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Refugee Response Index (RRI) Australia Review – Pillar 4: Refugees become self-reliant

This report presents interim findings from the application of the Refugee Response Index (RRI) to the Australia context, focusing on Pillar 4 of the RRI on ‘Refugees become self-reliant’.

RRI Pillar 4 interim report
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The RRI is a civil society led initiative that was officially launched in 2022 to assess and monitor countries’ responses to refugees and asylum seekers in an independent and comprehensive manner. It covers each component of an adequate refugee response and can be used in any country context, regardless of size and contribution to the global refugee response. Without a global monitoring and data collection tool to thoroughly and independently assess how states contribute to refugee protection, well-evidenced policy and program design suffers.The RRI provides a baseline measure of country performance as reflected in international legal standards and best practices including the Sustainable Development Goals, the non-binding 2018 Global Compact on Refugees and the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants.

New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants

Developed over several years through extensive consultations with key actors in the international refugee protection regime, the RRI consists of six pillars which cover the main components of a multi-dimensional refugee response. It also includes cross-cutting indicators on gender, age, diversity, and conditions that enable a multi-stakeholder approach. In total, there are over 160 indicators that have been developed to measure a country’s response. More information and the guidebook detailing the RRI methodology and indicators can be found here.

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About the Australia RRI

The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) has been coordinating a review of Australia’s response to refugees and people seeking asylum using the RRI methodology. This review has been undertaken by a team of staff, interns and volunteers, with considerable input from key experts in the field. External verification of indicator assessment by international experts on refugee law and policy and support with applying methodology has been facilitated by DARA.[1]

While RCOA is in the process of completing the full implementation of the Index, the findings from Pillar 4 are compiled here as a stand-alone piece of work. Pillar 4 covers self-reliance, including 19 indicators across three key components looking at national policies, legislation, and practices, as well as cross-cutting themes.

Considering the significant variation in Australia’s response to refugees depending on a person’s mode of arrival to Australia and visa status, indicators have been assessed separately for refugees who have sought asylum or had their status recognised in Australia (‘refugees’) and for refugees resettled through the offshore Humanitarian Program (‘former refugees’). Appendix A in the interim report provides a summary of the categories used in this RRI review. Appendix B also in the report provides an overview of scores for each Pillar 4 indicator and by cohort — cohort (a) being refugees on permanent, temporary or bridging visas; and cohort (b) being resettled (former) refugees.

For more information about the Australia RRI review and how you can contribute, or to view the detailed indicator assessments for Pillar 4, contact: Dr Louise Olliff, Senior Policy Advisor, Refugee Council of Australia (louise.olliff [AT] refugeecouncil.org.au).

Pillar 4: Refugees become self-reliant

The following summarises the findings against Pillar 4 in both numerical and narrative form, including some of the evidence used to substantiate scoring of indicators. This review is for the 2021 calendar year. It should be noted that 2021 was an anomalous year in many ways due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Where data or information was not available for the 2021 calendar year, the 2020-21 fiscal year was used in its place.

Overview

Australia has a broad spectrum of initiatives aimed at facilitating the economic and social inclusion of refugees, and to support their ability to become self-reliant and independent. However, the extent to which these initiatives meet the needs of different groups of refugees varies. Various gaps in policy and practice exist across the country, resulting in some refugees struggling to access entitlements and receive assistance to become fully self-reliant. This is particularly true for temporary and bridging visa holders who, on the whole, do not have the same level of support and access to services as offshore (resettled) refugees and those on permanent protection visas.[2]

Even where policies and service provision appear adequate to achieve economic independence, Australia’s contemporary political and social context makes the process of integration and inclusion challenging. For example, refugees have been weaponised in the past by government officials to further political aims, at times fanning negative public perceptions of refugees and people seeking asylum as illegal, as culturally incompatible with Australian society and as detrimental to the economy, despite ample evidence indicating otherwise.[3] Not only are longstanding issues of racism and xenophobia evident, refugees also face unique forms of discrimination relating to their immigration status and other intersecting factors.[4] While there are avenues for legal redress for discriminatory behaviour, this does not solve issues concerning the broader societal context into which refugees and asylum seekers pursue self-reliance.

