Citizenship has been a hot topic for the Australian government over the last year. While debate surrounding the new anti-terrorism laws has received significant attention, another hidden attack on citizenship is taking place behind the scenes.
Refugees on permanent visas, who have been in Australia for over four years and are thus eligible to receive citizenship have been experiencing significant delays when applying.
Most of these people have one thing in common – they applied for protection after arriving in Australia by boat.
Now, four years later, they are still being punished simply because of a choice they made under desperate circumstances.
The Refugee Council of Australia has consulted over 188 people who have been affected by these delays, and has published a new report based on our findings.
The Department of Immigration claims that 80 per cent of applications are processed within 80 days. However, the people we have talked have been waiting an average of 215 days, with some waiting over 600 days.
These are all people who have been found to be refugees, have passed rigorous ASIO assessments, and have been living in the community on permanent visas.
The delays are happening in two stages. Many people we talked to have submitted applications for citizenship, yet have not received any communication from the Department – no invitation to sit the citizenship test, no acknowledgement of their application, and no response when they seek an explanation.
The second area of delays is after people have passed their citizenship test. A number of applicants have received letters of approval from the Minister of Immigration and Border Protection congratulating them on passing the test and stating 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 local government area. Those waiting for a ceremony have been waiting over 270 days – bringing their average total waiting time to over 357 days.
We have also heard from refugees who have been invited to attend a citizenship ceremony, only to receive a call or SMS the night before informing them they were no longer invited. One family I have spoken to received a call two hours before they were due to attend informing them they were no longer invited. Months later, they still have not been invited to attend another event.
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.
These delays in citizenship also highlight another punitive policy. Last year, the Minister for Immigration issued a directive specifying that family reunion applications lodged by refugees who arrived by boat will be placed at the lowest processing priority, meaning that they have virtually no chance of success. The directive was retrospective, applying to all family visa applications currently in the pipeline as well as all future applications.
Gaining citizenship is one way people hope to be able to sponsor their family, many of whom are at risk of persecution and death in countries of origin and asylum. Yet now, the very people impacted by this directive are those who are experiencing delays in their citizenship application. Again, the common theme is simply that they sought asylum after arriving by boat.
The lack of family reunion has caused significant stress and anxiety, as people fear for the safety of their family. As one participant highlighted:
“My children are living in Pakistan. They are in a bad situation. I am intending to bring my family here, so to do that, I need to get my citizenship as soon as I can. I have a lot of pressure about this situation. I am receiving medical treatment because I am experiencing a high level of anxiety.”
Further, without citizenship, refugees are not able to travel overseas to visit their family, such as those in countries of asylum. One participant spoke of his pain of being unable to visit his dying mother in Indonesia:
“My mother is very sick in Indonesia. I want to go visit her. I am worried it will be the last time I will see her. If something happens I can’t forgive myself.”
As with so much of the Australia’s refugee and asylum policies a major factor in this issue is the lack of communication and transparency from the Department. Such a lack of transparency and accountability is a recipe for abuse and harm, and it must be addressed.
While the Department refuses to provide information to applicants about this delay one thing has been made very clear; it is a punitive, discriminatory and ill-conceived policy.
After waiting on the phone with the Department for over 45 minutes one refugee complained about the lack of fairness and transparency the application process. The response of an officer of the Department: well you should have thought about that before you came by boat.