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Home > Publications > Reports > A place to call home? The impact of Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker policies on community cohesion

A place to call home? The impact of Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker policies on community cohesion


Since Federation, Australia has provided protection to over 800,000 refugee and humanitarian entrants. Australians from refugee backgrounds have made important social, economic and civic contributions to Australia, finding success in every field of endeavour and numbering amongst our best and brightest. The success of refugee settlement in Australia is in large part due to policies which have encouraged the inclusion and participation of people from refugee backgrounds in Australian society.

However, this report details the numerous concerns have been raised in recent years about policies and practices which undermine the successful settlement of people from refugee backgrounds, in turn posing significant obstacles to community cohesion.


In February 2011, the then Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Chris Bowen delivered a speech on multiculturalism to the Sydney Institute. In the preceding months, several prominent European leaders had spoken out publicly against the policy of multiculturalism, beginning with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s declaration that her country’s attempt to build a multicultural society where people from different cultures lived side-by-side had “failed, utterly failed”.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy later echoed Ms Merkel’s words, denouncing multiculturalism as a failure and asserting that “we do not want a society where communities coexist side by side”. He warned that migrants who did not agree to “melt into a single community, which is the national community” could not be welcome in France (Sarkozy, quoted in Le Point, 2011).
UK Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that the “doctrine of state multiculturalism” had “encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream” and led to the toleration of “segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values”, drawing a link between the policy of multiculturalism and the radicalisation of some young Muslims.

Mr Bowen, however, proudly proclaimed multiculturalism a success, arguing that “multiculturalism has, without a doubt, strengthened Australian society.” He identified three elements which comprised, in his words, “genius of Australian multiculturalism”: an underpinning of respect for traditional Australian values, such as the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion and equality of the sexes; a citizenship-based model of multiculturalism which encourages “people who share respect for our democratic beliefs, laws and rights…to join us as full partners with equal rights”; and political bipartisanship, which Mr Bowen argued could allow multiculturalism to remain “above the fray of the daily political football match”.

Mr Bowen contended that these three elements had resulted in multiculturalism operating very differently in Australia compared to other parts of the world, particularly Europe. He pointed out, for example, that Germany in fact never adopted a formal policy of multiculturalism and argued the apparent failure of some migrant groups to “integrate” was due to the failure of successive German Governments to adopt an inclusive multicultural agenda. In Mr Bowen’s words, “one could argue that the large Turkish guest worker populations have not properly integrated into German society because, frankly, they have not been invited to.” Multiculturalism, he asserted, should be about “inviting every individual member of society to be everything they can be and supporting each new arrival in overcoming whatever obstacles they face as they adjust to a new country and society and allowing them to flourish as individuals”.

Australia has indeed been remarkably successful in bringing together people from a variety of countries, backgrounds and cultures to form a united, cohesive and largely harmonious nation. Over 800,000 of these people have come to Australia as refugee and humanitarian entrants, fleeing persecution and other forms of ill-treatment in their homelands. Since the end of the Second World War, and particularly since the end to the Vietnam War, Australia’s policies towards refugees and people seeking asylum have focused on providing the “invitation to inclusion” of which Mr Bowen spoke, aiming to promote equal participation in their new communities and assist them in rebuilding their homes and lives in Australia.

In more recent times, however, Australia has adopted policies which undermine the successful settlement of refugee and humanitarian entrants and in some cases actively foster exclusion, in turn posing significant obstacles to community cohesion.

This paper focuses on three of these policy issues: the treatment of people seeking asylum who arrived in Australia by boat, including the denial of permanent residency to those found to be refugees; the limited opportunities for family reunion available to refugee and humanitarian entrants; and the negative public and political debate on refugee and asylum seeker policy.
It presents feedback gathered through community consultations conducted by the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) about the impacts of these issues on settlement outcomes for refugee and humanitarian entrants and puts forward ideas for positive reforms to promote the inclusion and participation of people from refugee backgrounds in Australian society.

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