Australian Citizenship Test

Submission by the Human Rights And Equal Opportunity Commission to the Australian Citizenship Test Review Committee

 

5 June 2008

 

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
Level 8, 133 Castlereagh St
GPO Box 5218
Sydney NSW 2001
Ph. (02) 9284 9600



A: Introduction


1. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) welcomes the Minister’s decision to appoint an independent Australian Citizenship Test Review Committee (the Committee) to consider the content and operation of the Australian citizenship test (the test) since its introduction in October 2007.

2. HREOC has previously provided two submissions on the citizenship test: first in September 2006 to the Citizenship Taskforce of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship in response to the Discussion Paper on citizenship testing (Australian Citizenship: Much More than Just a Ceremony), and second, in July 2007 to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing Bill) 2007[1]. In both submissions HREOC indicated that it did not support the introduction of a citizenship test by the preceding government. However, in the event that a test was implemented, the submissions provide comments on the legislative framework for a citizenship test and guidance on the content and implementation of the test. HREOC encourages the Committee to have regard to these submissions. Indeed many of the comments below are based on HREOC’s previous submissions recast to respond to the Terms of Reference of the current review and the government’s report on the operation of the test in its first 6 months of operation entitled Australian Citizenship Test: Snapshot Report, April 2008 (the report).


B. Summary

3. A human rights approach to citizenship requires that States have a legitimate purpose in implementing measures that might disadvantage particular groups of people because of their language, their national or social origin or their birthplace.

4. Applicants from Non-English Speaking Background (NESB) and with low literacy levels are disadvantaged by the test in its current form. Such applicants are not able to enjoy to the same extent as others the benefits of being an Australian citizen, including employment in the public sector, protection from deportation or having the ability to travel as an Australian citizen.

5. HREOC’s present submission is mainly directed to improving the test so as to minimise the negative impact that it is having on particular groups of people based on their language, their national or social origin or their birth. In this regard it is recommended:

  • that the content and the format of the test should be modified to diminish its discriminatory impact;
  • that alternative procedures and exemptions from the eligibility criteria be provided in appropriate cases;
  • that support services be extended to improve the capacity of applicants from NESB and refugees to pass the test, including human rights programs and education; and
  • that safeguards be provided for applicants who fail the test.

C. The human rights framework

6. A central concern in HREOC’s submission to the Citizenship Taskforce in 2006 was that there was a real prospect that the proposed citizenship test would have a discriminatory impact on people applying to be citizens on the grounds of language, national or social origin and/or birth[2]. HREOC was concerned that a NESB person was likely to be at a disadvantage in passing an English test compared with a person from an English-speaking background.  In addition, a person from a developed country was likely to have higher literacy levels and therefore be at an advantage in passing a formal written test compared with a person from a less developed country.

7. Based on an analysis of the international law jurisprudence concerning a State’s obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) it was submitted that because of the likelihood that the test would breach these conventions, the government must ensure that the proposed test is:

  • pursuant to a legitimate aim;
  • proportionate to achieving its aims; and
  • based on reasonable and objective criteria.

8. HREOC further submitted that while the government’s justification for supporting the introduction of a citizenship test satisfied the above criteria, there was inadequate evidence that the citizenship test would achieve its stated goals. The goals as set out in various places in the government’s Discussion Paper were:

  • improving participation by people seeking to become citizens in the Australian community;
  • building social cohesion and integration;
  • maximising economic benefits for individuals and society; and
  • promoting an understanding of the meaning and opportunities of citizenship.[3]

9. The available evidence on the operation of the test since October 2007, including that set out in the government’s report substantiates the concerns expressed in HREOC’s submission to the Citizenship Taskforce that the introduction of a citizenship test would have a discriminatory impact based on language, national or social origin and/or birth. Further there is no evidence in the report that the test has succeeded in achieving its aims as set out in the Discussion Paper in 2006 and as indicated in the Terms of Reference for the current review.


