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Pauline Hanson’s bill to increase minimum residency requirements and impose a harder English language test for would-be Australian citizens has been rejected by a Senate committee last Friday. The latest attempt to make it harder to become an Australian citizen comes as the government spends nine million dollars employing more staff to deal with a citizenship application backlog of hundreds of thousands.
Abby Dinham, Presented by
Manpreet K Singh, Ruchika Talwar

18 Mar 2019 - 6:09 PM  UPDATED 19 Mar 2019 - 4:39 PM

Biak Thwang Urai lives in a modest home in Melbourne’s west, with his wife and six children. 

Arriving home from his job at a local daycare centre, three-year old Junenasen and five-month old Steven are there to greet him in the driveway.

This, he says, is heaven. “The feeling as I arrived - I thought this is the first (sight of) heaven. We are very happy.”

Mr Urai fled Myanmar in 2006. 

He had been badly beaten by soldiers from the Burmese army after they had taken him as a porter, and he'd become sick and was unable to work. 

He says they threatened to kill him and ransacked his home. 

For five years he waited in a refugee camp in Malaysia until he was finally granted asylum to come to Australia. 

He says he still worries that, at any time, officials could turn up and ask him to leave. “I worry that sometime the department will come and knock at the door and they’ll say you need to go back to your country.” 

In 2015 Mr Urai applied for Australian citizenship so that the worrying could stop, but the forms were sent back. 

He applied again in 2017 and again last year, with the department requesting birth and marriage certificates that don’t exist. “We don’t have certificates because in my village there is no computers, everything no computer. My birth happened in the kitchen, not the hospital, it was very far away in the city.” 

Obtaining replacement documents is difficult and costly, a challenge faced by many refugees. 

Western Melbourne Chin Community President Patrick Sang Bawi Hinh says he’s aware of many in his community facing the same struggle. 

“At least one thousand people have applied to become a citizen in the last two years and I don’t know of anyone who has been granted citizenship.”

In April 2017, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a citizenship crackdown, sparking a flurry of new applications. 

But applications were frozen as the department waited for new eligibility criteria, including a tougher English test, to come into effect. 

The reforms failed to pass the Senate, leaving a backlog over 240,000 citizenship applicants by the mid 2018 - more than double the 2017 waiting list. 

Patrick Sang Bawi Hinh says the Chin community just want to give back to Australia. “We are good people. We are going to become very good citizens, we feel we owe it to the government and to the Australian people. We are here to do a good thing, to support the country to grow.” 

Last financial year, just over 80,000 people were conferred Australian citizenship (80,649 to be precise) compared to almost 137,750 the year before. 

Refugee Council of Australia Chief Paul Power says it’s in the best interests of integration to encourage new arrivals to become citizens.  “We actually want everyone who's in the country to feel like they're fully a part of the country. That should be a policy goal for our political leaders to see as many people living in Australia who actively want to take up Australian citizenship.” 

The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, David Coleman, states that “the Government will always work to make the system as functional and effective as possible.” 

He also added that the government “makes no apologies for ensuring only those who meet our security and character requirements are given Australian citizenship.” 

The Immigration minister says nine million dollars is being invested into recruiting and training extra staff to deal with the backlog, and as a result over 85,000 were approved in just the last eight months.

However, the immigration department has not confirmed to SBS how many more applications are still waiting to be processed, with parliamentary documents suggesting over 200,000 would-be Australians remain in citizenship limbo.  

Paul Power says the wait can have a detrimental effect on refugees who have already faced the trauma of upheaval from their homeland. “It means a lot, and we can see again and again, that it’s a very important - often final - step in their journey from persecution to permanent safety.”  

And for Biak Thwang Urai, his journey has a new sense of urgency: his father is ill and is requesting a final visit. "He is not well, I want to see and pay respect. That's why I need citizenship.” 

Without citizenship he cannot apply for a passport and, after four years of waiting, he doesn’t know if it will come through in time.

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