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Australia Considers Controversial Citizenship Tests


Australia is considering adopting controversial citizenship tests for immigrants. New settlers could be quizzed on their understanding of Australian cultural values as well as their English language skills. The country's conservative government believes the system would help immigrants fit into society and improve their job prospects. Critics says such a test would be unnecessary and discriminatory.

Multicultural Australia is home to people from many different countries. At this suburban shopping center in Sydney you are as likely to hear conversations in Arabic, Greek and Vietnamese as you are in English.

This country has been transformed by half a century of mass immigration.

Kurander Sejit is a Muslim filmmaker based in Sydney. He believes that the idea of a citizenship test is a bad one.

"These potential tests will basically disadvantage those people whose first language is not English. And I think it's not fair to expect someone who has come here as an adult, who may be a fantastic engineer or a computer technician or something like that, but may not have the full capacity to speak English," he said. "I think it's going to disadvantage those people who for all intents and purposes could be great Australian citizens but may not be able to pass that test and I think we need to give them more support."

Members of Sydney's ethnic Vietnamese community are worried as well. Spokesman Thang Ngo says that compulsory citizenship tests could disadvantage desperate asylum seekers.

"I think it's going to penalize a lot of people especially those who come from a refugee background. The Vietnamese community is by far the biggest that we've had in recent years," he said. "And I've got to say when you're fleeing, you know communism or fleeing persecution, English would be the last thing you worry about in terms of language skills or in terms of any skills you might need."

The conservative government here argues that if newcomers want to actually seek Australian citizenship, they would then want and need to know what it means to be Australian. That would include key values like tolerance, individual freedom and equality for women.

Junior Immigration Minister Andrew Robb says that immigrants must be aware of these quintessential Australian characteristics.

"It's the glue that sort of welds this Australian family together," said Robb. "It's why a lot of them come here in the first place to have an understanding of the values, have some sense of customs and the laws."

One older Greek immigrant is an example of what the government is trying to change by requiring a citizenship test.

Mercer: How much do you think you know about Australian values and Australian history?

Gentleman: History

Mercer: Not much?

Gentleman: Nothing accept the Englands they come in and they kill the Aborigines and took the land. I think that's all I know.

The government's aim is to enhance social harmony and to avoid a repeat of last December's ugly race riots in Sydney. They pitted white gangs against young Lebanese Australians who have grown up with little knowledge of or respect for each other's way of life.

Not all immigrant families oppose Canberra's citizenship test proposal.

Roberto, a student whose mother is Greek and father is from Ecuador, says the test makes sense.

"I think it's a great idea. …it'll weed out people that are coming into the country for the wrong reasons," he said. "Because I think it's important whoever does come to the country tries to appreciate some of the values of what it means to be an Australian, I suppose.

Last year 98,000 people became Australian citizens. They came from 170 countries.

For many the road begins at the Immigration department in Sydney, where the lengthy process involves various security and character checks.

These prospective new citizens also believe that immigrants should be tested on Australian values and culture.

Woman:" I think it's good 'cos overseas people actually who are interested in migrating (to) Australia have a better understanding and have a better chance of actually joining into the whole culture."

Gentleman: "Every country has its own laws and rules and if you go to that country you live by the rules and laws and abide by them, I suppose."

Australia is looking at how other countries, like the United States and Canada, test the knowledge of prospective citizens as well as their competency in English.

Canberra is not likely to adopt the Dutch method where immigrants who fail a test three times are deported. Critics of the plan have insisted that the government here hasn't thought it through and have pointed out that many indigenous Australians do not speak English fluently.

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