Victoria Legal Aid

Strengthening a sense of belonging through citizenship

Hundreds of people from refugee backgrounds have been supported with citizenship applications so far – and we are ready to do more.

Tuesday 11 June 2024 1:04am

Citizenship means freedom and security. Freedom to travel. We won’t get stuck in another country. It also means we can vote in Australia. This is very important to me and my family.

My family and I met with Victoria Legal Aid in August. We filled in some forms and have been waiting for our Freedom of Information documents to be released. They have now been received so we can move to the next stage of our application. I am very happy. I know my application will be done properly and this is very good.

Mary (not her real name)

An evaluation of a pilot program supporting refugees in Melbourne’s west to apply for Australian citizenship has detailed the profound and positive impact it has had on people’s lives and outlined the benefits of continuing – and expanding – its work.

Led by Victoria Legal Aid in collaboration with WEstjustice and other partners in the western suburbs, the Youth Citizenship in the West project (YCWP) commenced in January 2023 through a Victorian Legal Services Board + Commissioner grant.

The YCWP was initiated to support people to benefit from citizenship and to help them feel included, valued and that they belong in our communities.

In less than 18 months, it has provided legal assistance to around 400 people seeking citizenship, reaching eligible candidates through now established and crucial networks with local schools and community groups.

Through the project, we identified several barriers preventing young refugees and their families from applying for citizenship, despite being eligible.

We have seen how the citizenship test requirements disproportionately create barriers for people from refugee backgrounds, including the high degree of English proficiency that’s required and the cost of applying.

‘There has been a shift from citizenship seen as a right, to citizenship seen as a privilege,’ explained Asher Hirsch, Senior Policy Officer at the Refugee Council of Australia.

‘People who don’t have reading and writing skills are disproportionally affected by the citizenship test.’

We have also heard from families who had believed being on a permanent visa to be sufficiently secure.

Sharing our knowledge and lessons so far

Our event speakers seated at the front of the room at the YCWP evaluation launch.
L–R: Victoria Legal Aid Migration Program Manager Sarah Fisher (at lectern), WEstjustice Youth Law Program Director Anoushka Jeronimus, YCWP Senior Lawyer Virajith Hewaarachchi, Wyndham Community Education Centre’s Eh Su and Refugee Council of Australia Senior Policy Officer Asher Hirsh.

In late April, we were honoured to be joined by many stakeholders and supporters at our Sunshine office to formally launch and discuss the lessons learned through the project, including WEstjustice, Brimbank-Melton Community Legal Centre, the Commissioner for Children and Young People, VLSB+C, Wyndham Community Education Centre, Melton and Wyndham councils and representatives from the Department of Justice and Community Safety and the South Sudanese Australian Youth Justice Expert Working Group.

The project evaluation found that YCWP exceeded expectations, demonstrating a clear need to continue the project beyond June 2024.

‘Acquiring citizenship is incredibly emotional and real to people’s lives,’ Victoria Legal Aid CEO Louise Glanville told the attendees.

‘We must continue to build evidence about why this project works.’

The evaluation also examined some key lessons from the past year, including the value of a flexible learning approach and the benefits of having a clearly articulated vision of working with partners and communities towards permanent availability of services.

The report contains five recommendations:

  1. secure further funding to scale up the project and potentially roll-out the model
    in other locations
  2. consolidate strategies to reach people facing the greatest barriers to accessing
    services
  3. consolidate and expand the capacity and knowledge of staff from partner
    organisations
  4. ensure a collaborative, reflective focus continues to be central to project
    design and delivery
  5. undertake more research and data collection regarding citizenship
    benefits and barriers.

Adelaide McGuire, a student support worker at River Nile School, who has helped some of their students to reach our services, said: ‘I loved the passion everyone who spoke had and the need for people's lived experience to inform programs and system change.’

Looking towards a brighter future

I felt that my experience as refugee was being heard and that there is a real push for policy change.

Edna (not her real name)

Originally funded through the Victorian Legal Services Board + Commissioner for 12 months, then through Victoria Legal Aid for an additional six months, funding options are now being explored to extend and expand the project beyond June.

‘In the time that we have been working alongside WEstjustice and others to provide this assistance, we have been delighted with the response,’ said Chelsea Clark, Migration Program Manager.

‘Too frequently we heard from young people that they thought the whole process to apply for citizenship was too daunting and they didn’t know how to start.
‘Having somewhere to turn can make all the difference.’

‘Over the past year, we’ve built valuable connections across communities, schools and other organisations in the west – as we continue to strengthen these relationships, we are establishing the groundwork that will make it easier for people to find us, seek and receive our assistance.’

‘We look forward to seeing how we can ensure this valuable work continues.’

More information

Learn more about immigration and migration

For a copy of the full evaluation, please email citizenship@vla.vic.gov.au

Reviewed 11 June 2024