Citizenship changes ‘divisive’, ‘upsetting’

Bendigo’s refugee community are feeling increasingly vulnerable following the federal government’s decision to strengthen Australian Citizenship requirements, a local Karen community leader argues, saying many don’t have the English skills required to pass a new test. 

The major changes, which were introduced into federal parliament recently, include a university-standard English test, and increasing the residency requirement from one to four years. 

Karen leader Venerable Ashin Moonieinda said the 1000-strong local refugee community were “very upset” with the proposed changes.

“A lot of the community don’t have high levels of English – they don’t do much reading and writing,” he said.

“It will make it very hard to pass the test.”

For many local Karens who came from the Thailand-Burma border, Australian Citizenship was the pinnacle, given many had never had any form of citizenship, or belonging, Venerable Moonieinda said.

Loddon Campaspe Multicultural Services executive officer Kate McInnes said the proposals, which have been publicly opposed by Labor and the Greens, were concerning and highly exclusive.

“It’s sending a message that not everybody is welcome and it (if legislation is passed) will effectively exclude many people,” she said.

Entrants to Australia are currently entitled to 510 hours of free English lessons, which are provided locally by Bendigo Kangan Institute.

The new changes would effectively force people to go to university to learn academic English in order to pass the test, Ms McInnes said. 

“People from a refugee background really appreciate and value that citizenship,” she said, adding elderly humanitarian entrants were of greatest concern. 

According to recent census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1773 people born overseas settled in Bendigo from 2011-2016, which was a 25.2 per cent increase from 2011, and was much higher than Australian (8.8 per cent) and Victorian (10.7 per cent) rises. 

The data also showed almost 2000 more people spoke another language at home since 2011 (up 61.9 per cent), with Karen, Mandarin and Italian the top three dialects.

The Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment bill is currently at the second reading stage, meaning members of parliament have not debated or voted on the proposed legislation.