I was leafing through a 2011 report, Citizenship in Australia, published by the then Department of Immigration and Citizenship, and saw the “citizenship rate” for people born overseas in the 2006 Census was 68 per cent [This rate excludes tourists and business visitors but includes people on longer-term temporary and permanent visas]. I haven’t seen any analysis on the most recent Census so decided to have a quick look.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a six percentage point drop in the citizenship rate for people born overseas in the 2016 Census, down to 62 per cent. Six per cent does not sound like a large figure but it translates into about an extra 230,000 people.
This is unsurprising for a number of reasons. The growth in temporary and permanent migration from 2006-2016 was pronounced and citizenship take-up doesn’t happen immediately. This means there were more recently arrived migrants in Australia for the decade to 2016 compared to 2006. But we also know there are growing rates of people who are hold temporary visas for long periods of time, intending to become permanent residents and citizens but frustrated by the visa system. In November 2016, there was a three-fold increase to 46,000 in the number of people who held a temporary visa [excluding New Zealand citizens] who had been in Australia for 7-8 years, compared to just three years before in November 2013. Further, changes in citizenship policy (including the introduction of the citizenship test in 2007) may have had a negative effect on take-up rates.
But regardless of whether this is expected or not, the decline in citizenship rate for people born overseas is disturbing. Australian democratic norms demand an inclusive franchise and the current trajectory mean we are seeing the opposite emerge over time. This is an issue in need of attention from political actors and civil society. An expansive population of non-citizens has broad implications for our society.
It is worthwhile dwelling on how and why this trend has emerged. There is no citizenship safety net for people migrants to Australia who have lived here for a long time. It is a formal process, with eligibility criteria, and relies on a sequence of residency decisions. Temporary visa holders cannot become citizens without first gaining a permanent visa.
There are two groups who stand out. In 2016, there were around 86,500 people born in Australia who are not citizens. It’s difficult to even call these people migrants given they are born here. Just over 70,000 of these people were children. This figure has more than doubled since 2006, when it was 39,600, with 27,500 being children. These numbers are staggering in their size and trend.
Sometimes it surprises people when they find out children born in Australia are not automatically Australian citizens. This was the case until the Hawke Government changed the law in the mid-1980s. Now, a child becomes a citizen only if at least one of their parents is a permanent resident or citizen. A child born to two people who hold temporary visas is granted the same visa as their parents. There is a safety net for children born in Australia, the ’10 year rule’, where if a child born in Australia remains in Australia for 10 years, they automatically become a citizen. By the look of the Census trends, this rule is more relevant today than ever before.
The second group is people born in New Zealand, one of our largest migrant origin countries, dropped from a 37 per cent citizenship rate in 2006 to 31 per cent in 2016. There are structural visa policy barriers to citizenship for New Zealanders in Australia. These barriers are unlikely to be removed by either side of politics given they exist to prevent fiscal welfare expenditure.
The rise of non-citizen children born in Australia and New Zealand citizens living in Australia restricted from citizenship raise important case studies for how our society is shaped and who is allowed full membership. The introduction of the citizenship test in 2007 was the first instance since the 1980s where gaining citizenship was made more difficult. In the years since, the prevalent rhetoric from political leaders is how citizenship is a privilege, one which is earned.
But this is only half the compact, the responsibilities of the potential citizen to the State they wish to join. The other half, equally important, is how the State sets the rules and rights of access. While our visa rules have changed, Australia has failed to also adjust citizenship rules. We have moved too far away from a set of conditions that welcome a critical mass of people living in our society to be full members, to be citizens. In an age where security and fiscal austerity drives citizenship policy, the rules affecting the vast majority of people who do the right thing are now an unfair burden, including on children who have no agency to change their lived experience.