Australia is a highly urbanised nation with the overwhelming majority of refugees and migrants settling in the five largest cities, despite increasing interest in encouraging settlement in smaller communities. Australia currently provides 18,750 places per annum in its Refugee and Humanitarian Program, with around 16,000 of these visas being for refugees being resettled from other countries.
National programs and policies
Australia’s Federal Government funds support for refugees through the Humanitarian Settlement Program which provides initial support services delivered through specialist settlement service providers and through the Settlement Engagement and Transition Support Program which funds services to support both humanitarian entrants and other migrants for their first five years in Australia.
However, increasingly harsh national policies directed at people seeking asylum, particularly those who arrived by boat, have meant there is a significant group of people living in Australia who are not eligible for many government-funded support services. They face a range of policies leading to heightened vulnerability and additional barriers to economic and social inclusion. Many people who arrived by boat to seek asylum have experienced lengthy periods of immigration detention, denial of work rights, ineligibility for family reunion, ineligibility for income support, very limited access to English classes and access only to temporary protection.
Responses by governments at state (provincial) and local level
While harsh policies are implemented at national level, Australia has two other tiers of government – eight states and territories and 537 local government authorities. These state and local government bodies often have a different perspective, recognising that support should be based on need, not visa status or mode of arrival. Some advocate strongly for change to national policies.
Several state and territory governments fund programs to provide access for asylum seekers to school and vocational education, hospitals, mental health support, subsidised public transport and employment support. Many of the local government bodies with significant refugee populations promote social cohesion through public events and community festivals, youth programs, sport, learning programs offered through local libraries, coordination of local community services, community information in the first languages of refugees and employment initiatives.
Multi-stakeholder and partnership approaches addressing employment
The Refugee Employment Support Program, funded by the New South Wales (NSW) state government, works in partnership with the private sector and specialist refugee services to address challenges experienced by refugees and asylum seekers in finding long-term skilled employment.
State governments with the largest refugee populations have also introduced free vocational education and training for refugees and people seeking asylum such as the NSW Smart and Skilled program. The Victorian government has also provided a specific package for people seeking asylum delivered by multiple agencies.
Other innovative initiatives include: the Ignite Small Business Start-Up which facilitates business creation for people from refugee backgrounds who are keen to establish a small business or expand an existing one; Thrive Refugee Enterprise which provide micro-finance loans to refugees; Career Seekers which uses private sector partnerships to provide internships for students with major companies in industries such as banking, engineering; digital employment platform Refugee Talent which matches job seekers with companies wishing to employ refugees.
Local government areas with higher numbers of refugees and people seeking asylum have also developed plans for their localities such as the Fairfield City Settlement Action Plan which emerged as a response to an influx of Syrian and Iraqi refugees settling within one particular area of Sydney and focuses on the importance of sharing knowledge and resources to achieve the best possible outcomes and the Greater Dandenong People Seeking Asylum and Refugees Action Plan 2018-21 which provides a collaborative and community-based approach to assist local organisations helping people from asylum seeker and refugee backgrounds.
Community-based approaches to enhance support
As the Australian Federal Government provides little support to people seeking asylum and refugees on temporary protection visas, many organisations, including faith-based organisations, community legal centres and charities, have stepped in, working collaboratively to maximise their impact. They include the Jesuit Refugee Service’s Arrupe Project, the Asylum Seekers Centre in Sydney and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne who run employment programs, foodbanks, casework programs and provide a range of support services. Community legal centres such as Refugee Legal and the Refugee Advice and Casework Service provide free legal advice and assistance in making protection claims.
There has been considerable work done in Australia to promote positive and welcoming attitudes towards refugees, despite some political efforts to demonise refugees and people seeking asylum.
The Refugee Council of Australia coordinates Refugee Week and the Refugee Welcome Zone initiative which encourage local governments to take an active role in supporting refugees and tackling xenophobia in their communities. There are currently 161 local government councils in the network, who have made a commitment to welcome refugees, uphold human rights, demonstrate compassion, and enhance cultural and religious diversity in their community. A 2013 report showcased how some of these local councils are implementing this commitment.
The Refugee Council has also developed an educational program which can be delivered in schools or other community settings. Face to face: understanding refugees brings refugee speakers into the classroom to share their experience and give students the opportunity to learn first-hand about the refugee experience. It is a fee-for-service model, which has been supported by state government grants and expanded in partnership with other organisations.
The Refugee Camp in My Neighbourhood project in Cumberland, the local government area in Sydney with the highest numbers of people seeking asylum, is an outstanding initiative which develops connections between local residents who are refugees and the broader community. Local people with lived experience are key players in the design, implementation and operation of the project and work as paid tour guides throughout the immersive educational experience.
Grassroots community groups have also sprung up to advocate for refugees and people seeking asylum and provide support. They include Mums4Refugees, Rural Australians for Refugees and Supporting Asylum Seekers Sydney, who visit people held in immigration detention.
There are many sporting programs working towards social inclusion which aim to bring together the community. One of more successful is Football United which incorporates ongoing research and evaluation from the University of NSW.
Refugee community organisations play an important, yet often under-valued, role in supporting new arrivals. RCOA’s report The Strength Within details their activities and recommends increased support for such organisations and incorporating their role into the national settlement framework. Australia’s refugee-led organisations also play an important international advocacy role, supporting the first Global Summit of Refugees in June and the first Asia Pacific Summit of Refugees in October.
Pdf version available here: HCD18 Aus examples