The government has ceased processing citizenship applications from boat-arrival refugees entitled to become Australians, leaving hundreds in limbo. By Abdul Karim Hekmat.

Secret freeze on refugee citizenship processes

For years, Rahim, an Afghan Hazara, waited to become an Australian citizen. Deemed a refugee and granted residency, and having lived in the community for the requisite four years, he passed the citizenship test and received a letter from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection saying, “On behalf of the Australian government and the people of Australia, I am pleased to inform you that your application for Australian citizenship has been approved.” He was given a date to attend a citizenship ceremony at a local council. Rahim did not own a suit but, feeling excited, he bought one.

“I counted every minute and hour of it all these years. I was very happy that the wait was over,” he says. “It’s a pride for me to become Australian citizen. As a Hazara, I don’t have a good experience in my country. The Taliban killed us because of who we are and how we look. I hope this would be a new identity and new life.”

There was another reason Rahim was jubilant. As a citizen, he could finally bring his family to Australia, which places boat arrivals at the lowest priority for family reunion under the directive of former immigration minister Scott Morrison. Citizenship is also the only truly durable protection that can be offered to a refugee.

“My family was excited too when they heard I will become Australian citizen. Then I could bring them here. It’s safe here, you know,” Rahim says. “They are worried to be killed every day there [in Afghanistan].”

A day before his ceremony, Rahim received a phone call. It was from the Immigration Department, telling him that his citizenship ceremony was cancelled for tomorrow. He was told he would receive another letter soon. He was given no explanation. All he could think was, “What wrongs have I done?” Ten months have passed and he has not received another letter. “When I call the department, they don’t give me any reason, just saying, ‘It’s under process – wait,’ ” he says. “I don’t know what the problem is. They don’t tell me what my crime is.”

Rahim is one of dozens of refugees with permanent residency who have told The Saturday Paper that their citizenship ceremonies were delayed or cancelled without explanation. One refugee whose ceremony was cancelled eight months ago said: “I got a text message and email [from the department] saying that my citizenship has been scheduled in error – please do not attend the ceremony as you won’t be given citizenship certificate.”

1 . Common thread is boat arrival

After being alerted to the widespread delays in awarding citizenship for refugees, the Refugee Council of Australia began an online survey to find the patterns. Since it was launched two weeks ago, more than 160 refugees have responded, saying their citizenship is not being processed. A further 50 people have attended the council’s offices to raise their concerns.  

“The common thread between these people is that the vast majority of them arrived seeking protection in Australia by boat,” the council’s chief executive, Paul Power, says. “The evidence we have collated suggests this denial of citizenship for those who arrived by boat appears to have started around the time the present government was elected. We have contacted the minister for immigration to clarify if there has been a change of policy, because nothing on this front has been made public. He has not responded as yet.”

Power continues: “Citizenship for someone who has been forced to flee their home and seek protection as a refugee has profound psychological and emotional benefits. We would strongly encourage the minister to ensure this cohort of people are freed from their legal limbo.”

It’s not only the refugees who are kept in the dark about the delay, but refugee rights groups and legal services. Jemma Hollands, a senior solicitor from Refugee Advice and Casework Services, says: “It’s quite new to us and the department is not telling as to why it’s happening. [Refugee clients] are not told the reasons and they are not given any meaningful explanation by the department of immigration as to why the delay is happening.”

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection refused to say if any permanent residents who arrived in Australia by boat had been granted citizenship in the past six months. They would not say whether or not the ceasing of citizenship processing was a policy directive. “Some applications will take longer to process while identity and other assessments are undertaken,” a spokesperson said. “The department is implementing a range of measures in response to the Australian National Audit Office report into identity in the citizenship program. The additional measures – including an increased use of identity and biometrics capability, enhanced client interviews and requesting more documentation where appropriate – will strengthen the integrity of citizenship processing.”

According to the Refugee Council survey, the majority of the delays in citizenship approval are felt by Hazaras who originally arrived by boat. One said: “We escape from the Taliban and the whole world knows the Hazaras suffer because of terrorism. I don’t know why the Australian government keep our application on hold for security check or other reasons. Our case has been checked before when we granted a [permanent protection visa] and why they do it again? We have not done anything wrong.”

Refugees who have spoken to The Saturday Paper said only those who arrived by boat had their citizenship application delayed. Those who came through family sponsorship received their citizenship in the same time period.

“This issue has risen in relation to refugees who have arrived by boat,” Hollands says. “That’s not to say it’s not happening to somebody else, but according to our experience it’s happening to people who arrived by boat. We have not come across any other people.”

Paul Power agrees. “If the immigration minister has implemented a policy that is depriving permanent residents from accessing their legal right to citizenship because they arrived seeking protection by boat, it would appear to be a discriminatory practice.”

2 . Department denials

But the department denied singling out boat arrivals, saying: “…each citizenship application is assessed individually and on its own merits. All applicants for Australian citizenship by conferral must meet the legislative criteria, regardless of how and when they arrived in Australia.” They attributed any delays to “increased volumes of citizenship the department has been experiencing for some time.”

The department said it “currently meets its service standard of processing 80 per cent of conferral applications in 80 days”. However, most of those who spoke to The Saturday Paper have waited between eight months and two years. The average time for those who participated in the Refugee Council survey is 267 days, more than three times the department’s time limit.

Many refugees who have been granted permanent residence in Australia live under a cloud of uncertainty as to when they will receive citizenship or be asked to sit for a citizenship test. Without citizenship, they have none of the rights it confers and face the real threat of having their residency revoked. “We live in limbo. God knows what’s going to happen to us,” says another refugee. “They [the Australian government] deport us or keep us here. We don’t know and always live in fear.”

One Iranian refugee, who has been waiting for his citizenship ceremony since late 2013, says the department will only tell him his application is “under process”. The uncertainty leaves him tormented. “This has robbed me of my sleep at night. I can’t go to work some days. I am lost and don’t know what to do.” He worries about the partner he left in Iran three years ago. “My fiancée thinks I am a liar when I tell her, ‘I will come next week, I will come next month or next year.’ She does not believe me anymore. I fear I would lose her. The department should tell me, they give me [citizenship] or not, not put me in this uncertain situation indefinitely.”

David Manne, the director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, says one refugee aided by his organisation has been waiting for more than two years to receive citizenship “The delay in the citizenship, despite having a legal entitlement to it, is quite inexplicable and unjustifiable.” 

Heather Marr, a migration agent and refugee advocate in Western Australia, made a freedom of information application for one of her clients who had been waiting for his citizenship for nearly two years. “This [delay in citizenship] is part of a process, that the department and the minister revisit the decision to punish those who came by boat,” she says. “There is a sheer incompetence in his case officer’s part that could not read his file and a whole page was missing from his file when assessing his application for citizenship.”

The Saturday Paper spoke to another refugee who made his application for citizenship in June. The money for this application has been taken from his bank account, but he has heard nothing more. “They did not send me a confirmation letter that they have received my application.”

Recently, when Rahim called the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and insisted on being given an answer or reasons for the delay, his case officer said, “It’s out of my hands – you need to contact the higher-up people within the department.” Rahim responded: “I don’t know any higher-up people. Please help me.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 5, 2015 as "Secret freeze on refugee citizen rights".

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