Letter Published In The Age 30 April 2008

Teach Instead Of Test By Peter Van Vliet

Let's offer refugees classes about their new home rather than exams.

The effect of the former Howard government's higher-level citizenship test has been absolutely as predicted: educated skilled migrants, who today make up the great bulk of our immigration program, are passing the test easily. But some refugee groups from non-English-speaking backgrounds, such as those from Sudan, are experiencing failure rates of around 25%.

The decision by Immigration Minister Chris Evans to review the test, is therefore to be welcomed.

The test was always going to be difficult for people with lesser English language skills, who these days are mostly refugees from Africa and Asia. The previous test simply required people to demonstrate basic spoken English whereas the new computerised test requires higher-level English reading, comprehension and computer skills.

For recently arrived refugees who may have spent a lifetime in a refugee camp and may still be illiterate in their own language let alone in English, these skills may not be immediately achievable.

Now, many people are simply not sitting the test because they are afraid they will fail, a situation reflected in the substantial reduction in the number of test applicants.

The minister has also informed us that some refugees are not sitting the test because they are afraid of being deported. This fear is not quite as absurd as it sounds because one of the important rights of citizenship is the right not to be deported. Fail the test and you've basically confirmed you don't have the important rights and responsibilities that most of us take for granted.

The Rudd Government has recently announced social inclusion as its key social policy issue. This has created genuine excitement in the community sector as we grapple with the types of strategies, targets and measures we can develop to overcome social disadvantage and ensure equal opportunity for all.

But surely one key measure is that you can't be socially included if you don't have citizenship. You can't be socially included if you can't help decide who represents you in Parliament, if you can't work in our public service, serve in our armed forces, get access to some of the benefits only available to Australian citizens or perform the mutual responsibilities that we expect from our fellow citizens.

The recent debates around citizenship as channelled through the citizenship test arose from the growing, and sometimes legitimate, concerns about the need for greater social cohesion in Australia and the desire to ensure that all Australians understood the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

These are laudable goals. However, the new higher-level citizenship test has hindered rather than helped us attain them. The new test has excluded people who would otherwise make fine Australian citizens on the basis that they haven't quite learned English yet (think of the many Greek and Italian-Australians who helped build this country who would never have become citizens under this test).

The test has made outsiders of people who should be insiders. It has also downgraded the hugely important place of citizenship to sometimes trivial questions about our recent history.

There is a way out of the citizenship conundrum that the newly appointed committee should consider — that is through a teaching rather than a testing policy for applicants from refugee or family reunion backgrounds who have poor English language skills.

The much smaller refugee and humanitarian component of our immigration program was always going to have problems with a higher-level computerised test. Rather than test them and create exclusionary barriers that have disastrous consequence for them as individuals and, more broadly, for Australia's reputation, let's create a teach rather than test exemption for this special-needs category.

Applicants could take classes on the important role of citizenship, on Australia and its people (including an introduction to basic English skills) and when these are successfully completed, they could be conferred with Australian citizenship, without a test being necessary.

In this way Australia would no longer be in breach of its humanitarian obligations to provide our refugees with citizenship (which is actually a core human right under article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). It would also give our refugees the chance of new hope and a new start rather than the continued uncertainty and hopelessness of being stateless.

Our larger category of skilled migrants would continue to take the current test and no one would be the worse off.

Citizenship is not just about rights and responsibilities, it's an affirmation of belonging. It allows you to travel unhindered with a valid passport, to visit dying loved ones overseas or to attend cultural or religious pilgrimages and return home safely. It's about being able to call Australia your home rather than your residence.

Akoch Manheim of the Sudanese Lost Boys Association said it is hard to "truly express how it feels for a stateless person to receive the privilege of Australian citizenship in a country like Australia. An approximation might be the experience of a person who has battled a serious illness, experiencing the borderline of death, only to recover and resume full health. Citizenship is a gift from God of priceless value." It is only when you talk to people who have been non-citizens that you begin to understand its immense significance.

Reflecting on Australia's national anthem recently, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said: "You've got verses like: For those who come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share. That should be the resolve of any Australian government, unlike the one that we replaced, which seemed to pull up the shutters when it came to our proper international obligations, particularly to refugees who found themselves in real strife."

These were words that gave heart to many people working with migrants and refugees who had previously been used to very mixed messages about the intrinsic value of the migrants and refugees who help make up this country.

Removing the discriminatory barriers from the new citizenship test would be a great place to start if we want to achieve a truly inclusive Australia.

Peter van Vliet is the executive officer of the Ethnic Communities' Council of Victoria.

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2008/04/29/1209234860115.html

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