Refugee community members and service organisations were keen to reflect on the changes in post-arrival settlement support that have occurred over the past 12 months and provided rich, thoughtful and useful ideas and recommendations about how to improve settlement outcomes for refugee and humanitarian entrants and how to maintain the high standard of Australia’s internationally-recognised settlement programs.
Key settlement challenges highlighted in this year’s consultations included:
- Employment, with participants again highlighting the inadequacy of the Job Services Australia program in supporting refugee and humanitarian entrants to secure sustainable employment and expressing concern about the possible withdrawal of specialised employment services, which were seen to be far more effective for these groups.
- Education and training, with participants raising ongoing concerns about the experiences of young people from refugee backgrounds in the secondary education system (particularly those of post-compulsory school age) and a range of issues relating to tertiary education.
- English language tuition, with concerns including the limited flexibility within the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) to respond to the diverse needs of students, the inadequacy of the eligibility period of 510 hours and the implications of moving the AMEP to the Department of Industry, which participants feared may undermine the program’s settlement focus and its links with other settlement programs administered by the Department of Social Services.
- Health, with participants again reporting limited use of interpreters my medical professionals, as well as citing concerns about potential increases to the cost of health care and noting the negative mental health impacts of Australian policies (such as prolonged indefinite detention, denial of work rights and restrictions on family reunion).
- Housing, with participants raising concerns about the competitiveness of the housing market, lack of affordable rental accommodation and discrimination from real estate agents. Community members also reported being forced to move further away from metropolitan areas in order to find affordable housing, to areas with limited employment opportunities and settlement services.
- Income and cost of living, with participants noting that Centrelink payments were insufficient for families to live off (while also commenting that they did not want to rely on social welfare benefits) and expressing concerns about budget measures such as changes to unemployment benefits, the Medicare co-payment and changes to university funding which were seen to have a potentially disproportionate impact on refugee and humanitarian entrants.
- Family conflict, with participants expressing concern about intergenerational conflict and calling for more culturally appropriate responses to this issue (including from state-based child protection services); and raising issues regarding domestic abuse within newly arrived refugee communities and the lack of cultural awareness among mainstream services that support women in these situations.
- Racism, prejudice and discrimination, with recent events (such as the Ebola crises, acts of terrorism and international conflicts) seen as having led to an increase in racist acts directed towards people from refugee backgrounds, with negative consequences for the positive settlement of affected individuals and communities.
- Regional settlement, with service providers highlighting the significant impacts of fluctuations in settlement patterns on regional areas, the untapped potential of some regional areas and the need to ensure adequate support for new arrivals and the local community.
- Citizenship, with community members noting that limited literacy skills and the significant cost of citizenship applications can present barriers for people from refugee backgrounds.
- A range of issues and challenges affecting specific groups of refugee and humanitarian entrants, including people with disabilities, women and young people.
The transfer of responsibility for settlement services from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to other portfolios was generally seen as a positive move by service providers. Many commented that the changes have separated settlement issues from the immigration and asylum debate, resulting in a more positive environment for service providers and refugee and humanitarian entrants. It was also anticipated that moving settlement programs to other portfolios would create a more people-centred approach to settlement. However, others were concerned that other departments are less likely to be experienced in dealing with refugee issues and thus may take some time to develop an understanding of the complex needs of refugee and humanitarian entrants. Service providers also expressed concern that communication from a number government departments had decreased significantly since the machinery of government changes, which has in turn impacted on the delivery and planning of settlement services. In addition, service providers raised concerns about the increasing focus of settlement programs on employment to the potential detriment of other settlement needs.
In the last year, there have been substantial changes to a number of funding arrangements for settlement services, including the wide-ranging Department of Social Services grants process and changes to reporting requirements. Many service providers welcomed the latter, believing that it will reduce red tape and enhance efficiency. However, others were concerned about changes in the approach to funding which may result in smaller or more specialised services missing out on funding. A large number of service providers and community organisations expressed their concern with the new approach to the funding of settlement services, especially the competitive tendering process, the complexities of the application, the need for multiple applications and the short timeframes in which to make the applications. Many service providers also called for longer and more secure funding for settlement services. The importance of involving refugee community organisations in the delivery of settlement services has been highlighted over a number of years and was also raised in this year’s consultations, with participants calling for additional funding and support for refugee community organisations (including support to apply for Settlement Grants funding) to continue providing vital support to their communities.
As in previous years, community members and service providers highlighted the inflexibility in the eligibility periods for settlement services, with a number of participants recommending that the current eligibility model be replaced with a needs-based assessment process. Specific concerns were expressed about the withdrawal of migration advice from Settlement Grants funding, particularly in regards to its impact on access to family reunion. Some concerns were also raised in relation to the information provided to resettled refugees prior to their arrival in Australia and the impact that this information had on their settlement experience.
There was considerable concern among consultation participants about the reintroduction of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs), with many expressing confusion and uncertainty about the implications of the proposed visa regime and the entitlements of TPV holders. There was consensus about the need for TPV holders to have greater access to settlement services, with many participants suggesting that it was counter-productive to restrict access to settlement support services given that this would inhibit successful settlement and create additional difficulties over the longer term. There was also great concern that the denial of access to funded settlement services would shift the burden of supporting often vulnerable people onto refugee communities and unfunded community organisations.
The temporary nature of TPVs and the proposed Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) and the denial of access to family reunion were both highlighted as having a particularly negative impact on health, wellbeing and settlement outcomes. Several services reminded RCOA of the comprehensive research and evidence available on the negative impacts of the previous TPV regime. Other consultation participants indicated that these findings concurred with their own experiences, either as former TPV holders themselves or as support workers.
Participants also highlighted specific concerns about the proposed SHEV regime, describing it as unfair, unreasonable and unlikely to work. The primary concern was that the protection element of the visa was surrendered in favour of a focus on productivity, in that eligibility for the visa related primarily to participation in education or paid employment rather than the strength of their protection claims. Community members were also disturbed that people who had faced great trauma, prolonged periods in closed detention and years of uncertainty would be expected to fulfil onerous and perhaps insurmountable requirements as the only way to receive permanent residency and alleviate their fears of being returned to places of persecution. There was considerable concern that regional communities often do not have the infrastructure and services to deal with the impact of refugee trauma or with other settlement issues that many SHEV holders may face, such as learning English, securing employment and finding suitable housing. Community members were also extremely worried that that the SHEV would lead to labour exploitation for the visa holders and were deeply disturbed by the lack of assurance that SHEV holders would be able to access a permanent visa even if they fulfil all of the requirements of their initial five-year SHEV.