Citizenship crackdown 'could punish vulnerable migrants'

The Turnbull government's proposed changes to citizenship laws, including tougher tests and a focus on social cohesion, could unfairly punish vulnerable migrants, community groups have warned.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton unveiled tough new hurdles for prospective Australians, including a stricter English language requirement and an "Australian values" test. Applicants would also face a longer wait before being eligible for citizenship.

Mr Turnbull has challenged Labor to back the changes, framing it as a test of belief "in the values that have made Australia the remarkable nation that it is".

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten dismissed the Prime Minister's "desperate" challenge and renewed focus on immigration as politically motivated. However, he suggested Labor was open to supporting some of the proposals, including the English language emphasis and increased waiting period.

The new citizenship test could ask applicants whether they think female genital mutilation, family violence and arranged marriages are acceptable.

Joe Caputo, chairman of the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia, said the government needed to avoid "an assumption that people from diverse backgrounds have values that are contrary to so-called Australian values". He said important values - and problems - were not limited to specific ethnic groups.

Mr Caputo, who came to Australia in the 1970s, said his mother had very limited English because she had migrated in her 40s and spent a lot of time at home looking after the family.

"Every migrant knows that, unless you speak English in this country, you will not go very far," he said. "So every migrant knows that English is extremely important. The question for us is what sort of opportunity we give when people arrive to learn English."

Mr Caputo said that the citizenship test - which can be attempted only three times under the new proposal - risks being an arbitrary measurement that does not recognise a commitment to human rights and capacity for contribution to the community.

He said "people do feel singled out" and tests could "unfairly target" vulnerable migrants, such as refugees. He called for improved migrant education and settlement support.

Mr Turnbull said English proficiency was necessary to succeed in Australian life and that the values-based test was proposed "because it's important to reinforce our values".

Before a full briefing, Labor questioned the necessity of some measures, and asserted the renewed focus on immigration was about shielding the government from right-wing populist challenges from former prime minister Tony Abbott and Pauline Hanson's One Nation.

On Tuesday, the government announced it would abolish 457 temporary worker visas and replace them with a program that includes stricter language requirements and labour market testing.

Mr Shorten said the proposal was "about Malcolm Turnbull desperate to save his own job", but committed to consideration of the proposals.

Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said it was "a little odd" to ask people if they would obey the law regarding family violence and female genital mutilation when they had already pledged, as part of the citizenship process, to obey Australian law.

One Nation leader Pauline Hanson praised the Prime Minister for "finally acting on the suggestions I made to him about the citizenship test".

Carla Wilshire, chief executive of the Migration Council Australia, said some elements of the package, especially the English language requirement, could be "problematic".

"Particularly for vulnerable sections of the migrant community, particularly for those from a refugee background," Ms Wilshire said.

"People from refugee backgrounds often come after prolonged periods in camps and can be illiterate in their own language, and we're bringing them here for humanitarian reasons."

Ms Wilshire said there were positives in the statement of Australian values, but speculated that the integration requirements - compelling applicants to provide proof of employment, school enrolment and community contribution - could be difficult to implement.

"The emphasis should be on settlement services, including the Adult Migrant English Program and broadening its capacity to teach new migrants. But we should also keep in mind that many new migrants, in order to support their family, will choose employment options which limit their capacity to learn English," she said.

"We do need to look at increasing the level of cultural orientation we provide to new migrants, particularly around issues such as gender equality and access to justice."

Keysar Trad, the president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, also questioned why the citizenship changes were needed.

"We want to support freedom of religion and the female education, and the safety of both the female and male members of the community, but it is very clear from the list [of changes] that the Prime Minister is appealing to the least-informed section of the society, and he's pandering rather than being constructive," he said.

Refugee Council of Australia's CEO chief executive Paul Power said tougher English language standards and a limit on citizenship test attempts would discriminate against refugees, particularly older ones.

With James Massola

The story Citizenship crackdown 'could punish vulnerable migrants' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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