Sofia* is too lazy to divorce.
She says if there was a way to do it in five minutes, she would. But the paperwork has meant she has been married for 10 years to a man she does not love.
Sofia was 22 when she moved from her native Chile to Spain. She quickly realised Spain was where she wanted to stay.
She met Carlos* in Barcelona, and they had only been dating for a few months when she ran out of visa options. Migration restrictions meant she had few choices left, and after finishing her university degree she was resigned to moving back to Chile. Then Carlos, a Spanish citizen, suggested she apply for a partner visa.
Their wedding was small, no more than 10 people attended. “We got married at 11 in the morning, then went back home with [Carlos’s] family, had lunch and that was it” recalls Sofia.
Their story is one of love, friendship and bureaucracy. Visa regulations all over the world restrict the flow of expatriates, and impede their ability to stay indefinitely in the country of their choosing. Some of these people have found solutions like Sofia’s.
For her, the decision to get married to a man she had only known for 10 months was both big and insignificant. “It seemed like big words: to get married” she says, but also it felt like nothing in her life changed.
She said the strangest part was proving their relationship was real to immigration officials.
“They asked us what side of the bed he slept on, or what type of shampoo I used. They were fucking random questions, but also only things that we should know.”
In Australia, partner visas account for a hefty proportion of the 190,000 places in the annual migration program, with 32 per cent of the total going to family streams, and of that 79 per cent going to partners. That means tens of thousands of applications to stay in Australia are made in the name of love every year. With reportedly around 70,000 applications sitting with the Department of Home Affairs at any one time, it’s a slow, expensive and stressful process.
Rick Gunn is a partner at Carina Ford Immigration Lawyers in Melbourne, and a Law Institute of Victoria accredited immigration law specialist. In his experience, applicants for partner visas in Australia should expect plenty of scrutiny.
The process “can include interviews with questions as mundane as which night is bin night … or spot checks where officials can arrive at 8pm at your front door”.
Depending on their situation, couples will be subjected to different levels of interrogation, but all applicants should be prepared to have their life inspected, he explains.
“You don’t have to have a story of eyes meeting across a crowded room”, he says, but it is up to couples to prove their financial, social and emotional commitment to each other.
A few days after her wedding, Sofia was granted residency in Spain. She and Carlos did break up, but they remained married and kept up the official appearance of a relationship. Sofia says she was lucky to find Carlos, and he remains one of her closest friends.
Now 10 years on from their wedding, and with Sofia living another phase of life in North America, they are finally thinking about divorce.
Matthew* has been living in Australia for five years. He has studied and worked here, pays taxes and runs a successful business. He is also out of visa options, and will soon be forced to leave the country and return to his native Canada.
One of the last options left for Matthew is a partner visa. He says he has heard of friends granted residency through partner visas, “some are legitimate, some aren’t. But the simple fact that people need to fake a relationship to stay in a country is outrageous… but this is sometimes the only remaining viable option”.
Matthew feels his home is Australia, and he says he is tempted by the idea of a partner visa if it means he can stay. But without a real partner he says he’s not willing to put so much pressure on the other person in the “relationship”. So at this stage, he’s not inclined to take the marriage option, despite desperation and a little temptation.
He’s right to be apprehensive about the tensions that can evolve within a visa marriage of convenience. It’s a story well known to Nazir*.
Arriving as a student from South Asia, he soon felt that he had found his new home in Australia. But the immigration department felt differently, and like Sofia and Matthew, he resigned himself to returning to his home country.
But Sarah*, a close friend and Australian citizen, was not so quick to give up, and suggested they get married so he could apply for a partner visa. Nazir said it was a difficult decision.
“I had sleepless nights and stress trying to think if it was the right choice.”
Eventually they decided to go ahead, moved in together and set a date for the wedding.
Nazir said he was very nervous on the wedding day, “we told the celebrant that we would like a simple and quick version, so we didn’t have to do a very formal ceremony”.
Both Nazir and Sarah had friends come to the wedding, and sign forms attesting to their relationship. Nazir never told his family about the marriage, but Sarah did.
“They were shocked … some members of [Sarah’s] family trusted her decision and moved on. Some didn’t agree because they worried about the consequences.”
Under Australian law, both people involved in a false relationship for visa purposes can be charged. For the applicant, they can be fined up to $210,000, or even jailed for up to ten years. They can also be deported, their visa revoked, and they can be banned from any future travel to Australia.
Rick Gunn says anyone caught helping a migrant falsify their visa application can face up to two years in jail. Immigration lawyers are therefore careful to ensure their clients are in genuine relationships.
Nazir says he was worried in the beginning about putting such a burden on his friendship. He knew Sarah was committing years of her life to help him. But he says she was always supportive, and understood this was his last hope for residency.
For three years Nazir and Sarah were under financial and emotional stress, and subject to constant requests from the DIBP for more information on their relationship.
“Nothing is done the way it seems. [The Department of Home Affairs] is trying to make it as hard as possible for people”.
And the price of visa love – real or otherwise – is not cheap, and has increased almost 400 per cent in recent years. The partner visa for Australia is stated as costing $7000, but this does not account for additional costs, such as the medical checks that are required for applicants. Nazir said the timeframe he was given for reviewing the application was also misleading and delayed.
“It’s a serious thing. Once you’re in, you’re committed for years. And then it’s years of waiting. Waiting is the killer. Waiting and waiting.”
After three years Nazir was granted permanent residency. He stands by the choice he made, saying it was his last option for staying in the country that has become his home.
“Even though it all ended well I sometimes feel nervous and fearful when I hear stories of other people doing it” he says.
*Names have been changed to protect identities