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What we spoke about

This SPN teleconference provided participants an opportunity to discuss how the settlement sector can best engage with the new Government, what our collective advocacy priorities should be and what questions we should raise with Ministers in the new Government. Speakers included Ramesh Kumar, General Manager SASP, AMES; and Violet Roumeliotis, CEO, Settlement Services International (SSI).

Settlement policies: Where to from here? Advocacy priorities for the settlement sector under a new Government

The election of a new Australian Government in September 2013 will result in significant changes to national settlement policy priorities and programs. This SPN teleconference provided an opportunity to reflect on some likely or possible changes. It also discussed setting strategic sector advocacy priorities aimed at influencing settlement policies.

Paul Power, Refugee Council of Australia

Recent and upcoming policy changes impacting on the settlement sector include:

  • changes to portfolio responsibilities for settlement services
  • the slated reduction of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program to 13,750 places (with the composition of the program yet to be determined but expected to be heavily skewed towards resettlement)
  • offshore processing of all asylum seekers who arrive by boat after 19 July 2013
  • the reintroduction of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs), and
  • changes to the refugee status determination process.

RCOA has received clarification as to the difference between ‘ethnic affairs’ (within the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, or DIBP) and ‘multicultural affairs’ (within the Department of Social Services, or DSS). Half of the former DIAC community liaison officers will remain within DIBP to assist the Minister in maintaining contact with communities in relation to visas, status resolution, citizenship and messaging on border protection. The other half will move to DSS to administer multicultural affairs programs (such as the Diversity and Social Cohesion Program).

There may be opportunities for positive engagement with the new government on settlement issues. The previous Coalition Government was largely responsible for Australia’s current settlement services model. It also injected a significant amount of funding into the settlement sector.

Ramesh Kumar, General Manager SASP, AMES

AMES and its consortium partners are contracted to provide the full spectrum of services to asylum seekers, refugees and humanitarian entrants. It has a unique insight into the issues experienced by these groups at various stages of the asylum seeking and settlement process.

AMES’ concerns about recent and upcoming policy changes fall into three categories:

The impacts on asylum seekers and refugees

AMES is particularly concerned about asylum seekers who are living in the community without work rights and who no longer have access to permanent residency if found to be refugees. It is expected that the Government’s new policies will have a drastic impact on the physical and mental health of these asylum seekers. They are living in entrenched poverty, are very anxious about their status and their prospects of being reunited with the families and are losing hope. Even if they are found to be refugees, it will be very difficult for these groups to rebuild their lives and contribute to Australian society under the conditions imposed by TPVs.

The impacts on workers and the settlement sector

The redistribution of portfolio responsibilities may result in the fragmentation of settlement services, as overall humanitarian planning will remain with DIBP while settlement services will be moved to DSS and English language tuition will be moved to the Department of Industry. One of the key reasons why Australia’s settlement services are so successful is because the services are integrated. Splitting the services between different departments may lead to services becoming disjointed, disaggregated and disconnected. While there may be some benefits to moving settlement services to DSS, it will be important to protect the integrity and identity of specialist settlement services.

The impacts on Australian society

AMES is already seeing increased incidences of unprovoked violence against its clients, which it suspects is linked to negative public perceptions of refugees and asylum seekers. There is a perception that asylum seekers are coming in huge numbers and that they are dipping into resources needed by other disadvantaged groups. There is also general fatigue amongst charities on whom asylum seekers in the community have been relying for basics such as food and household items.

Suggested priorities for advocacy with the new Government

  • Seeking clarity on the situation of people who arrived after 19 July 2013 but will not immediately be sent to Nauru or Papua New Guinea due to limited capacity. There are concerns that this may result in asylum seekers spending prolonged periods in closed detention, the impacts of which can be highly damaging and sometimes irreparable.
  • Highlighting the decades of experience, community connections and ‘cultural intelligence’ of the settlement sector and encouraging the Government to work closely with the sector to develop more constructive settlement policies.

Violet Roumeliotis, CEO, Settlement Services International

Services working with refugees and asylum seekers have always worked within a highly- charged political environment and have always faced the challenge of providing services in accordance with the policies of the government of the day while still adhering to the mission of their respective organisations.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, organisations in the sector have faced significant dilemmas regarding their capacity to advocate, which has limited the sector’s ability to drive issues forward.

One of the greatest strengths of Australia’s settlement model is that newly-arrived refugees have immediate access to a whole suite of services and have the same entitlements as other permanent residents to health care, income support, education, etc. This is part of the reason why refugee entrants in Australia do not experience hate crimes and marginalisation to the degree seen in other countries. In light of this, the reintroduction of TPVs, and the associated reduction in access to settlement services and other forms of support, is very problematic.

There has been a progressive shift in recent years towards a more integrated service provision model to facilitate a smoother transition between the asylum seeking process and permanent settlement. While moving settlement services to DSS may bring great opportunities, it will be important to ensure that this smooth transition between different stages in the process is maintained and the specialisation of settlement service delivery remains a priority.

The differential treatment of different groups of refugees based on their mode of arrival may have significant impacts at a social level. If people are spending several years in the Australian community without adequate settlement support, living below the poverty line and with no access to family reunion, their capacity to settle successfully will be seriously undermined.