Citizenship provides refugees with a sense of meaningful security and protection, and better enables them to sponsor family members for Australian visas and travel to visit family. This research raises serious questions about discrimination in access to citizenship for refugees who came by boat to Australia.
The Refugee Council of Australia conducted 188 interviews or surveys with people of refugee background. These people can apply for citizenship after being in Australia for four years on a permanent humanitarian visa. However, they have experienced considerable delays in the citizenship process, especially if they arrived in Australia by boat.
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.
Obtaining citizenship is also especially important for people who wish to sponsor family members to Australia. While refugees on permanent visas can sponsor family members to Australia, Ministerial Directive 62 places the family members of boat arrivals at the lowest processing priority. Gaining citizenship is one way people hope to be able to sponsor their family, many of whom are at risk of persecution and death. Citizenship also allows former refugees to travel safely to their countries of origin to visit family members who they have not seen for many years.
As will be explained further below, there are in effect two steps to becoming a citizen. One is having your citizenship application approved – but you do not become a citizen until the citizenship pledge is taken and this normally happens at a citizenship ceremony.
Over the past few months it has come to the attention of the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) that refugees on permanent visas are experiencing significant delays in the process of applying for Australian citizenship. In response to this issue, RCOA held a face to face consultation and an online survey involving 188 people from refugee backgrounds who have experienced substantial delays in their citizenship applications.
While the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) claims to reach a decision on 80% of citizenship applications within 80 days (not including additional time to attend a ceremony). Yet those that RCOA consulted or surveyed have been waiting on average 215 days since lodging their application. For those who have completed the citizenship test and are yet to attend a ceremony and receive their citizenship, the average wait is 357 days from the time of their application. In addition, three other people consulted failed the citizenship test – indicating further barriers the test places on humanitarian entrants.
The evidence collected by RCOA suggests that these delays are disproportionately affecting those who arrived in Australia by boat, as over 89% of those people who have been consulted arrived in this manner. RCOA notes that these delays appear to have commenced after September 2013.
The evidence collected suggests the delays are occurring either when recognised permanent residents are applying to complete the citizenship test (ie they are taking longer to be given a time to take their test), or when those who have completed every other requirement are waiting to attend a citizenship ceremony. Other applicants are being asked for documents which are almost impossible to obtain, due to the nature of their refugee experience. The fact that permanent refugee visa holders, who have passed rigorous security assessments and identity checks, are being asked for supplementary information is also of great concern.
A number of applicants have received letters of approval from the Minister of Immigration and Border Protection, stating that the final step to gain citizenship is to attend a citizenship ceremony. However, these people have not been invited to participate in a citizenship ceremony, despite regular, often monthly, citizenship ceremonies occurring in each municipality. We have also heard from applicants who received a call or text message the night before they were due to attend the ceremony indicating that the ceremony was cancelled. However, months later, they still have not been invited to attend another event.
Participants spoke of their frustration regarding the lack of communication and information from DIBP, with many receiving little or no information about their application and the reason for the delays.
Finally, and as a separate issue, RCOA has also heard of circumstances where the Minister of Immigration and Border Protection has failed in his obligation to grant stateless children born in Australia citizenship, as required to under 21(8) of the Australian Citizenship Act 2007. While the Act requires the Minister to confer citizenship, the current Minister and his predecessor have failed to respond to the applications and this also breaches the Minister’s responsibilities regarding making a decision under the Act.
RCOA believes these delays are unreasonable, discriminatory and unfair, and calls on the Minister for Immigration to resolve this issue for the hundreds of people affected by these delays.
Clarify if there has been a policy change in regard to citizenship applications for refugees with a permanent visa, specifically in relation to those who arrived by boat.
Take steps to process the citizenship applications of refugees immediately, or otherwise clarify the specific reasons for the delay to each individual applicant.
Fulfil his obligations under section 21(8) of the Australia Citizenship Act 2007 and grant citizenship to stateless children born in Australia within a reasonable timeframe.
Make every effort to expedite citizenship application and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs for applications by refugees and humanitarian arrivals, as required under Article 34 of the Refugee Convention.
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