Refugee Council of Australia
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The home stretch: Challenges and alternatives in sustainable housing for refugees and people seeking asylum

Housing issues for refugees

Housing issues for refugees and humanitarian entrants

Literature on housing issues for people settling in Australia through the Refugee and Humanitarian Program has identified a range of challenges that refugees face in attempting to secure affordable and stable accommodation, including financial hardship, lack of appropriate accommodation, difficulties navigating the private rental market and a lack of social and community capital. While key recommendations for overcoming housing challenges have been identified in existing studies, there has been minimal emphasis on documenting and sharing effective local strategies and responses.

Financial hardship

Research has found that many refugee and humanitarian entrants arrive in Australia with few or no financial resources, may be in debt and often face significant challenges in securing employment during the early stages of settlement. Additionally, many refugee and humanitarian entrants send remittances to family members living in dire situations in countries of origin or asylum, often sending a significant portion of their limited income overseas. These factors render the task of meeting private rental costs exceptionally challenging and can result in refugee and humanitarian entrants living in poverty and overcrowded conditions for the first few years of life in Australia.

Shortage of appropriate accommodation

Research has found that the shortage of low-cost housing in many parts of Australia is a major factor leading to housing stress among refugee and humanitarian entrants. Vacancy rates in the private rental market are generally low in Australia’s south-eastern states and there is a shortage of private rental accommodation that is affordable to households with very low to moderate incomes – categories into which many refugee families fall during the early years of settlement. Large refugee families in particular face challenges in securing accommodation that is both affordable and appropriately sized. Some large families may be forced to live in more than one property due to their inability to secure a single property suited to their needs.

Difficulties in navigating the private rental market

Research has indicated that refugee and humanitarian entrants face serious difficulties when finding properties, inspecting properties, applying for properties and maintaining leases. Berta (2012) outlines several challenges and requirements for accessing accommodation in the private rental market, including: the need for more in-depth knowledge of tenants’ rights and responsibilities; inequity in the selection process for tenancy; and refugees being unable to show stable and long employment history or a track record in the rental market. Many refugee and humanitarian entrants also lack the necessary English language skills to communicate effectively on housing issues, to fully grasp the nature of tenancy arrangements or to advocate successfully if the accommodation is not appropriate to their needs or if they are having difficulty meeting their obligations as tenants.

Discrimination within the housing market

Research has found common experiences of discrimination and prejudice faced by refugee and humanitarian entrants while navigating the housing market. A study of housing experiences among African refugees in Western Sydney, for example, highlighted the system-wide discriminatory practice of real estate agents and housing providers using English when communicating with refugees who have limited English language skills, even when a telephone interpreting service is available for this purpose.
This study further found that discrimination heightens the risk of exploitation or people agreeing to leasing arrangements that are unfair or illegal. Other literature has found that many refugee and humanitarian entrants experience discrimination from real estate agents or private landlords when applying for private rental tenancies or when attending inspections. Beer and Foley (2003:27) note that “discrimination appears to be a major impediment to successful movement through the housing market and this prejudice comes from neighbours, landlords, real estate agents and the general community”. Discrimination may also be a driver for individuals and families moving to particular localities which are seen to be less threatening and less hostile.

Social and community connections

In a 2010 study by the Centre for Multicultural Youth (CMY) it was found that many former refugees (and particularly young people) rely on other community members for housing advice or support and that community members, sometimes newly arrived themselves, may lack knowledge of and connections to the housing sector. Literature also suggests that the breakdown of relationships among family members in Australia as well as family separation have a profound impact on securing appropriate accommodation. The CMY study found that family breakdown is one of the leading causes of homelessness among young people and is a direct cause of homelessness for refugee young people. CMY also notes that refugee families may be more at risk of this family breakdown because of specific circumstances associated with the refugee experience: the impact of trauma and loss, disrupted and re-configured family relations and overcrowded housing.

Homelessness

A 2012 study by Homelessness Australia found an increased risk of homelessness among refugee-background populations. Further, it found that former refugees face challenges accessing services to prevent or support transitions out of homelessness. These challenges include insufficient knowledge of the service delivery system, inability to navigate the service delivery system and being discouraged from accessing services which are ‘culturally unfriendly’. Dawes and Gopalkrishnan (2013) also found that the majority of homelessness experienced by members of culturally and linguistically diverse communities was secondary homelessness, involving people frequently moving from one temporary shelter to another, including friends’ homes. They argue that, because of the hidden nature of secondary homelessness, much of the homelessness experienced by refugee and humanitarian entrants is not easily quantifiable.

Strategies for supporting refugees to find sustainable housing

Previous research and policy documents have recommended different strategies to support refugee and humanitarian entrants in Australia to secure and maintain appropriate housing. Recommendations made to both Federal and state or territory governments have included the need to:

  • Ensure full and equitable access to social services for people seeking asylum and refugees
  • Provide enhanced support for recent migrants including those seeking asylum or awaiting confirmation of refugee status, including appropriately-resourced case-work
  • Increase funding to homelessness services for interpreters and to be able to provide culturally competent services
  • Increase the provision of affordable housing, specifically bipartisan support for policies and programs that will deliver an additional 220,000 affordable homes by 2020
  • Improve access to interpreter services in homelessness, community and real estate services and give consideration to a free service rather than a fee for service basis, and
  • Ensure that housing services are culturally competent.

Sources

Andrew Beer and Paul Foley, Housing Need and Provision for Recently Arrived Refugees in Australia (Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, 1 October 2003)
Laura Berta, Making It Home: Refugee Housing in Melbourne’s West (Footscray Community Legal Centre, 11 April 2012)
Johanna Burns, Locked Out: Position Paper on Homelessness of Asylum Seekers Living in the Community (Position Paper, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, 2010).
Centre for Multicultural Youth, Finding Home in Victoria (26 February 2011)
Jen Couch, ‘
A New Way Home: Refugee Young People and Homelessness in Australia’ (2011) 2 Journal of Social Inclusion 39.
Glenn Dawes and Narayan Gopalkrishnan,
Far North Queensland Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities (CALD) Homelessness Project (Institute, James Cook University Australia, 2013).
Susan Evans and Rachael Gavarotto, Long Way Home? The Plight of African Refugees Obtaining Decent Housing in Western Sydney (Social Policy & Research Unit, ANGLICARE Sydney, November 2010).
Eve Kelly, A New Country but No Place to Call Home: The Experiences of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Housing Crisis and Strategies for Improved Housing Outcomes (Hanover Welfare Services, 2004).
Nadine Liddy, Sarah Sanders, and Caz Coleman, Australia’s Hidden Homeless: Community-Based Options for Asylum Homelessness (Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project, 2010).

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