The migration sector has voiced concern as the processing times for Australian citizenship applications have blown out amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Figures from the Department of Home Affairs show 75 per cent of applications for citizenship by conferral now take 23 months – up from 16 months last June.
Ninety per cent of these applications are completed in 25 months compared to 20 months a year ago.
A department spokesperson told SBS News the pandemic had affected processing.
“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all face-to-face citizenship appointments, such as interviews and citizenship tests, have been placed on hold. This has meant an increase in overall processing times,” the spokesperson said.
“The department will recommence in-person interviews and citizenship tests when it is safe to do so,” they said, adding that new applications are still being accepted.
But Carla Wilshire, CEO of the Migration Council Australia, said the numbers were unacceptable, even with the constraints of a pandemic.
“Once people go down the pathway of citizenship, a lot of decisions are put on hold until that citizenship comes through … It’s important we give them certainty as quickly as possible,” she said.
“Getting those waiting times down is critical in terms of really managing people’s sense that their lives are progressing and they are able to make decisions going forward around their commitment towards Australia.”
“Particularly during COVID, where people have a lot of generalised anxiety and feel a sense of insecurity, I think it’s really important that we take measures to … ensure resources are put to use to give citizenship as quickly as possible.”
It is a point echoed by Melbourne-based migration agent Kirk Yan.
“I haven’t seen the government offer a reasonable or acceptable explanation for the long processing times … They can’t explain why it takes two years,” he said.
“For citizenship, as long as you meet the requirements of a permanent resident, you are supposed to get it granted if you pass the citizenship test and the character or identity checks … I don’t know why it takes such a long time for the department.”
He said the latest rise in wait times left many of his clients anxious.
“The current situation has meant lots of people are waiting, just to get information or a response,” he said.
The sector has also pointed to climbing wait times as one reason why the demand for Australian citizenship is dropping.
Clearing the backlog
But even as wait times have gone up, the government has managed to address the backlog of citizenship applications this financial year.
The department spokesperson said during the year 2019-20, up to 22 May this year, 175,304 people were granted Australian citizenship – up 56 per cent on the same period last year.
Over recent months, it has been done via virtual citizenship ceremonies.
More than 750 people have received citizenship through online ceremonies each day since they began, and up to 22 May, more than 16,800 people received citizenship this way.
The latest backlog figure is now 123,727 applications, compared to 221,695 a year ago.
But Migration Council Australia’s Ms Wilshire said this number was “still significant by historical standards”.
“During COVID, there is so much insecurity as people are losing that sense of being able to visit their country of origin and connect with family as global movement is decreasing,” she said.
“I think that affirmation of being part of the Australian community is psychologically quite important for our migrant communities.”
People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits. Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia.
If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. The federal government’s coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone’s app store.
SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.