The number of Chinese-born residents being granted Australian citizenship has plummeted, amid a backdrop of tensions between Beijing and Canberra and political debate over immigration levels.
Department of Home Affairs data obtained by Fairfax Media shows just 1559 Chinese-born residents have been granted citizenship during the first eight months of this financial year – a fraction of the 6500 successful Chinese applications in 2016-17.
In previous years, up to 10,000 Chinese-born residents applied for Australian citizenship, of which 8000 to 9000 were approved.
Between 2012 and 2016, residents of Chinese heritage represented 6 per cent of total applications for Australian citizenship and 6 per cent of total approvals. But the Home Affairs figures show that while the number of Chinese applications has remained steady, the number of approvals fell to less than 3 per cent of applicants between July 2017 and February 2018.
While the figures represent only two-thirds of this financial year, approvals would have had to escalate at a dramatic rate in the remaining third to go even close to matching previous years.
Over the same period, Indian approvals rose from 15 to 18 per cent of all nationalities, while British hopefuls also experienced a spike from 14 to 16 per cent. South African approvals were up from 3 to 5 per cent.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week delivered a speech designed to help repair the relationship with China, which has been damaged by claims of growing Beijing influence in Australia’s political, academic and military interests.
But members of the Chinese community have questioned whether the foreign influence row has damaged the citizenship process.
“I’ve lived here close to 45 years and this would be my worst two years I have ever experienced,” said Hong Kong-born Sam Wong, a former principal pharmacist at the Department of Health who was awarded an Order of Australia for services to multiculturalism in 1999 and is the chair of the Canberra multicultural forum.
“The only thing I hope is that [the lower level of citizenship approvals]is not because of this current unfortunate foreign policy tension between China and Australia.”
Immigration has been in the spotlight this year following demands from some conservative MPs to lower the annual intake. The government has also tried to tighten the citizenship application process but the plan has stalled in the Senate.
Concerns over Chinese influence peaked in May after Liberal MP Andrew Hastie used parliamentary privilege to accuse a prominent Chinese-Australian businessman and generous political donor of bribery. The allegation came months after high-ranking Chinese politicians avoided meeting with Australian ministers as the Turnbull government pushed tough new foreign interference laws.
The Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, Alan Tudge, declined to comment on the figures. His office referred questions to the department, which declined to provide updated country approval figures to June 30.
A Home Affairs spokeswoman said “the department does not place ‘restrictions’ on granting citizenship to people of certain backgrounds”.
Chinese-born Melbourne resident Zoe Ma has been waiting 17 months for a verdict on her citizenship application. She delayed a visit home to see her elderly grandmother because she said applications are suspended when an applicant goes offshore. Her grandmother died last month.
“I’m so sad and upset,” she said. “No one can tell me how long it is going to take.”
Permanent residents who are yet to become citizens are unable to apply for public sector jobs, access HECS-HELP student loans, or get priority access to sponsor their family members for visas. They are also ineligible to vote in federal elections.
Fairfax Media on Thursday revealed the citizenship backlog had blown out by 300 per cent, but a new leaked presentation from the Department of Home Affairs shows the problem could be much worse.
There are now 241,606 people waiting to be approved for citizenship as of the end of June, up from 188,848 in February. This latest peak represents a a 425 per cent increase on the 45,985 waiting when Mr Turnbull came to power in 2015.
Security screenings on would-be citizens have been ramped up inside the Department of Home Affairs. The government blames the delays on Labor for admitting up to 50,000 refugees, some of whom arrived without documentation.
Labor MP Julian Hill, whose party was thrown into turmoil by former senator Sam Dastyari’s relationship with Chinese donors, questioned the Liberal Party’s approach to Chinese citizens.
“The enormous, mysterious drop in citizenship approvals for permanent residents from China raises serious questions which the minister must answer,” he said.
The Australian National Audit Office is set to hand down its investigation into the citizenship process in January.
By Eryk Bagshaw