, she made another expression of interest for a 189 visa as a teacher in July and was finally invited to apply with 65 points.
But according to the rules, because she’s appealing the rejection, she can’t make the application for the permanent resident visa while in Australia.
“I have to leave the country and leave my child behind and go overseas,” she said.
“It’s just so overwhelming.
“It is heartbreaking and we are both very worried about this separation.
“However, after being in Australia for 12 years, I have to fight and prove that we deserve to stay as it is my boy’s home.”