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A man leaves the Department of Immigration and Border Protection offices in Sydney, Thursday, April 20, 2017.   © 2020 AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

Australians could be barred from permanently settling their partners in the country if they do not try to learn English under new rules proposed by the government. If approved by parliament, a new “English language test” will be a compulsory immigration requirement for potential partner visas starting mid-2021.

Applicants will not be expected to pass the English test before arriving in Australia but, according to news reports, will need to demonstrate functional English or show they have made reasonable attempts to learn before applying for a permanent visa, with 500 hours of free English classes to be offered to new migrants.

The government claims the move will “enhance social cohesion” and lead to better employment opportunities for migrants. Prime Minister Scott Morrison tried to defend the new immigration rule by claiming that “English is Australia’s first language” – ignoring that more than 250 Indigenous languages were spoken in Australia prior to British invasion and colonization.

A former deputy secretary of the Department of Immigration told the ABC that encouraging migrants to learn English should not be part of a visa requirement, saying it sends a message to racists and white supremacy groups “that the government doesn’t really like migrants from the wrong places.”

Dozens of Australians took to Twitter to criticize the policy, highlighting their own migration stories and saying their initial lack of English did not impede their success and development in Australia.

The Australian government should reconsider this new policy. It will disproportionately affect families from certain nationalities – predominantly non-Western, non-English speaking countries – and those who find learning a new language difficult.

Encouraging new migrants to integrate into Australian society is a legitimate objective, and the Australian government’s offer of free English language classes serves a useful purpose. But if someone’s partner fails to pass a language test or are deemed not to have tried to learn, it should not deprive them of living together as a family.

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