Component 4.1: Social and cultural inclusion is encouraged

There are various legal and policy instruments that protect ethnic and religious diversity in Australia and programs that support the goal of diversity and inclusion more broadly.[5] The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, colour, or national or ethnic origin, with the ability to seek legal redress through the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission or the Federal Courts.[6]  However, mechanisms of legal recourse do not guard against institutionalised racism and discrimination, making it difficult for refugees to seek legal remedy against institutions or public figures in cases of discriminatory behaviour.[7]  This is particularly concerning where there are clear incidences of hate speech and discrimination not only by members of the public but also in the media and from government officials.[8]

Discrimination towards refugees is striking considering the considerable diversity of Australian society and the numerous policies and programs in place to promote diversity, multiculturalism and social cohesion.[9] The government implemented its multicultural policy, The People of Australia—Australia’s Multicultural Policy, in 2011, which makes commitments to encouraging diversity, belonging, and inclusion while protecting against discrimination.[10] These tenets have found their way not only into services targeted at refugees, but those available to Australian-born residents as well. For example, Australia has embedded intercultural education into its school curriculum utilising the UNESCO definition of intercultural understanding (ICU) and teaches about the histories and cultures of minority groups including Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal peoples.[11] However, as education is the responsibility of state and territory governments in Australia, there is some variation in how ICU curriculum is implemented. This is true for many other government services offered at the federal, state/territory and local level; access and equity policies are generally in place, but implementation can vary across the country.[12]

With regard to public information campaigns by the government, NGOs, international organisations and refugee community associations providing objective information about refugees, campaigns do exist, but their effectiveness is undermined when messages of deterrence and ‘illegality’ are strongly embedded in government policy and public discourse.[13] These tactics have resulted in public sentiment that is either indifferent or hostile to irregular arrivals, and ultimately to misunderstanding about the experiences of refugees and the right to seek asylum.

Social inclusion can thus be challenging for refugees in Australia, as legal protection and policies may not sufficiently address discrimination in practice. One of the ways to help bridge the gap between refugees and host communities is through cultural familiarization, which helps refugees to connect with their host communities by understanding their practices, customs, and what to expect upon arrival. For refugees who are resettled in Australia, the Australian Cultural Orientation Program (AUSCO) provides a five-day pre-arrival course to acquaint refugees with Australian culture and society.[14] Additional socio-cultural support is available upon arrival through the Humanitarian Support Program (HSP) and Settlement Engagement and Transition Support (SETS) programs, which aim to improve social participation, economic well-being, independence, personal well-being, and community connectedness.[15] While both offshore and onshore protection visa holders are eligible for SETS, refugees who are granted protection after arriving in Australia generally have very limited access to government-funded settlement services to support their social integration and inclusion.

Component 4.2: Economic inclusion is supported

In Australia, economic inclusion for refugees is mostly well supported. For example, most refugees are eligible to work, access some form of social security (i.e., income support) and there are government and non-government programs at the federal, state and local level that facilitate economic inclusion.[16]  Employment and economic self-sufficiency are seen as essential to refugees’ successful settlement, and Australia has mainstreamed refugee needs into policies and programs aimed at labour market integration. For example, Workforce Australia, the country’s primary employment support service, is available to both Australian-born residents and recognised refugees.[17] The Australian Government also provides income support to resettled (former) refugees and those on permanent visas while they look for work, on condition of participating in certain job search-related activities.[18] However, while refugees on permanent visas have access to employment services on par with nationals, refugees on temporary visas have limitations placed on the level of support able to be provided by contracted services (i.e., lower than nationals). Asylum seekers on bridging visas have limited or no access to government-funded job placement assistance, although there are a number of non-government asylum services that have established employment assistance to fill this gap.

Despite the availability of government-funded employment services, there is strong evidence to suggest that available services do not adequately address structural issues that are a major barrier to refugees’ labour market integration, such as limited English language proficiency and social networks, workplace discrimination (which occurs at a higher rate than other migrants and the Australian-born)[19], variable work rights, and lack of accessiblity of overseas skills and qualifications recognition processes, all of which underscore the need for more specialised and targeted services than mainstreamed employment services provide.[20]  While a range of specialised programs have been established to address gaps in refugee labour market integration, particularly driven by civil society and private sector collaboration,[21] advocates and refugee communities have called for further investment in programs supporting refugee entrepreneurship, government funding for specialist refugee employment services, and attention to tackling broader structural barriers to refugees’ economic inclusion.[22]

Component 4.3: Sustainable livelihoods and socio-economic cohesion of refugees and host communities are supported

Overall, indicators under this component were assessed favourably or were not considered relevant. This is because Australia does not have a policy of encampment and the vast majority of refugees live within local communities and are not identifiable as such.[23] That said, weaker labour market integration described above has implications in terms of sustainable livelihoods and socio-economic cohesion for refugees and the wider Australian community, with some estimates of lost economic benefit running in the hundreds of millions.[24]

