MELBOURNE – Border Force investigators recently raided the Melbourne premises of a migration services company called YABS Services, which was run by prominent Indian-Australian businessman Avniesh Bhardwaj. It is believed he is currently overseas.
Mr Bhardwaj has been photographed with a number of high-profile politicians from both major parties, including former prime minister Tony Abbott and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.
7.30 has spoken to a number of Indian and Pakistani citizens who say Mr Bhardwaj, or consultants working for YABS, promised to arrange jobs in Australia and skilled employment visas for them.
In most of the cases seen by the ABC, YABS apparently did lodge an application on behalf of the client, but they were initially charged around $30,000 and told the application would be approved within three to four months.
Clients also say they were told that if the application was rejected, they would receive a partial refund.
However in some instances it has now been up to four years since the initial payment was made, and the jobs and promises have come to nothing.
In some cases Mr Bhardwaj allegedly charged more fees as the process dragged on, with one applicant eventually paying more than $50,000.
‘I won’t give you a single penny,’ cousin told
Vipin Sharma is Mr Bhardwaj’s cousin and worked for Mr Bhardwaj in New Delhi when he was setting up his migration consultancy.
In January 2016, Mr Bhardwaj told Mr Sharma that if he wanted to settle in Australia, YABS could organise a job and visa for him.
Mr Sharma scraped together the money, some which he borrowed, and handed it over.
He says months went by without any word about his job or visa and he became concerned and sought answers. At one point Mr Bhardwaj — now living in Australia — visited New Delhi with his family, but refused to meet with Mr Sharma.
When Mr Bhardwaj asked Mr Sharma for a further $1,600, Mr Sharma drew the money against his credit card and handed it over, despite his misgivings. But when he pressed Mr Bhardwaj for answers, he received a rude shock.
“I said, If you’re not able to give me visa 457, give me my refund’,” Mr Sharma told the ABC from New Delhi.
“He said, ‘Amount has been given to employer, amount has been given to Department of Immigration, I won’t be able to give you a refund.’
“Then there was a day that I made a final call to Avniesh in Australia. The moment I called and asked for a refund Avniesh started using the abusing language and then said, ‘Whatever you want to do, do. I won’t give you a single penny’.”
An application was lodged in Mr Sharma’s name, but the director of the company that allegedly sponsored him has told 7.30 that he has no knowledge of the sponsorship and Mr Sharma says he was never told his application was rejected.
‘He cut my call and blocked my number’
Pakistan, Sohail Khan also has cause to regret ever hearing about YABS.
In 2015 he was in Melbourne on a soon-to-expire temporary graduate visa, and was looking for a job that would enable him to stay in Australia.
He responded to an advertisement for an IT job on the website Gumtree. Within hours he received a phone call from a YABS consultant saying they could find him a position that came with an employee-sponsored visa.
Over the next few months YABS sent Mr Khan a number of employer contracts and supplied other paperwork that seemed to show that his application was being processed. In the meantime, his visa expired and he was forced to return to Pakistan.
After paying $35,000 and spending two years waiting for his visa, Mr Khan lost his patience and demanded his money back.
“They didn’t contact us. So we just contact them and we said, ‘Look, this is totally all finished. We paid you $35,000, you wasted two years and we got nothing. So just refund our money,'” he told 7.30.
“And after that he just cut my call and blocked my number.
“I took a loan from so many people and they are asking for money and I don’t have anything. I took around $25,000 from other people. From my friends, from my family members. It’s really hard for me. I’m unemployed at the moment.”
An application for a job and visa were made in Mr Khan’s name, but 7.30 has been unable to contact the director of the company listed as his sponsor and it is unclear why the application was rejected.
7.30 has spoken to half a dozen other people who paid money to YABS in exchange for jobs and visas, and have been left emptyhanded.
In some cases applications were made on their behalf and rejected, but the client was not told.
In one case the sponsoring company was the subject of a winding up order by the Australian Taxation Office, a year before the application was lodged.
‘Widely variable’ standards in the migration industry
According to migration lawyer Sanmati Verma, the type of rip-off alleged by clients of YABS has become more common as the emphasis in skilled migration has shifted to employer sponsorship, which requires prospective migrants to have jobs in Australia arranged before they arrive here.
“From 2012 onwards the Department of Immigration’s focus changed from what they called supply driven migration, whereby people would put their hand up for a visa and show their skills, show their qualifications in Australia to get that visa, to demand driven migration, i.e, migration driven more by the desire for Australian employers to have people here,” she said.
“So that type of shift whereby independent pathways for migration, skilled pathways, became much more difficult to access … towards a focus on employers actually sponsoring people for visas to Australia has created a market for employer exploitation, or migration agent exploitation, of people’s inability to basically get a visa on their own.”
Ms Verma said it is also very difficult for people to seek recourse after falling afoul of unscrupulous operators, which has led to “widely variable” standards in the industry.
She also said that the Department charged up to $4,000 for the type of visa YABS clients were applying for, so “on the face of it” the fees charged by YABS may be excessive.
When 7.30 visited the YABS office at an industrial park in Melbourne’s west, the landlord said the company had been shut out because of unpaid rent and illegal building works. It was same story across the road at a Hindu temple Mr Bhardwaj established in a warehouse.
Websites for YABS and another of Mr Bhardwaj’s businesses, Aussie Visa Link, have been shut down, while a third company, Aussie Top Career Recruitment, has been deregistered.
Inside the YABS offices, a photo montage shows pictures of Mr Bhardwaj with Liberal Party figures including Mr Abbott, Andrew Robb, Kevin Andrews and Michael Kroger, and Labor politicians Mr Andrews and Telmo Languiller.
A spokesman for Border Force said the agency was aware of the allegations against YABS and was investigating the “publication of fraudulent information on their website”.
“Anyone who has used the services of, or been involved with, this company is urged to contact Border Watch,” he said.
“People should also visit the Department of Home Affairs website for advice on what to look out for when seeking migration advice.”