Wednesday, 23 Sep 2020

Australia to offer free English classes to immigrants to combat foreign interference

SYDNEY – Australia will provide free English language classes to immigrants and will quiz new citizens on “Australian values” to try to promote cohesion and prevent foreign states – particularly China – from tightening their grip on their diaspora communities.

Announcing the changes on Friday (Aug 28), the acting Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Minister, Mr Alan Tudge, did not single out China but expressed concern about foreign interference in migrant communities.

“Despite now being proud Australians, some communities are still seen by their former home countries as ‘their diaspora’ – to be harassed or exploited to further the national cause,” he told the National Press Club.

“Some who criticise their former country are silenced through threats and intimidation, including to family members back in their country of heritage. Others are persuaded or forced to monitor or harass members of their own community who may hold views contrary to those of the governing regimes in their former countries.”

Security officials in Australia are reportedly concerned about efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to monitor, control and influence Chinese students and Chinese-language media outlets. About 1.2 million people with Chinese ancestry live in Australia. A report in ABC News, citing unnamed sources, said on Friday that security agencies were also concerned about official monitoring and harassment in other communities, such as the Cambodian-Australian community.

Mr Tudge expressed concern about the poor English-language skills of some immigrants, saying it prevented them from fully participating in Australian society and workplaces. He warned that inadequate language skills made migrants more vulnerable to foreign influence.

“Without English language skills, immigrants are less likely to get a job, less likely to integrate, and less likely to participate in our democracy,” Mr Tudge said.

“Malign information or propaganda can be spread through multicultural media, including foreign language media controlled or funded by state players. This can be particularly influential if local residents’ English is poor.”

According to the government, about half of foreign-born Australians who arrive with no English skills cannot speak the language proficiently, or at all, after 15 years of residency.

The government will now overhaul its A$1 billion (S$998 million) programme to teach English to adult immigrants. Any immigrant will now be able to attend free English-language classes until they have “functional English”. Currently, immigrants can access up to 510 hours of free classes within five years of their migration.

A former senior Immigration Department official, Mr Abul Rizvi, said English-language skills were important to help immigrants to integrate, but the government needed to encourage and enable new arrivals to attend classes.

“The main problem is that many of the immigrants who want to attend classes are also searching for work and are often working,” he told SBS News. “Its accessibility is a greater challenge than the allocation or the hourly limit.”

The government also plans to change tests for new citizens to include questions on Australian values – a move that Mr Tudge said would promote “social cohesion”.

Australia is a multicultural country with a strong immigration programme. In the year to June 30, a total of 204,817 people from more than 200 countries became Australian citizens. Of these, 38,209 were from India, 25,011 were from China and 14,764 were from the Philippines.

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