Our key concerns
The value of Australian citizenship for refugee and humanitarian entrants
The right to a nationality is an essential human right. Article 15 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that everyone has the right to a nationality. Nationality creates rights and duties for both the State and the individual. These rights or duties are not available to a person without citizenship, resulting in a lack of opportunity, protection and participation. Citizenship is also essential in realising other human rights, such as the right to take part in political affairs. While human rights apply globally, citizenship is the main way through which people can access these rights.
Citizenship has particular significance for refugee and humanitarian entrants. Refugees are, by definition, unable to return to their country of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution or other forms of serious harm. Australian citizenship is therefore often the first effective and durable form of protection that many refugees receive, and is celebrated and cherished by them. For those who know what it is like to live without freedom and democracy, obtaining citizenship in a free and democratic country is particularly meaningful. As one former refugee noted in RCOA’s community consultations:
Having a citizenship is highly valued. It gives you equal rights and equal protection for the first time. Refugees are honoured to have an Australian citizenship and we appreciate the rights, protection and obligations that come with it. If we didn’t have Australian citizenship, we would have nowhere to go.
Gaining citizenship plays a central role in resolving the situation of refugee and humanitarian entrants. This is recognised in Article 34 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which requires its signatories to “as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalisation of refugees” and “make every effort to expedite naturalisation proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings”. Further, two of the three durable solutions for refugees promoted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – local integration and resettlement – rely on refugees becoming citizens of another country.
For many refugee and humanitarian entrants, obtaining citizenship represents the culmination of their journey: the point at which they are no longer displaced; can rebuild their lives in safety and security; and feel the sense of belonging which was denied to them in their country of origin.
Citizenship has even greater significance for stateless people, who by definition are not recognised as nationals of any country. The status of stateless people can only be resolved by obtaining citizenship. Under the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, Australia is required to “make every effort to expedite naturalisation proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings.” This is similar to Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention.
The significance of citizenship for refugees has been a focus of our work in the past two years. In October 2015, we published a report documenting the prolonged delays experienced by thousands of refugees and humanitarian entrants in gaining citizenship. In December 2016, RCOA, together with pro bono lawyers, successfully challenged the Minister’s delay in deciding these applications in the landmark case of BMF16 v Minister for Immigration and Border Protection  FCA 1530. The Federal Court found that the Minister for Immigration had unreasonably delayed in deciding whether to grant citizenship to two of these former refugees who were waiting for over 14 months.
Despite this ruling, however, thousands of former refugees continue to face lengthy delays, with thousands of people waiting over one year. These delays deny people of refugee background in Australia their basic rights to stability, security and family reunion, leaving many families in war zones and unsafe environments while they wait to reunite with family in Australia.
In February 2017, as a follow up to our October 2015 report, RCOA conducted a second survey of nearly 980 people of refugee background. Of these, 928 were still awaiting a response to their citizenship application. The Federal Court decision found that a delay of over six months is unreasonable and unlawful – yet 92% of respondents have experienced delays greater than this length. The average waiting time was over 16 months. Two-thirds of those waiting have been waiting over a year, while 13% (120 people) have been waiting over two years.