Citizenship ceremonies are a popular event on Australia Day but many with permanent residency or protection visas have been left waiting for years for an update with little word from the Department of Home Affairs.
One of those who have fallen through the cracks is Mohammad, who came to Canberra as a teenager with his two brothers and his mother from South Asia in the early 2010s.
He's been waiting for an update on his family's citizenship applications for more than three years.
Mohammad said he was frustrated the process was taking so long but felt more helpless by the fact he had no idea why.
"We are contributing to the community and to the country, the same as normal citizens would do, you know, but no update, no nothing, we just keep waiting," Mohammad said.
"Some families who did arrive with us on the same day, same time, same suburbs, you know, we were neighbours [and] they got their citizenship way earlier than us."
Mohammad said he could try to start the process all over again with his brothers and mother but he was worried it would take another three years.
He just wanted to know why the department had not been able to give him an update on what was causing the delay.
But it's caused his family more than just frustration.
Despite growing up in Australia for nearly half his life, his lack of citizenship has meant he can't get a job in the public service or undertake any further study using the government's higher education loans.
"I've really tried to apply for the jobs with the [Department of] Defence but because of the citizenship, I couldn't," Mohammad said.
"We call this our home now and we're going to be [here for future generations]. So, I do have 100 per cent rights to become a citizen."
Mohammad's story is just one of more than 16,000.
Home Affairs told The Canberra Times it had 163,113 citizenship conferrals pending a decision as of January 15, 2020. Of those, a little more than 10 per cent, or 16,871, had been lodged more than 21 months ago.
A report by the Auditor-General's office, delivered in early 2019, confirmed the department had not been efficiently processing citizenship conferrals with significant periods of inactivity "evident for both complex and non-complex applications".
This finding was supported by a parliamentary committee report released in mid-2020, which recommended the department improve transparency by reporting monthly processing figures and key performance indicators.
But in a response released late last year, Home Affairs said it did not agree with the office's findings and would not introduce external key performance indicator reporting. It said, however, it did partially agree to publishing monthly reporting figures following the Auditor-General office's recommendation.
The department said a number of things could affect how quickly a decision could be made, including character, identity and "other" checks.
"Generally, the department works on applications in the order received. However, this does not mean that applications will be finalised in the order received," a department spokesperson said.
"Some applications take longer than others and factors such as those noted above, can mean an application is more complex, taking additional time and resources to address, and affecting the processing time of an individual application."
But ACT Legal Aid migration agent Vanessa Burn said it was like pulling teeth working with the department for both herself and the clients she'd tried to represent.
She has personally tried to progress the applications of at least five clients who had been waiting for more than the 21-month time period but had not received any response from the department.
In the end, she couldn't help those clients any further.
"There's just nothing meaningful coming from the department about what's actually going on with the application," Ms Burn said.
"If they need more information from the client, [Home Affairs] should engage with the client to get it."
Ms Burn said it was worrying to see how these applicants, often refugees from war-torn countries who have lived and worked here for years, were being treated by the government.
"It's just so detrimental to their own wellbeing, [they've] been here for so many years and to get to the point of citizenship is a very long and tedious journey in itself," Ms Burn said.
"For a lot of people, it's a big journey just to get to the point of being able to apply for citizenship ... and they still feel like they're being punished in some way."
In July 2020, the then-acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge said more than 200,000 people had become citizens during the 2019-20 financial year - a 60 per cent increase on the previous year and the highest figure on record.
But Labor's assisting shadow minister for immigration and citizenship Andrew Giles said the increase was a result of the mess the government had put itself in initially.
"Modern Australia is a nation built through migration - the Morrison government should recognise and respect this," Mr Giles said.
"People's lives are on hold and families are in distress: this is particularly so in the context of the pandemic and it is the consequence of move than seven years of mismanagement and neglect under the Coalition."
Mr Giles said he also believed the citizenship delays were only part of the story.
"Shocking citizenship delays are only part of a story, which has seen mismanagement and delays in partner visas, proposals for discriminatory language requirements and even an attempt to privatise visa processing," Mr Giles said.
He added the new Immigration Minister Alex Hawke needed to work faster to fix the growing backlog.
But for families like Mohammad's, getting any sort of update on where their application is at would be a good first step.
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