D. The discriminatory impact of the test


10. The available information on the Citizenship Test shows evidence of the following:

  • There has been a fall in the number of people applying for citizenship since the test was introduced in October 2007. In the 6 months since the new test came into operation, 25,067 people applied for citizenship. This is lower than the comparable period from October-March in any year for the last decade, when the number of applications ranged between 35,889 (1999-2000) and 75,757 (2006-2007)[4].
  • Applicants under the Humanitarian Program have failed the test at a much higher rate than other applicants[5].
  • Applicants from non-English speaking countries, like Afghanistan and Iraq, are not able to gain Australian citizenship as readily as other applicants who are born in English speaking countries[6].
  • Computers and information technology represent an obstacle to some groups gaining citizenship[7].

11. The above findings confirm HREOC’s initial concerns that the test is having a discriminatory impact on NESB applicants. Applicants with low levels of English literacy are also disadvantaged by the test.

12. The report also indicates that refugees are being disadvantaged by the requirement of a formal test. This finding suggests that people with low levels of English literacy have failed the test at a higher rate than other more literate applicants, such as those in the skilled migration stream and applicants from mainly English speaking backgrounds.

13. These disparities are likely to be exacerbated if the level of English required to understand and therefore pass the test is above a basic English standard. Petro Georgiou’s submission sets out the views of linguistic experts Professor Ingrid Piller of Melbourne University and Professor Tim McNamara of Macquarie University that the current test exceeds a basic English standard.

14. Applicants disadvantaged by the test in its current form are not able to enjoy to the same extent as other applicants the benefits of being an Australian citizen, including employment in the public sector, protection from deportation or having the ability to travel as an Australian citizen.

E. Achieving the purpose of the test

15. As indicated above, a human rights approach to citizenship requires that States have a legitimate purpose in implementing measures that might disadvantage particular groups of people because of their language, their national or social origin or their birth.

16. The clearest identification of the goals of the citizenship test is contained in the 2006 Discussion Paper and these are outlined above. The documentation supporting the present review (the Terms of Reference, the Report, and the Minister’s media release dated 28 April 2008) does not specifically delineate the current government’s objectives in relation to the citizenship test, although reference is made in the Terms of Reference to broad goals such as: ‘encouraging people to find out more about our great nation’; helping citizens understand ‘the responsibilities and privileges which being an Australian citizen brings’; and providing a ‘mechanism for determining whether a person meets the general legal requirements for becoming an Australian – including whether they possess a basic knowledge of the English language’.

17. The report on the operation of the test to April 2008 does not indicate that the goals set out in the 2006 Discussion Paper of increasing participation in the Australian community and building social cohesion and integration are being met. To the contrary the report shows that the number of people applying for citizenship since the introduction of the test has decreased compared with the same period in the previous year when the test was not in operation.

18. The current review provides an opportunity for the present government to reconsider and clarify what it is seeking to achieve from the citizenship test and whether, in view of its discriminatory impact, the test is the best way of achieving these goals.

19. If the test is not the best way of achieving these goals then, as recommended by HREOC in its previous submissions, the test should be withdrawn and other mechanisms for bringing about these goals should be considered. Some alternatives to a formal written citizenship test are discussed below.

F. Improving the operation and effectiveness of the test

20. The following comments and recommendations are directed to improving the test so as to minimise the negative impact that it is having on particular groups of people based on their language, their national or social origin or their birthplace. They are based on submissions that HREOC has previously made in relation to the citizenship test.

1. The content and the format of the test should be modified to diminish its discriminatory impact.


21. There are two areas in which the content and format of the test should be reviewed to diminish its discriminatory impact.


  • The linguistic complexity and the cultural specificity of both the test and the resource booklet should be reviewed to ensure that they do not present barriers for certain categories of persons seeking to become citizens. Failing to answer questions about Sport for example is neither indicative of a person being a good citizen, or necessary for citizenship[8].

In relation to this issue HREOC supports the submission made by Petro Georgiou[9] to the Committee that the Minister should seek the advice of experts in the fields of linguistics and cross-cultural communication to ensure that the linguistic and cultural content of the test does not exceed the requirement for becoming a citizen under the Australian Citizenship Act, 2007 that applicants have ‘a basic knowledge of English’[10].

