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Why Are We Making It So Hard To Call Australia Home?

These measures seem to be aimed squarely at the 30,000 or so 'illegal maritime arrivals' who have come to Australia in search of protection as refugees.

22/06/2017 4:18 PM AEST | Updated 22/06/2017 4:18 PM AEST
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Australia -- a multicultural make-up?

Australia has long enjoyed an almost unique ability to control who comes here and how.

Perhaps in recognition of how difficult it was to get here for much of the last century, the policy was to accept as permanent residents and de facto citizens any (white) person of good character who could show that they had been in the country for five years or more.

When Australia finally acquired a Citizenship Act -- in only 1948 -- we accepted as citizens anyone born in the country. We accepted all children found abandoned here and we accepted all children physically present during the first 10 years of their life. While birth-right citizenship was qualified after 1986, the concessions made for children persisted.

One by-product of this inclusive approach -- and of our strong border controls -- is that Australia has never had a large population of irregular migrants.

There has never been a need in this country for America's DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act), or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy introduced by President Obama. DACA has improved the status and rights of millions of irregular migrant children who know no home apart from America, but who are nevertheless barred from full participation in U.S society.

The need for and worth of the DACA policy is seen in President Trump's quiet decision to abandon plans to abolish the measures. Inasmuch as we look to America, there is more than a little irony in moves to change our citizenship laws so as to build and exclude a new generation of irregular migrant children, including those recognized ultimately as refugees.

Proposed amendments to our citizenship laws ... would delay and impede the acceptance of many migrants as Australians who choose to make this country home.

While the media has focused on proposals to introduce stringent new language and 'Australian values' tests for aspiring citizens, my concern is with the changes that would dramatically alter the rights of migrant children born or living in Australia.

The amendments would exclude from citizenship children born in Australia (and ordinarily resident for 10 years from birth), who were an unlawful non-citizen at any time during those 10 years. They would exclude those who entered Australia without a visa and those who were born to parents who did not hold a substantive visa at the time of their birth.

A provision deeming citizenship in foreign children found abandoned in Australia is also slated for change. The concession would no longer apply to a child who it could be proved 'was outside Australia at any time before they were found abandoned'.

These measures seem to be aimed squarely at the 30,000 or so 'illegal maritime arrivals' who have come to Australia in search of protection as refugees since 2010. Importantly, it targets the children of these refugees and asylum seekers.

At a time when concerns rage around the radicalization of disaffected foreign youth by terrorist movements, it is mystifying that the government is proposing measures that would deliberately alienate a whole generation of de facto 'Australians', born and bred.

The children affected by these changes know no other home apart from Australia.

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International law may recognise the right of nation states to determine questions of nationality, but in Refugee Week, we must remember that state parties to the Refugee Convention undertake not to penalize refugees who enter the territory of receiving states without permission.

It is one thing to target adults who dare to enter Australia in search of protection, but not children who had no agency whatsoever in the manner of their arrival in this country.

I share the concerns expressed by many to other proposed amendments to our citizenship laws which would delay and impede the acceptance of many migrants as Australians who choose to make this country home.

The measures aimed at the children, however, deserve particular condemnation. We should learn from America's experience -- it is never in the national interest to build a society on division and inter-generational exclusion.

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