Caution urged on UK-inspired citizenship reforms

Caution urged on UK-inspired citizenship reforms

 (11 June 2015)

The Abbott government is attracting increasing scrutiny of major citizenship reforms. Two key changes take their inspiration from recent UK reforms.

The first is terminating citizenship for foreign fighters. The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, will have the power to strip Australian citizenship from dual nationals fighting with terrorist groups under proposed changes. But a more extreme measure giving the Minister power to revoke Australian citizenship rendering someone stateless has been put to community consultation.

Dutton has said Australia must modernise its laws to bring them closer to the UK and other key partners. But this comes at a cost. Australia and the UK are signatories of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 15 states that “everyone has a right to nationality.” Rendering individuals stateless would appear to violate the UDHR.

This may be a cost some might believe worth paying. But the fact is trying to force open such a dangerous legal loophole on principle is unlikely to make much difference in practice. The UK has stripped citizenship in a few cases, but the benefits of this policy remains unclear. Perhaps we’ll never know.

It’s important that the public have confidence in the government’s policies. But we should always avoid winning favour with the crowd by cutting off the few. Unless substantial benefits can be tangibly shown, creating statelessness may breed bigger trouble ahead.

A second key UK-inspired change the Abbott government pursues is the introduction of English tests for new citizens. It’s crucial to promoting integration that migrants learn English whether in Australia or England.

Australia should be cautious in how closely it follows the UK. Britain has required formally that all new citizens know English for over 100 years. However, English skills were not incorporated into any test until more recently.

The UK reformed its regulations almost two years ago to tighten its policy. The level of satisfactory English all must demonstrate was raised and this will make it more difficult to qualify for citizenship.

The new English language rules are subject to about a dozen exemptions. Some of these are reasonable for children, persons over 65 years of age or victims of domestic abuse.

But the problem is that others are not. There are blanket exemptions for nationals of countries or holders of degrees taught in English that are no guarantee that those persons will meet the new standard.

The lesson Australia can draw from this is to introduce an English language test subject to fewer restrictions, and show the UK how it should maintain a more fair and consistent policy.

The UK has come a long way in reforming its still highly complex immigration rules. But it has much more to do. The UK benefited from adopting Australia’s points based system and Australia can learn from the UK in return. But opening the door to creating statelessness and enforcing English tests for some, but not others are two British mistakes that none should copy. Australia can and should do better.