What is life like for refugees settling in Australia? In this important report, we find out how people are doing, three years in. We find out what has worked, what hasn’t, and how settlement policy and services could improve. At a time of heightened political debate, this report gives us real insight into how people settle in Australia.
Building a New Life in Australia is a landmark study. The project was first funded to look at the first five years after people have come for humanitarian reasons, but will now run for longer. Five years is commonly taken as the ‘settlement period’ in Australia. The study appears to be the longest and richest study of its kind in the world.
The study, funded by the Department of Social Services, is run by the National Centre for Longitudinal Data. It follows 1509 people or groups (usually a family) who migrated on the same visa application. These people came to Australia or got permanent visas between May and December 2013. Three-quarters of the people studied were from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran, and most were relatively young.
At each ‘wave’ of the study (every year), interviewers asked people in the study many questions about their experiences through interviews with researchers. The study provides very rich data because it is following the same people over time, and speaking to them face-to-face. This report is based on the third ‘wave’, three years in.
What have we learnt?
Over three-quarters in the study said they had experienced trauma before they came to Australia. Most commonly, they reported experiencing extreme living conditions (38.7%) and combat exposure (37.4%).
Almost everyone (90.7%) in the study spoke two or more languages, while 5% were illiterate.
There was clear evidence that people were learning English. When they came to Australia, 27% of people in the study could not read English, but this dropped to 17.7% by the third year. When they came to Australia, 21.2% of people said they could understand English well or very well. This increased to almost half (44.8%) by the third year. In the first year, 39% of people understood no English at all. By the third year, only 12.3% did not understand English at all.
Men generally had better English skills. There were other important factors, such as age, health, and the person’s literacy and education before they came. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who needed more help to learn English were older people with limited education. Most people in the study studied English when they came, but this decreased over time because mainly of work and family commitments.
Some of those in the study could not study English at the start, but were willing to do so later. The report found that it was important for people to have effective access to English classes after they first came. Nearly a quarter of people who could not access interpreting services by the third year said they had been told that this was because their English was too good.
Before they came to Australia, people had very different experiences of education. 16% had never been to school, but 16% also had a tertiary, trade or technical qualification.
Not surprisingly, women were less likely to have been educated. However, more women were studying (other than English) by the third year – 12.5 and 8.2% respectively.
Very few people had had their overseas qualifications formally recognised in Australia.
People were generally keen to start further study. In the first year, 66.6% of the main visa applicants wanted to study, and two-thirds still did in the third year. In the first year, 14.9% were studying or had studied a course other than English in Australia. By the third wave, 20.9% were studying or had started since the second wave. People who had education before they came to Australia were more likely to be studying in Australia.
Every year, employment rates increased. However, it was much higher for men than women (33.3 and 7.5% respectively).
By the third wave:
- 36.4% were working or looking for work
- 29% wanted to work but were not working or looking for work at the time of interview.
People said the most important factor in getting work was previous Australian work experience, as well as English proficiency, health, living in a regional area, and their experience before they came to Australia.
Poor mental and physical health, and being female, were significant barriers to finding work. Of those who did not want to work, more than half said that was because of health problems. Nearly half of all main visa applicants were in unpaid work.
Desire to work was closely associated with study in Australia.
The most common way of getting a job was through connections. People who had managerial experience before they came were most likely to find work, but not always as managers.
In the short-term, the report found that respondents are not getting employment at pre-migration skill levels.
Income and financial stress
Most people relied on government benefits as the main source of income for respondents in the first three years, but there was a large decrease between the first and third years (88 and 67.1% respectively).
Around 10%, mainly people who had applied for protection in Australia, had borrowed money to travel to Australia, and were trying to repay those loans. More people were sending money home to family or friends by the third year (30.8%, compared to 20.5% in the first wave).
The number of households who could save nearly doubled- from 24.4% to 43%.
However, people in this study had much higher financial stress than the general Australian public, and this did not decrease in the first three years.
Housing and neighbourhoods
Most people settled first in metropolitan areas and stayed. In the two years between the first and third waves:
- 37.2% did not move
- 33.3% moved once, and
- 29.5% moved two or more times.
Of those who moved been the second and third wave, they choose to move because of the size and cost of housing, as well as for family reasons and to be closer to shops and services.
Most lived in privately rented housing. However, the number paying mortgages increased over time, from 0.5% in the first wave to 4.4% in the third.
Many found it difficult to pay for housing, with 12-14% saying it was difficult to make housing payments at each wave. This is nearly double than that of the general Australian population.
Despite the difficulty in finding a house and their costs, people said they were very happy with their houses and neighbourhoods.
Not surprisingly, people in the study were more likely to have poor physical and mental health than the general population. Women reported still higher rates of poor health.
While people who most needed medical services could get them, the report found more research was needed, especially to assess the long-term effects of these health issues.
While more people were self-sufficient over time, women were less likely to be self-sufficient. This gap increased between the first and third waves. Older people, people who had low literacy, and those without driving licenses also reported lower levels of self-sufficiency.
Most people (86.6%) had internet at home (83.5%) or somewhere else (5.7%). Women and older people were less likely to use the internet.
While barriers to government services decreased over time, language remained the greatest barrier.
Community support and participation
Around half of those in the study received support from community groups in the first wave. The numbers involved in such activities increased over time.
Those in the study were generally good at making connections, with 85% saying that they had friends soon after they came, and almost everyone (92.7%) having friends after three years.
Most were positive about their experiences with others in the community. By the third wave:
- 60.7% always felt welcome
- 26.5% felt welcome most of the time
- 84.7% had a lot or some trust in Government
- 86.2% had a lot or some trust in health professionals
- 68.3% trusted their neighbours (an increase from 55.4% at the first wave).
While the share of people who reported discrimination was low, this increased over time.
Children and youth
Overall, children in the study were not more likely to have social or emotional behavioural difficulties than other Australian children. However, they found it more difficult to interact with their peers. 22.2% of them had experienced discrimination, which was the greatest factor in their behavioural difficulties, other than their earlier traumatic experiences.
Almost all children in the study were in school, and engaged in a range of activities – mostly sport. There was a lower risk of behaviour activities with children who regularly took part in sporting and cultural activities, and those in good health. Children were also shifting to using English, while still maintaining their native language.
While fewer children had post-traumatic stress disorder than their parents, they were still more likely to have the disorder than other children. The report emphasised the need for tailored services for these children.
Settling into life in Australia
While those in the study were generally less satisfied with life than than other Australians, they were mostly happy with their overall settlement experience. At the first wave, 23.4% rated their experience as very good, and 59.1% as good. By the third wave, 35.5% rated their experience as very good, and 53.5% rated their experience as good.
The most commonly identified challenges were language barriers, anxiety about overseas relatives, homesickness, low employment rates, and financial stress.
The factors that helped people the most were safety, happy children, the presence of family, community engagement, good living conditions, and good schools. For each aspect of life in Australia, more than half of the main visa applicants said their expectations before they came had been met or exceeded. The biggest challenge for most was employment.
Author: Johan Ariff