In 2016, following consultations with refugee community members and service providers, RCOA published an important report on family separation for refugee communities. Far too often, people from a refugee background who have participated in RCOA’s consultations have reported that the physical security offered by Australia is offset by the ongoing mental anguish of family separation.
Unfortunately, these issues have not been addressed and continue to severely impact on refugee communities settled in Australia. The following brief provides a background on family reunion for refugee communities and makes recommendations to address this issue.
Family separation and reunion: an introduction
RCOA welcomes the Australian Government’s commitment, through the New York Declaration, to “consider the expansion of … flexible arrangements to assist family reunification”. As such, we look forward to working with the Government in improving family reunion for refugee communities.
Family separation is costly, both to refugees and to the wider Australian community. There is enormous pressure on people in Australia to support relatives in refugee situations overseas, which was seen to both compound the stress of family separation and impose a significant financial burden on people attempting to settle in Australia. Family separation deprives people of social and emotional support critical to positive settlement outcomes.
Family reunion is more than just reuniting with loved ones. Many former refugees in Australia still have family members in countries of origin and asylum, where persecution, war, poverty and violence is ongoing. Being able to reunite with their family is one way, and often the only way, people are able to ensure their family is safe.
Family separation is also one of the most significant contributors to mental health problems for refugee communities. Barriers to family reunion significantly contribute to the need for increased mental health services and the costs associated with these services. The danger that families may face overseas, and the trauma this causes to family members in Australia, was highlighted by a Hazara man from Afghanistan:
I don’t care about myself, I’m losing my mental health. Mostly what hurts me is my family are in a very insecure place, I just recently helped them move out of those places and find a new place. I am facing insecurity with my family. My friend says I would not be able to do anything for the community because I have lost my mental health. I want my family to be better than me. I wish the Australian government would do something for these people, first those who are here, then they can help and do for other people.
As RCOA has highlighted regularly, family reunion significantly impacts people’s ability to settle in Australia. The lack of family reunion creates many problems for people to obtain an education, find and hold stable employment, and develop new social networks. This has a significant long-term impact on the Australia economy, preventing people from rebuilding their lives and contributing to Australia.
In contrast, if people can bring their family to Australia more easily, they are able to move on with their lives, have social and cultural connections and have additional family members to provide care and support. Likewise, by reuniting family members, community members are not forced to send money overseas, keeping additional money in Australia to contribute to our economy.