Several legal and humanitarian bodies have raised questions about the government’s proposed changes to the Australian citizenship requirements, particularly regarding refugees.
The government’s proposals include raising the permanent residency requirement from one year to four, increasing the difficulty of the English language test and implementing new processes to determine applicants’ integration into the community and Australian values.
Many organisations and individuals made submissions to the discussion paper on the proposed changes.
While the submissions generally agreed on the need for a citizenship process that ensures applicants can participate fully in Australian society, some questioned aspects of the government’s approach.
“We … agree with the statement in the introduction to the discussion paper that ‘building mutual obligations between government, the community and the individual, regardless of nationality, strengthens our resilience and sense of belonging’,” said the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law in its submission.
“We are, however, concerned that the changes to the process for acquiring Australian citizenship proposed in the discussion paper will not serve the goal of fostering cohesion and integration among the Australian population, and may in fact have the opposite effect.”
The Kaldor Centre voiced its particular concern with the proposal that the English language requirement be increased to the equivalent of a band six score under the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).
“In our view, the current framework, which requires an assessment of whether the applicant has ‘basic English’, strikes the right balance, and the discussion paper makes no case as to why the new threshold of ‘competent English’ is necessary,” the centre said.
It noted that the existing requirement of ‘basic English’ is not defined in the Citizenship Act 2007, but is understood under policy to mean “having a sufficient knowledge of English to be able to live independently in the wider Australian community”.
“In particular, we have concerns that the proposed test will disproportionately affect refugees and humanitarian entrants and prevent them from obtaining citizenship,” the Centre said.
“It is worth pointing out that the requirement of IELTS 6 is the equivalent or higher than what Australia expects for high-level students and highly skilled migrants, many of whom migrate permanently to Australia.
“Whereas these migrants have been able to obtain English skills through their previous work or education, refugee and humanitarian entrants may not have similar opportunities. Moreover, refugees and humanitarian entrants are more likely to come from countries where English is not a spoken language.”
Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane, in his submission on behalf of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), agreed with this assessment.
“Rather than introducing a higher English language requirement as a prerequisite for citizenship, the government could consider strengthening English language support for migrants and humanitarian entrants to assist them in attaining English proficiency,” he added.
Legal Aid NSW recommended in its submission that refugees be exempt from formal English testing.
“Some refugees will quickly acquire competence in English. However, there are others who will have arrived in Australia with little or no English language skills, and will struggle to learn English due to trauma, other psychological conditions relating to past experiences of persecution, lack of education in their home countries or illiteracy in their native language,” it said.
“Refugees who hold permanent protection visas are eligible for 510 hours of free English language tuition through the Adult Migrant Education Program (AMEP). This is a valuable program, but in many cases it is not sufficient for refugees to attain proficiency in the English language.”
Legal Aid NSW added that refugees may struggle with the citizenship test for the same reasons, and said their failure may reflect a lack of comprehension rather than a lack of Australian values.
The Kaldor Centre and AHRC both questioned the emphasis on ‘Australian values’ in the government’s proposal. The Kaldor Centre noted that the existing citizenship requirements allow the refusal of citizenship based on an assessment of the applicant’s values.
“The discussion paper states that, in addition to existing police checks, applicants will ‘be assessed for any conduct that is inconsistent with Australian values’,” it said.
“This suggests that there will be some ministerial power to conduct a values-based evaluation of candidates. It is not clear how such a power would differ from, and interact with, the existing ministerial powers to refuse citizenship to an applicant on the basis that they are not of ‘good character’.
“Indeed, the current Citizenship Policy guidance published by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection suggests that determining whether a person is of ‘good character’ for the purposes of obtaining citizenship encompasses a consideration of their values.”
The AHRC welcomed the government’s objective of promoting social cohesion, but noted that integration can be difficult to measure.
“The path of integration can traverse more than one generation,” Dr Soutphommasane said.
“It would be misplaced to measure integration only by the contribution that immigrants currently make to Australian society, without recognising the future contributions they and their children will make.
“Moreover, the task of civic integration is not confined to aspiring citizens. There is considerable scope for improving the civic literacy of Australian-born citizens.
“It would be anomalous to hold naturalised citizens to a standard that is significantly more stringent than the standard expected of natural-born Australian citizens, who are not tested on their civic knowledge or participation in society.”
Labor has announced that it will fight the government on the proposed changes, labelling the bill “a bizarre act of snobbery”.
The debate follows the recent criticism by legal bodies of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s attack on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
This week (Sunday, 18 June to Saturday 24 June) is Australia’s annual Refugee Week. The Refugee Council of Australia has been organising the event for the past two decades to inform the public about refugees and celebrate their positive contribution to Australian society.