Australia: Federal Court decision on citizenship delays good news for refugees waiting years in limbo

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Australia (Dec 17, 2016): On December 16, the Federal Court ruled that delays by the Department of Immigration and Border Security (DIBS) in making decisions on citizenship were “unreasonable”, prompting hope for people with refugee backgrounds in a similar plight. 

One litigant said: “This may set an important precedent for individuals in similar circumstances.”

Acting CEO of Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) Tim O’Connor said the decision was a “landmark ruling” which recognised the “injustice” citizenship delays had caused. 

This case “provides hope for 10,231 people that the department confirmed were in similar situations,” he said. 

Under the aegis of RCOA, the case was brought by two Hazara men, known to the court as “BMG16” and “BMF16” in July this year. 

Hazaras persecuted

The Hazaras are one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world. They continue to be victimised in their homeland and neighbouring countries where they have sought refuge. 

On November 21, a crowded Shia mosque in Kabul was attacked after worshipers gathered for the annual Shia observance known as Arbaeen. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack which resulted in 32 deaths. This is one of several attacks the Hazaras have experienced this year alone.

Last month in the Kabul Shrine attack, a gunman killed 14 and wounded at least 30 other Shia Muslims, the majority being Hazaras. 

It is no wonder then that many Hazara refugees who have fled to Western countries such as Australia are eager to reunite with their families in their adopted countries through sponsorship programs. 

But many refugees who came by boat claim they are being discriminated against by the government, especially in the issuance of citizenship test dates and the subsequent citizenship ceremony. They say the government is doing everything it can to penalise them in the process of naturalisation.

Citizenship delays

Shafa Ali Rajabi, a Hazara, came to Australia by boat in 2010 and sought asylum. He passed his citizenship test in May 2014. DIBS claims “80%” of Australian citizenship applications are processed within “80 calendar days”. But Rajabi’s application has been in process for more than 918 days. 

On numerous occasions, Rajabi contacted the department requesting an explanation for the protracted citizenship application delays.

“Each time I called, the department merely advised me that my application was still in process and that I needed to wait,” he said. “I asked them, do you require any documents which I have not provided. But they [the Department] say no, we have all documents required. 

“After I passed my citizenship test, [the Department] said I would be called for a ceremony within six weeks. I called after six weeks and they said I needed to wait a further six months.

“I waited another six months, but didn’t receive any notice from them. So I called again. They repeated yet again, wait another six months. Over two and half years has gone by. I just don’t know what to do.”

He is one of thousands of individuals who are in a similar quandary. They have passed their citizenship tests and 80 calendar days have well and truly elapsed, but they are yet to be called for a ceremony.

In a report published mid-year, RCOA found that the overwhelming majority of individuals experiencing citizenship application delays were refugees who came by boat and held Onshore Protection Visas. 

The same report also disclosed that refugee visa holders experienced not only delays in citizenship ceremony but also delays in being provided a citizenship test date. 

Ramazan Ali Jafari, a Hazara artist and construction worker, said “20 months” has passed but “the department has yet to provide me with a date for my citizenship test”. 

Jafari said he contacted the department three times. “Each time, they said my application is in process, and the security check has yet to be completed. They have not provided me with a satisfactory response at all. It is almost unbelievable that a security check can take nearly two years.” 

‘Disturbing pattern of delays’

David Manne of Refugee Legal, said there has been “a disturbing pattern of delays” in citizenship applications of permanent refugee visa holders. 

“There appears to be no legal basis for these inexplicable and unjustifiable delays and impediments, given the clear-cut citizenship laws,” he said. “It raises serious questions about the government acting lawfully and in good faith.” 

Earlier this year, the chief executive of RCOA Paul Power said: “This is a deliberate ploy by this government to further punish boat arrivals … it’s horrible, absolutely horrible.” 

Manne said “Rather than welcoming and embracing this fundamental act of refugees in desiring to symbolise their full commitment to membership of the Australian community, the government responds in such a way as this.”

Mental distress

Barat Ali Batoor, a renowned Hazara photographer and community advocate, said: “The citizenship delay is the cause of anxiety and depression for many Hazaras in the community.”

Consultations with mental health professionals substantiated this claim in the RCOA report. One psychologist said: “In summary, the prolonged delays in processing of applications for citizenship, particularly in the case of 866 visa holders is causing acute and severe mental distress.”

Like most refugee visa holders, Rajabi and Jafari fear for their families’ safety, who as Hazaras continue to face persecution and discrimination. Pakistan is repatriating thousands of Afghan refugees back to their war torn country as part of the country’s new national refugee policy. 

Jafari said: “As my children were born and reared in Pakistan, if the Pakistani government expels them to Afghanistan — on account of not possessing the required legal documents — then my family would be devastated.

“Firstly, we — the Hazaras — are targeted by fundamentalist groups in Afghanistan. And secondly, my children are not acquainted with the language and tradition of that land [Afghanistan].” 

Jafari, whose art has been exhibited at Mildura Arts Centre, said he often resorted to drawing, writing poetry and calligraphy as means of overcoming his anxiety and depression which emerged following his citizenship test delay. 

He said drawing initially acted as a catharsis for him but does not work anymore. He is on several medications to treat anxiety and depression.

“The medication bag has become like that of a supermarket grocery bag. Each time I go [to the GP], they change my medications and prescribe new ones because of my stress and sleeping problems. Such is the situation my life has been reduced to,” he said. 

Rajabi and Jafari said they are beholden to the Australian government and its people, but their families are dwelling in precarious conditions which in turn are causing them profound torment. 

As the attacks on Hazaras continue, the Federal Court decision provides a chink of hope for many refugees stymied in citizenship delays. 

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