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Under the Coalition government, the processing of citizenship paperwork has increased to often upwards of 300 days, causing a huge backlog of applications and infuriating refugee groups. By Santilla Chingaipe.

Delays in citizenship applications

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton.
Credit: AAP Image / Dan Peled

Just days after Hakeem al-Araibi was released from a Thai prison in February, he travelled to Canberra to meet Scott Morrison. Photos were taken, footballs were signed. “We are so pleased you are here now and that you can come and live your life here in Australia,” Morrison told the refugee footballer. Just weeks later, al-Araibi was granted Australian citizenship at a public ceremony in Melbourne, attended by both the prime minister and the foreign minister, Marise Payne. The trio posed for photos as the Pascoe Vale defender proudly displayed his newly acquired citizenship papers.

But refugee advocates claim al-Araibi’s citizenship application should have been processed by the Department of Home Affairs before he left for his Thailand honeymoon.

Asher Hirsch from the Refugee Council of Australia says al-Araibi was eligible for Australian citizenship in 2017 and submitted his application last year.

“Had his application gone through in a timely manner according to law, he would have had his application done in about three months, which would have been before he went to Thailand,” Hirsch says. “Then he would have had diplomatic protection from Australia and been able to return back to Australia.”

Hirsch argues that al-Araibi’s case illustrates the delays in processing citizenship applications plaguing Home Affairs.

The acting deputy secretary of the department’s immigration and citizenship services, Luke Mansfield, this week fronted senate estimates and revealed that more than 200,000 people are now waiting for their citizenship applications to be processed.

“The number of citizenship applications on hand, as at 24 March, 2019 … is 228,154. That’s for applications for citizenship by conferral,” he told the senate committee.

The staggering figure was largely overshadowed by revelations on Monday that Home Affairs head Peter Dutton lunched with Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo, who paid lobbyist Santo Santoro tens of thousands of dollars to set up the meeting, according to a joint investigation by Four Corners and Nine newspapers.

But it comes just weeks after a damning report by the auditor-general found that the processing of citizenship applications, which once typically took about 80 days, has stretched to, in many cases, more than 300 days under the Coalition government.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) review found that decisions on applications for citizenship by conferral – the majority of citizenship applications – by the Department of Home Affairs have been declining. Meanwhile, lodgements have continued to pile up. On-hand applications – those waiting to be processed – increased by 771 per cent during the past four years.

ANAO calculated that in the past financial year, just 15 per cent of decisions occurred within the 80-day window. In 80 per cent of cases, it took up to 337 days from lodgement – more than four times the former standard. Department documents reveal that refugees are waiting an average processing time of 682 days. By contrast, the wait for skilled migrants is 383 days to acquire citizenship.

The audit office found that Home Affairs has not been time- or cost-efficient when processing citizenship applications. Its report says delays are marked by significant periods of inactivity, evident in both complex and non-complex applications that are accepted by the department for processing.

“It’s outrageous that the Liberals have not taken action to clear the backlog,” said Labor’s spokesperson for citizenship and multicultural Australia, Tony Burke. “Why does Peter Dutton, and the Liberals, want to stop people making a pledge of allegiance to Australia?”

But Home Affairs argues it is trying to address the backlog.

In senate estimates, Mansfield said decisions on citizenship applications this year have already exceeded the total number of decisions made last year.

“In 2017-18 there were 101,422 decisions made for applications of citizenship by conferral. This year, to 24 March, there have already been 110,929,” he said. “So, we’ve already exceeded that total.”

ANAO’s review came after various groups, including the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Refugee Council of Australia, raised concerns about the delay in the processing of applications by the department.

Over the past few years, there have been many attempts made by the Coalition government to tighten citizenship criteria. In 2017, the Turnbull government proposed, among other things, to toughen the citizenship test and introduce stringent English language requirements, as well as a prolonged waiting period for permanent residents – from the current 12-month wait to four years – before they could apply for Australian citizenship.

While many of the amendments to the legislation have been unsuccessful, they caused widespread panic among permanent residents who scrambled to lodge applications for citizenship. The auditor-general’s report found an increase in the number of applications lodged per month between April 2017 and June 2018 correlated with the timing of those proposed changes to the citizenship requirements.

Asher Hirsch says the review vindicates what the refugee council had long suspected, but he argues the delays go further back. “These delays started even before they thought about introducing tougher new laws on citizenship,” he says. “We saw delays happening in 2015.” It’s his belief the delays are politically motivated.

Information obtained by the refugee council in 2017 through the Freedom of Information Act showed most applicants awaiting Australian citizenship outcomes were from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq, and had submitted their applications in 2015 or 2016.

“The Federal Court challenge that we conducted found that the department actually put refugee applications in a drawer and failed to look at them for over 12 months,” he says. “So rather than have additional checks on the applications, the department just simply froze applications from people that arrived by boat or other refugees. We think this was a deliberate attempt to try to deny refugees their right to citizenship as a further deterrent or further punishment.”

According to Hirsch, the department has had a policy, which was introduced by then immigration minister Scott Morrison, to put applications by people who arrive by boat for family reunion processing at the lowest processing priority for family reunion visas.

“This means that if someone arrives by boat and wants to bring their family here, they will never get a family reunion application through, as they are the lowest priority,” he adds.

Mohammad Al-Khafaji, chief executive of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, agrees that citizenship has become a battleground in Australia’s immigration debate.

“We know that citizenship has been politicised in the past,” he says, “and the delays in processing people’s citizenship has put a lot of pressure on families and has prevented people seeing their sick parents and people who don’t have much time left with their relatives just to ensure that them being outside of the country doesn’t affect the processing of the visas and citizenship status.”

To become an Australian citizen, migrants and refugees are currently required to have lived in Australia as a permanent resident for at least four years and pass English and citizenship tests, as well as undergoing character and security assessments.

In its response to the ANAO report, Home Affairs said it disagreed with the findings that the processing of citizenship applications has not been done efficiently. It said the number of citizenship applications being refused has doubled over the past five years because of increased security and character assessments.

“The department dedicates significant resources to addressing these national security, community safety and program integrity risks and notes that cases with adverse indicators take a disproportionate level of effort and time to resolve, often requiring the assistance of various other agencies and partners,” said Home Affairs.

Of ANAO’s three recommendations, the department has fully agreed to only one – revising the funding model for citizenship activities that is based on updated activity levels and efficient costs.

But for Mohammad Al-Khafaji it comes too late. “The damage has already been done,” he says. “Our national character has already been tainted. We gave the message that we are not a very welcoming society unless you come from countries that are quite wealthy or you speak very good English.”

Al-Khafaji questions why law-abiding permanent residents who have connections to Australia are being made to wait up to 21 months to become Australian citizens.

“ ‘We will determine who becomes Australian.’ This goes against who we are as Australians,” he says. “We like to boast about our successful multicultural society – this goes against all of that.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 13, 2019 as "Waiting games". Subscribe here.

Santilla Chingaipe
is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.