  • The introduction of computer facilitated testing could create difficulties for applicants who do not have the necessary computer skills and dexterity, for example, the elderly and those from developing countries. In order to minimise the risk of the proposed test having a disparate impact on groups of applicants, assistance in basic computer skills should to be provided. Alternatively, the format of the proposed testing should not be exclusively on-line, but could include more traditional types of testing, such as in paper form and through interview[11].

2. There should be provision for alternative procedures and exemptions from the eligibility criteria in appropriate cases.

22. The Report indicates that applicants under the humanitarian program are particularly disadvantaged by the test. HREOC has recommended in its previous submissions that the legislation establishing the test should provide for alternative procedures to overcome this disadvantage. These alternative procedures are outlined below.

  • HREOC has submitted that provision for an interview with an officer of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to assess the legal requirements of becoming an Australian citizen may overcome the discriminatory impact of the citizenship test. This alternative procedure could be conditional upon the applicant sitting and failing the written test (either once or on a number of occasions) or could simply be triggered by an application to the Minister. In exceptional cases, it might also be appropriate for the Minister to waive the testing requirement altogether for a particular applicant[12].
  • The government could provide that the completion of a language and information course would satisfy the requirements for becoming a citizen for those otherwise unable to sit the test. If the government were to implement such a course, it would need to ensure that non-citizens are provided with appropriate services and assistance to attend the course[13].
  • Another possible alternative is to offer the chance for applicants disadvantaged by the test to gain citizenship through an interview process. Within an interview, an applicant could be tested for English proficiency and given the opportunity to provide supporting evidence of participation and integration in the community, for example, employment records; certificates for completed courses; evidence of involvement in community activities, associations and projects; volunteer work; and referees[14].
  • HREOC has also recommended that there should be provision for the following groups to be exempt from testing: children[15]; refugees[16]; people on family re-unification visas[18] (if the family is still in Australia); people who marry in Australia; people whose children, or grandchildren are born in Australia; and, older applicants, incapacitated persons, and long term residents[19].

Refugees, by their very definition, do not have effective protection of their original nationality and it is therefore imperative that they have access to a new nationality. Article 34 of the Refugee Convention requires Australia to take steps, ‘as far as possible, to facilitate the assimilation and naturalisation of refugees’[20].


HREOC has submitted that, should a formal citizenship test be introduced, steps should be taken to protect the family unit in accordance with Article 23 (family life) of the ICCPR[21]. In addition, Article 10 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) emphasises the importance of family reunification. All family members should be entitled to citizenship without all having to pass the proposed test[22].


The government should ensure that the failing of a citizenship test would not lead to statelessness, in accordance with the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons[23].

23. In order to accommodate these alternative procedures the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 would need to be amended so as to give the Minister discretion to allow such procedures to take place. Details on how this might be done are included in HREOC’s submission to the Legal and Constitutional Committee[24].

24. The recommendations above follow the procedures adopted in Canada in which allowance is made for a person to demonstrate compliance with the eligibility criteria by undergoing an interview with a citizenship judge as an alternative to formal testing[25]. Moreover, the Canadian legislation also provides the Minister with a discretion to waive the eligibility criteria on ‘compassionate grounds’[26].A further discretion is granted to the Governor in Council to direct a grant of citizenship where there are circumstances of ‘special and unusual hardship’ or to ‘reward services of an exceptional value to Canada’[27]. The Canadian legislation also provides that before a citizenship judge rejects an application for citizenship, the citizenship judge must consider whether or not to recommend an exercise of discretion on these grounds, namely compassionate grounds, special and unusual hardship or exceptional value to Canada[28].

25. Similarly, in New Zealand, the Citizenship Act 1977 allows the Minister to grant citizenship to the applicant if the Minister is satisfied that granting citizenship ‘would be in the public interest because of exceptional circumstances of a humanitarian or other nature relating to the applicant’[29].

3. Support services should be extended to improve the capacity of applicants from NESB and refugees to pass the test, including human rights and education programs.


26. HREOC submitted that, in order to advance its stated aims of enhancing the skills, employment and participation of new citizens, the government must ensure that citizenship applicants are provided with appropriate services to assist them to pass the proposed test[30].

