Concerns continue over proposed citizenship test

South Sudanese child in Adelaide with Aussie flag Source: SBS

When the Federal Government flagged changes to the Citizenship Act this year, those changes were met with considerable criticism.Critics suggested the new language test and permanent-residency requirements would be especially onerous, potentially destabilising thousands of families.The Government invited community feedback on the proposed changes in June, and, now, almost 500 submissions have been tabled into parliament.Hashela Kumarawansa looks at the specific concerns of the submissions and those writing them.

The Federal Government wants to change the Australian Citizenship Act and tighten the residency and English-proficiency requirements.

Under the proposals, applicants would be required to be permanent residents for four years instead of one before qualifying for citizenship.

English-language requirements would become stricter, and the immigration minister would have greater power to determine who becomes a citizen.

Unveiling the proposed changes in April, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said English was the key to success in Australia.

"Competent English, that is a vital requirement. Not a requirement at the moment, but we all know that the key to successful integration into the Australian community, to economic success, every success -- social success, in becoming a part of the community -- is being able to speak English. So that's a very important change. And, also, we need to ensure that our citizenship test enables applicants to demonstrate how they've integrated into and engaged with our Australian community."

Most applicants would need to demonstrate a competent level of English by reaching at least a Level 6 in the International English Language Testing System, or IELTS.

But the submissions show many fear that level of proficiency is unreasonable, too demanding.

Ute Knoch, of the University of Melbourne's Language Testing Research Centre, says obtaining that level is even difficult for some native English-speakers.

"There have been some studies done by masters and PhD students, who've given IELTS sample test materials to different groups of Australians, so people who were born and raised in Australia, whose first and probably only language is English. And they targeted different groups of different socio-economic status and different educational levels. And, while we can't directly equate this to an IELTS level, the studies showed that different groups of these people scored much lower on the tests than one might expect."

Ute Knoch says not all migrants are looking to study and work in Australia and the requirements could be too strict.

"The IELTS tests, or the equivalent tests that the Department of Border Protection accepts, are mostly tests of academic English, and they're really well beyond what we think is appropriate for this context of testing English-language proficiency for citizenship. And we feel that the tasks aren't really the appropriate tasks for this kind of context, where we're looking at people who are coming to live in Australia who might be working in jobs where they don't really require high literacy levels, and so we don't think that the test materials themselves are appropriate."

The United Nations is the latest organisation to condemn the proposal.

It's written to the government saying the strict language requirements could force citizens to wait more than a decade before becoming naturalised Australians.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has maintained the notion that applicants would be expected to have university-level English is a Labor Party fabrication.

He has said a Level 6 in the simplified version of IELTS is what is really required.

The submissions also show the proposal to extend permanent-residency requirements remains a major concern.

Former US ambassador Niels Marquardt, now head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia, says it would make foreigners hesitant to call Australia home.

"They've been in Australia for many years, they are already permanent residents, and they had an expectation before the changes came into effect in April that they would be eligible to apply for citizenship in Australia on a certain timetable. And now the changes have come in, and there's uncertainty, so people really are not sure what their status is. And there's also the fear that, instead of being within months of eligibility for Australian citizenship, they may be years away."

Immigration lawyer Matthew Amoiles says the move would unfairly punish genuine refugees and asylum seekers.

"There are still a huge number of people who arrive here quite lawfully by aeroplane, have managed to flee Syria or somewhere else where they're persecuted and have claimed asylum. And those cases can often take a minimum of 18 months, if not three or four years, before they're actually granted protection visas and, accordingly, become permanent residents. People in that scenario are now going to be told, 'And, now, you've got to wait another four years before you're eligible to apply for citizenship.' So you're looking at a minimum of eight, but probably nine or 10, years before that person is going to be integrated and become an equal member of Australian society."

Most of the 500 submissions oppose the legislation.

The bill, introduced in June, has not yet progressed past the first stage in parliament.

The senate inquiry is meant to produce a report by September.


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