The government has resumed processing citizenship applications after the coronavirus halted interviews, tests and face-to-face ceremonies.
A record number of people became Australian citizens in last financial year with tens of thousands of applicants taking the pledge of allegiance during online ceremonies for the first time.
More than 204,800 people became citizens in 2019-20, the biggest increase of new citizens on record and 60 per cent more than the previous financial year.
More than 60,000 applicants received their citizenship virtually since March, after face-to-face events were put on hold at the height of the pandemic.
Immigration Minister Alan Tudge told SBS News the government has made reducing the citizenship backlog and cutting waiting times a priority, even amid the pandemic.
“We’ve put more resources into addressing the numbers of people who are waiting for a citizenship ceremony and we’ve been innovative in how we’ve gone about it,” he said.
“Everybody has been doing it tough in Australia and around the world, but becoming a citizen hopefully provides that bit of joy for that individual family when they do become so.”
Pledging allegiance to Australia
Small in-person ceremonies recommenced on 3 June, but the government says online ceremonies will continue for councils unable to host physical events safely.
For Dinesh Kumar and his daughter Chetna, who attended an intimate ceremony on Friday by Canberra's Lake Burley Griffin, sharing the moment with others made the occasion even more special.
“We are waiting for this for a really long time … you really feel how the ceremony is happening - so this is much better than doing it virtual,” Mr Kumar told SBS News.
He said the family had found out they would be beginning their lives as Australian citizens only the day before.
“We are very happy and surprised,” he said.
Indian migrants Kiran Sreerangam and his son Devansh Viaan, who have lived in Canberra for three years, were also among the group of 11 to have their citizenship conferred.
“It’s really amazing, it’s really exciting, you have more opportunities if you are a citizen, it’s a memorable day,” Mr Sreerangam told SBS News.
The top five nationalities represented in the latest figures were India at 38,209, the United Kingdom at 25,011, China at 14,764, the Philippines at 12,838 and Pakistan at 8,821.
Victoria conferred the most citizens at 60,081, followed by NSW at 58,833, Queensland at 31,714, Western Australia at 30,394 and South Australia at 14,135.
The 2019-20 figure is also more than double the number of approved citizens in 2018, which came in at 80,649.
Calls to resume citizenship tests
The government says the record numbers have helped cut the backlog of people waiting for a ceremony to 50,000, down from 85,000 people in April this year.
“By the end of the year it will be down to zero and we'll just be dealing with the ongoing applicants as they come through,” Mr Tudge promised.
“We do want to make sure that when people want to become a citizen, we’ve got the capabilities to allow them to do so.”
But there remains a further 140,000 who have an application pending with some forced to wait up to 23 months for an outcome.
Processing applications have been further delayed after the Department of Home Affairs was forced to put citizenship interviews and testing on hold.
Abhijeet Sen is one of those waiting to undertake the citizenship test and receive an interview invitation.
Almost 1,200 people have signed his petition calling for the government to gradually resume the procedures as coronavirus health concerns ease.
“We don’t see COVID going away fully and vaccine ready to resume normal life anytime soon,” he told SBS News.
“My message would be to explore the possibilities that can help expedite pending applications.”
The government says the Department of Home Affairs is resuming citizenship interviews and testing in line with COVID-19 health advice.
Small numbers of appointments for tests and interviews have begun in Perth and Sydney.
Mr Tudge told SBS News the government wanted to expand this as soon as possible as restrictions ease across Australia.
“We’re certainly keen to get the citizenship tests and those interviews back on track as quickly as possible - but obviously we have to do that in a safe way,” he said.
“I’m hoping over the few months as restrictions ease in all states other than Victoria that we’ll be able to get back to normal as quickly as possible.”