Race discrimination commissioner warns Australian partner visa changes could ‘segregate’ marriages

Australia’s race discrimination commissioner has urged the federal government to consult with key community stakeholders on a new English language requirement for partner visas, warning it could serve to “segregate” migrant couples. 

Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan on Tuesday said the inclusion of the requirement in last week’s federal budget came as a surprise to those leaders in the multicultural sector. 

The peak body for migration agents in Australia, the Migration Institute of Australia, has also told SBS News it received no prior warning. 

Commissioner Tan said the requirement has led to “justifiable concern” among the community. 

“I support a government position that promotes and encourages all migrants to Australia to acquire English,” he said.

“But where there is a policy that enforces and sanctions the rights of partners under the Partners Visa to remain in Australia based on their English proficiency, then that requirement may be unfair and may unjustly affect the rights of partners.” 

Partner visa applicants and their sponsors will have to demonstrate a functional level of English or a genuine attempt to learn from late 2021 to obtain a permanent visa, acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge announced last Thursday, two days after the change was revealed in budget papers.

Mr Tudge has said the changes would give successful migrants “the best chance of getting a job”. 

Defending the proposal, he previously told SBS News proficiency in English was necessary to ensure migrants could “participate in every aspect of Australian society”. 

“Unless you’ve got English, it is so difficult to get work … and it places women at more risk of domestic violence, because they might not have the ability to communicate and get the support they need,” Mr Tudge said. 

Revealing further details about the changes last Thursday, Mr Tudge said completing 500 hours of free, government-run Adult Migrant English Program classes would be one way to demonstrate a genuine attempt to learn the language.

But experts have said new migrants would struggle to meet such a commitment. 

WATCH: Alan Tudge defends new English language requirement for partner visa applicants

Commissioner Tan said he is particularly concerned the requirement could serve as a “marriage segregation policy that determines who Australians should enter into relationships with based on race, culture and nationality,” he said.

“Achieving a functional level of English is a complex process influenced by many factors, and the part race, culture and nationality can play in this process must be carefully considered and taken into account if the proposed requirement is to be applied without discriminatory results,” he said. 

The commissioner also noted concerns that applicants from non-English speaking backgrounds must take language tests to secure permanent residency, despite having already gained the right to legally live in Australia on a temporary basis.

“As a successful multicultural country, it is important that Australia supports all citizens and permanent residents to fully access community services and supports regardless of their language proficiency,” he said.

Following the announcement, several couples waiting for partner visas told SBS News they were “freaking out” about how the changes would impact their futures.

Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia CEO Mohammad Al-Khafaji also shared concerns some partners would be split from their loved ones if their English proficiency was not up to the government’s standards.

The number of partner visas on offer during the 2020-21 financial year is set to rise to 72,300 places, up from less the 47,000 according to the latest federal budget.

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