27. HREOC has also submitted that, as part of the implementation of the test, the government should embark on an education program both for applicants of the test and for the broader society about human rights and responsibilities. Education in human rights would be particularly helpful in assisting applicants to understand the Australian values that are identified on Page 5 of the resource booklet Becoming an Australian Citizen.

28. In addition, such a program would be consistent with the aims of the World Program for Human Rights Education and the activities that have taken place and are planned to take place under that program in Australia. The first phase of this program is the development of resources for human rights education in schools[31]. Many of these resources can be adapted to a range of audiences and in a range of languages.

29. Such a program would further advance the aim of promoting mutual respect between diverse cultures, whilst acknowledging the contribution that migrants and refugees make to Australia. To develop this, funding for specific programs to change community attitude, combat prejudice and discrimination against all Australians would improve opportunities for new Australians to gain meaningful employment[32].

4. Safeguards for applicants who fail the test


30. HREOC has previously submitted that the citizenship test be accompanied by a clear and effective right of appeal, including the possibility of full merits review. This is important for ensuring that persons whose rights and freedoms are violated by the test or its application have access to an effective remedy, as required under Article 3 of the ICCPR[33].



[1] These submissions are available on the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s website at http://www.humanrights.gov.au/racial_discrimination/citizenship/index.html
[2] The International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and Articles 2 and 26 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) prohibit discrimination on the above mentioned grounds. For more detail see Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s (HREOC) submission to the citizenship taskforce, Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs on the discussion paper: Australian citizenship: much more than just a ceremony September 2006, (Submission to Citizenship Taskforce), paragraphs 4, 5, 6 and 7.
[3] See HREOC’s submission to the Citizenship Taskforce, pp 6-8.
[4] The data provided on request by Department of Immigration and Citizenship to the office of Petro Georgiou MP. See Petro Georgiou, The new citizenship test Submission to the Citizenship Testing Review Committee, 22 May 2008, p 22.
[5]Australian Citizenship Test: Snapshot Report, April 2008, p 5.
[6]Australian Citizenship Test: Snapshot Report, April 2008, p 10.
[7] This concern arose from HREOC’s consultation with Liverpool Migrant Resource Centre on 14 May 2008.
[8] On the nature of the test questions see HREOC’s submission to the citizenship taskforce, paragraph 36.
[9] See Petro Georgiou, The new citizenship test Submission to the Citizenship Testing Review Committee, 22 May 2008, p 5.
[10] Sub-section 21(2)(e)
[11] See HREOC’s submission to the citizenship taskforce, paragraph 37.
[12] See HREOC’s submission to the citizenship taskforce, paragraph 27.
[13] See HREOC’s submission to the citizenship taskforce, paragraph 28.
[14] See HREOC’s submission to the citizenship taskforce, paragraph 30.
[15] See Article 2 of The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states: ‘State parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child’s parents, legal guardians, or family members.’
[16] See Article 34 of the Refugee Convention states: ‘The Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings.’
17 See Article 23: ‘The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.’
[18] See Article 23 the ICCPR: ‘The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.’
[19] See HREOC’s submission to the citizenship taskforce, paragraph 44.
[20] Article 34 states: ‘The Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings.’ See HREOC’s submission to the citizenship taskforce, paragraph 46.
[21] Article 23 states: ‘The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.’
[22] See HREOC’s submission to the citizenship taskforce, paragraph 47.
[23] Article 32: ‘The Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of stateless persons. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings.’ See Commission’s submission to the citizenship taskforce, paragraph 48.
[24] Paragraphs 34 and 35
[25] See description of test procedures at: http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/citizenship/cit-test.asp 
[26] Citizenship Act R.S., 1985, c. C-29, s 5(3).
[27] Citizenship Act R.S., 1985, c. C-29, s 5(4).
[28] Citizenship Act R.S., 1985, c. C-29, s 15.
[29]Citizenship Act 1977 (New Zealand), s 9(1)(c).
[30] See HREOC’s submission to the citizenship taskforce, paragraph 41.
[31] See http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0014/001478/147853e.pdf
[32] See HREOC’s submission to the citizenship taskforce, paragraph 52.
[33] See HREOC’s submission to the citizenship taskforce, paragraph 52.