Waiting for December 12


I’ve been helping an Iraqi friend prepare for the citizenship test. You may have heard about it 20 questions drawn from a possible 200 based on a 45-page booklet that seems to me overly focused on sport and military history. But maybe I’m biased, my interests lie elsewhere.

My friend arrived in Australia in 1999 and becoming an Australian citizen is something he’s dreamed about, yearned for. With dual Australian and British citizenship, I don’t see it quite the same way. Citizenship for me comes down to the convenience of being able to join the quick queue when returning to Australia from overseas. But for him and many of his fellow countrymen, an Australian passport symbolises safety, security, acceptance, belonging.

He arrived in Australia as an unauthorised boat person in November 1999, the month after the introduction of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs). Found to be a refugee, his TPV denied him access to benefits and rights enjoyed by other refugees, such as English language classes.

He was theoretically eligible for a Permanent Protection Visa (PPV) (and therefore English classes) in 2003. But a moratorium was placed on processing PPV applications for Iraqis. Our government hoped that with Saddam gone, Iraq would be safe enough for Iraqi TPV holders to return to their homeland. Enough said.

The moratorium was lifted around mid-2004. Like many other Iraqi TPV holders, he received his PPV in the latter half of 2005. It was only then that he could start marking off the two year residence requirement for Australian citizenship. The years living and working in the community with a TPV did not count. This meant eight years in Australia before being eligible for citizenship. For him, the magic date is 12 December 2007.

And here comes the rub. The new citizenship test was introduced in October, adding another obstacle to overcome. The only plus is that aspiring Australians can take the test in advance so that on the day their two years are up, they can lodge their application, having already fulfilled requirements.

If English classes had been available to TPV holders, all would be better placed to take the citizenship test. Now they are eight years older, working full-time and less able to attend and benefit from English lessons than when they first arrived. And if they’d been anything but Iraqi and not subject to a delay in the processing of their PPV application, they could have applied for citizenship under the old system before the test was introduced. Plus there is overwhelming evidence that TPVs have had a major impact on mental health, exacerbating previous trauma and affecting learning ability, concentration and memory.

I’d like to see a special dispensation for Iraqis who have been on TPVs based on their exclusion from English classes when they arrived and the unanticipated knock-on effect of the moratorium. They’ve suffered from the strain of uncertainty and family separation because of TPV restrictions. Furthermore, many are acutely distressed, concerned for the well-being of family still in Iraq or struggling to survive as refugees in neighboring countries. Few Iraqis in Australia have been untouched by the current troubles.

My friend dreaded sitting the test. It’s been hanging like a big black cloud over him since the new arrangements were announced. People are able to re-sit if they fail but what if they never manage to pass? Many Iraqis who struggle with English fear they will be in this position. No citizenship, no passport, no sense of safety or permanency in this country.

But for my friend, our preparation paid off. He sat the test and got 19 correct answers from 20 questions; the pass mark is 12. Roll on December 12.

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