One in 10 people waiting to become Australian citizens face delays of more than two years

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images

Latest figures show applicants face average wait of 13 months as Covid impacts citizenship processing times

Prospective Australian citizens are routinely waiting more than a year for their applications to be processed, with one in 10 experiencing delays of at least two years, latest figures show.

As more than 16,000 people prepared to become citizens with hundreds of citizenship ceremonies being held around Australia on Wednesday, the federal government faced fresh criticism about the backlog in processing applications.

“Today, thousands of people will become Australian citizens, an occurrence of great joy to them and of great benefit to our nation,” the opposition’s spokesperson for multicultural affairs, Andrew Giles, said.

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“But it is unacceptable that too many people are waiting too long for their journey to Australian citizenship to be finalised.”

The average processing time for citizenship by conferral was 13 months from date of application to the decision, a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said.

The latest departmental figures show some of these applications take two or more years, with 90% of applications processed within 24 months.

The department had on its books 144,847 applications for Australian citizenship by conferral as of last month, down from a peak of 163,000 in September 2020.

Giles, who is also the shadow minister assisting for immigration and citizenship, said the long processing times showed “an ongoing lack of interest by the Morrison government in who we are as a multicultural nation”.

He said citizenship gave people the right to be heard at the ballot box and it was “appalling” that nearly 150,000 people were “being denied their chance to have their say” at the looming federal election.

“Through the pandemic there has been a great opportunity to clear the unacceptable backlog yet the numbers remain unacceptably high even now,” Giles said.

“This is hurting individuals and damaging our social fabric as people are denied belonging and denied their say. It’s not good enough.”

The Department of Home Affairs said Covid-19 risks and restrictions continued to disrupt face-to-face services, such as citizenship test appointments, “to varying extents in different locations over time”.

“The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on face-to-face client services means processing times are highly variable across the country,” a spokesperson for the department said.

They said applicants who lived in places that faced longer periods of disruption due to the pandemic were “now waiting significantly longer for a citizenship test appointment than others”.

“The department continues to work on increasing citizenship test availability, to decrease the on hand caseload and reduce processing times, while ensuring Covid-safe requirements are met,” the spokesperson said.

“Citizenship test appointments continue to be available in every state and territory through January 2022, with appointment numbers being reviewed regularly.”

As of 31 December 2021, two-thirds of approved applicants had, at that time, been waiting less than six months to attend a citizenship ceremony.

More than 314,000 people across Australia have acquired Australian citizenship through online or in-person ceremonies between January 2020 and December 2021.

That figure includes 133,416 people who have become citizens via online ceremonies since the virtual option was introduced in March 2020.

More than 16,000 people from about 150 nations were invited to join one of more than 400 citizenship ceremonies on Wednesday. The government has encouraged councils to conduct online citizenship ceremonies if Covid-19 restrictions prevent in-person ones.

Wednesday’s figure of 16,000 compares with 25,422 people who were conferred with citizenship at ceremonies on Australia Day 2020 – a month before the Morrison government declared a pandemic.

There were 12,561 conferees on Australia Day 2021, including 826 in online ceremonies.

The minister for immigration and citizenship, Alex Hawke, said citizenship ceremonies were “an opportunity to welcome new citizens and celebrate the democratic values that make us proud to be Australians”.

Hawke, who presided over a citizenship ceremony at the City of Parramatta Council, said Australia Day “holds special significance for hundreds of thousands of people who previously made the Australian citizenship pledge on this day”.

“Choosing to become an Australian citizen means embracing the privileges, rights, and responsibilities that come with Australian citizenship, and committing to our national values that are based on respect, freedom, democracy and equality.”

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Processing times have jumped around throughout the course of the pandemic. In August 2020, 90% of applications for Australian citizenship by conferral were decided within 28 months – an increase from 21 months at the beginning of 2020.

The processing times were beginning to improve at the start of 2021, when figures showed 90% of applications were being decided within 17 months. But that figure has now increased again to 24 months as of December 2021.

Apart from Covid-19 disruptions to citizenship tests, the Department of Home Affairs argues factors that can affect processing times include how promptly the applicant responds to requests for more information.

The department also cites the time it takes for other agencies to assist with character and national security-related checks.

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