The full text of proposed changes to citizenship laws has been revealed, prompting new concerns from legal and migration experts.
Details of the proposal to change citizenship laws have been revealed, including the granting of "extraordinary" powers to the Immigration Minister, and the possibility of rendering children born in Australia stateless.
Introducing the bill to parliament on Thursday, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the bill "reinforces the integrity of our citizenship program."
"This will help maintain strong public support for migration and the value of Australian citizenship in what is an increasingly challenging national security environment and complex global security situation,” he said.
The bill proposes to increase the residency requirement for citizenship from one year to four years, introduce separate English testing and require a demonstration of "shared values".
Dr Sangeetha Pillai from the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW said that under the proposed changes children born in Australia to non-permanent residents will lose the entitlement to citizenship at age 10 if:
- they have ever been present in Australia as an unlawful non-citizen,
- they have ever left Australia without a visa to return, or
- either parent did not hold a substantive visa at the time of their birth.
"This means that children born to people who have overstayed visas, or who have entered Australia seeking asylum, will lose their automatic entitlement to Australian citizenship,” she said.
According to the government, more than 30,000 “illegal maritime arrivals” came to Australia by boat in the years leading up to 2013, and many remain in the community.
"Children affected by the changes may still be able to make an application for citizenship, but if they are not successful they may be vulnerable to statelessness,” Dr Pillai said.
"There is a particular risk of this for children of asylum seekers, who are unlikely to be entitled to the citizenship of any foreign country.”
Mr Dutton stated on Thursday the bill "will not affect access to citizenship by children born in Australia to New Zealand citizens or children who are stateless", but it is unclear how the measures could apply in cases where a family with a child born in Australia is sent to another country.
Dr Joyce Chia, Director of Policy at the Refugee Council of Australia, was less concerned about the amendments affecting children. She said there were circumstances even now where a person born in Australia can remain stateless, but the current bill is unlikely to make "any real difference" to the situation.
Instead, she highlighted that the bill gave the Minister "extraordinary powers", including the power to determine what is ‘competent English’, to determine when a person is able to sit a citizenship test, and to reverse decisions of an independent merits review tribunal.
Law Council of Australia President, Fiona McLeod SC said the expansion of the Minister’s power to overrule independent citizenship decisions made by the AAT is "a disproportionate response that weakens crucial checks and balances."
"This new legislation effectively allows the Minister to override citizenship decisions or to render his own decisions unreviewable."
Dr Pillai also expressed concern that the Minister now has the power to revoke citizenship in cases of misrepresentation.
"For instance, it is possible where the Minister considers that a person has failed to act in accordance with the values tested for in the revised citizenship test, this may form the basis for citizenship revocation,” she said.
The government flagged the changes in an announcement in April, but only revealed the full text of the proposal on Thursday.
The Labor Party will meet on Tuesday to decide whether it will support the government's proposal.
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