Kiwis, Japanese, British, Americans among the most unAustralian migrants

Barnaby Joyce may have been a Kiwi, but fewer than one third of Kiwis living in Australia have taken up Australian citizenship.

And new Census data shows that it takes more than 30 years for Kiwis living in Australia to reach a citizenship take-up rate of 50 per cent, compared to less than ten years for migrants of some other countries.

SBS World News investigates why some long-term residents don’t ever become Australians.

New Zealand’s special case

The longer a migrant spends in Australia, the more likely they are to become a citizen. Overall, approximately 80 per cent of migrants take up citizenship, according to government research.

However the take-up rate varies depending on the arrival's source country.

Paul Hamer, a migration researcher at Victoria University in Wellington, said the rate for New Zealanders has traditionally been much lower than for people from other countries.

“There has been little need for them to take that step, and no sense of needing to commit themselves to their new country,” he said.

He is currently preparing a paper that looks at the laws around migration of New Zealanders to Australia alongside Monash University’s Professor Andrew Markus.

Professor Markus said Kiwis faced special obstacles before becoming citizens which has caused citizenship take-up among recent arrivals to drop to nearly zero.

"New Zealanders are in a strange position in that they can get (basic) residency just by showing their passports as long as they don’t have criminal records,” he said.

"But on the other hand having de facto permanent residency - for many of them there is no path to citizenship."

Although initial access to Australia is easier for Kiwis than for other nationals, Professor Markus said those that wanted citizenship needed to take extra steps such as an income test, otherwise they face poorer migration and welfare outcomes.

“It's a huge issue for the Kiwis in Australia who may have been living here for 20 years or so, and not having been able to get citizenship,” he said.

"That means there’s a range of social welfare benefits to which they’re not entitled - they can pay their taxes and whatever, but then not get a whole range of welfare benefits.”

Not a citizen? Not fussed

The citizenship take-up rate for Japanese people is even lower than those from New Zealand.

It takes four decades of living in Australia for the citizenship take-up rate to reach 50 per cent.

Japan does not allow its citizens to become dual nationals, so a Japanese migrant would have to choose between an allegiance to Australia or to their homeland.

Migrants from countries such as Norway, Denmark, Austria, Indonesia and Malaysia are also less likely to obtain citizenship. Like Japan, these countries traditionally do not allow dual citizens, even though the global trend is away from such restrictions.

Denmark has recently allowed dual citizens, and there are similar campaigns underway in Norway and Indonesia.

In the citizenship take-up ladder, England, Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the United States sit only narrowly above these countries.

Citizenship take-up by migrants from these countries hits a ceiling of around three in four - even if arrivals are tracked back to the first half of the twentieth century.

Dual citizenship is allowed in all of these countries, although US-born may lose their citizenship when they become Australians if they have “intention” to give up their US nationality.

Professor Markus said becoming Australian wasn’t a priority for some within this group of arrivals.

“The majority do embrace Australian citizenship, but there will be a minority who will be equivocal, and don’t actually see any immediate benefit to them,” he said.

"Say voting - a lot of people don’t want to vote.

"(At focus groups) you find people saying 'the last thing I want to do is vote, that’s not what I am here for’."

The test and its rewards

The government wants to change citizenship laws to make it more difficult for migrants to become Australians, but already millions of locals eligible for citizenship either cannot or do not take up the offer - despite the benefits.

There are seven practical benefits of becoming a citizen according to the SBS Punjabi language program

  • Hassle-free travel and re-entry
  • Excellent consular support while overseas
  • Federal government and defence jobs
  • Becoming a politician
  • Visa-free travel to 169 countries
  • Financial assistance for education
  • Protection from deportation

Under the government's proposed test, people will have to have lived in Australia longer and have better English proficiency than before in order to pass.

Community groups and experts have expressed concern about the new laws, but the government is adamant they are important for the community’s safety.

The Labor Party argues that the reform will create an “underclass” of non-citizens, made up of people who can’t pass the updated test.

Some aspiring Australians find the current citizenship test difficult enough.

In 2014-15, the last year where statistics are available, 114,109 people sat the Australian citizenship test and 112,474 passed.

That leaves more than 1500 applicants whose citizenship aspirations were dashed that year.

The level of success in the test has remained relatively stable in recent years. In 2014-15, 98.6 per cent of people passed the test, compared to 98.7 per cent in 2013-14, and 98.3 per cent in 2012-13.

For those that failed, there wasn't previously anything to stop them sitting the test again, but the government now wants to limit applicants to three attempts every two years.

Taking pride in citizenship

At the other end of the scale to Japanese and New Zealanders, citizenship take-up is high among arrivals from some other nations - despite language difficulties.

Of the group of migrants who arrived between 1976 and 1985 and still do not speak English, 6100 are Australian citizens, compared to fewer than 300 who are not citizens. At 94 per cent, the citizenship take-up rate for this group is more than three percentage points higher than the rate for those who arrived at this time who speak English very well.

Around two thirds of this migrant subgroup from the 1970s and 1980s are from China, Vietnam and Cambodia: all countries from which Australia accepted a large numbers of refugees during this time.

Research from the government in 2011 identified there was a large variation in the take-up rate of Australian citizenship by country of birth and immigration group, "with persons from countries with lower economic or civil opportunities, and refugees in particular, being more likely to take-up Australian citizenship”.

Almost all migrants from the Balkan states of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo and the African country Eritrea who arrived in the late 1990s and early 2000s - countries which experienced war during this time - have taken up Australian citizenship.

Monash’s Dr Markus said some groups have a “real incentive to gain citizenship as soon as possible”.

"They may really take pride in being Australian, moreso than people from some of these other Anglo countries,” he said.

"They appreciate Australian democracy."

The pattern repeats going back through the decades: Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Syria in the early 1960s and Israel in the years following World War II have delivered migrant cohorts with extremely high citizenship rates.

This article has been updated to clarify a comment from Professor Markus.