Apart from economic self-reliance, sustainable livelihoods entail integrating and peacefully co-existing within local and the wider Australian community. To achieve this, States must ensure that local populations do not feel disadvantaged by the presence of refugees, and that there is equitable access to available supports and opportunities. In the Australian context, many socio-economic programs facilitated by the Australian government are available to both refugees (on permanent visas) and other Australians. These include social security income through Centrelink, universal healthcare through Medicare, and a variety of employment and social services. While specialised programs for refugees are exclusionary in that regard, their focus tends to be of limited relevance to Australia-born or other permanent residents (i.e., they focus on concerns of relevance to new settlers or those with a refugee experience, such as English language acquisition, torture and trauma services, and cultural orientation programs), and do not detract from services available to the general population. Additionally, many programs exist that help to further bridge relationships between refugees and the wider Australian community. For example, SETS programs can help to facilitate social cohesion by providing social support and civic participation opportunities. Its Community Capacity Building program enables community groups and organisations to support refugee community integration, offering leadership skills training and mentoring, and fostering social capital by connecting refugees with their host communities.[25]

Component: cross-cutting issues

There are many initiatives in place supporting social and economic inclusion that are tailored towards the specific needs of groups within refugee populations in Australia. These include considerations of age, gender, disability, ethnic and religious minorities, trafficking victims, and sexual minorities. In practice, however, these programs may not adequately address the complex needs of all groups and in all parts of the country. As is characteristic of the Australian landscape with regards to policy and practice more generally, formal mechanisms exist, but gaps persist. Notable gaps in the inclusion and self-reliance for refugees from specific groups include:

  • Age – while there are a range of refugee youth-specific initiatives and programs, peak bodies supporting young refugees continue to point to gaps in inclusion.[26] There are also challenges faced by older refugees that have received insufficient attention, such as the need for English language programs that accommodate the time needed to learn functional English for those who arrive at an older age.[27]
  • Gender – Although the Australian government recognises the importance of gender as a factor to consider in program design,[28] mainstream service provision does not always meet the specific needs of refugee women.[29] At the same time, heightened focus on women limits the scope of programming to address the diverse needs of gender diverse people, which is exacerbated by a lack of available information surrounding the experiences of gender diverse refugees.[30]
  • Disability – Some disability-focused organisations are dedicated to promoting self-reliance in refugee communities. For instance, the National Ethnic Disability Alliance advises the Australian Government on national policy and advocates on behalf of people with disabilities from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, including refugees.[31] However, there are a number of government policies that hamper the ability for refugees living with disability to access needed assistance. For example, there is a 10-year residency waiting period for eligibility to the Disability Support Pension (DSP), which may discriminate against refugees who either do not have a pathway to residency or who require this support sooner.[32]
  • Trafficking victims – Australia’s primary program for aiding victims of trafficking is its Support for Trafficked People Program.[33] The program assists in issues surrounding safety, health, and wellbeing, and can provide a caseworker, financial support, access to health services, and support in finding accommodation – all essential tools to gaining self-reliance. Despite this, there are limitations. For example, those transitioning out of the program may struggle to find suitable, available, and long-term housing, and visa status or inconsistent income can exacerbate this.[34]
  • Sexual minorities – Refugees from sexual minority groups face many barriers to social and cultural inclusion, and are often treated in discriminatory and persecutory ways on account of their sexual orientation.[35] Recent research has shown that lack of culturally sensitive program delivery has meant that LGBTIQ+ people from migrant and refugee backgrounds have difficulty in accessing appropriate services.[36] Furthermore, they are often expected to educate service providers on their specific needs, pointing to the need for more specialised and targeted service provision.[37]

In terms of Australia having a multi-stakeholder approach to facilitating refugee inclusion and self-reliance, there has generally been strong collaborative approaches, including the tendering of government services for refugees to non-government and private sector entities. An area where there has been notable limitations is in how the State creates conditions for local authorities to participate in the design and implementation of self-reliance and other assistance programs for refugees. Involvement of local, state/territory and Federal government elected representatives and bureaucracies in the planning and implementation of refugee policy and programs has been an area of ongoing tension.[38] In addition, the engagement of the private sector to contribute to the self-reliance of recognised refugees and sustainability and socio-economic cohesion has been patchy insofar as there are limited policies to encourage the hiring of refugees in the work force.

[1] RCOA: Refugee Council of Australia: Jennifer Watson (Pillar 4 Lead), Louise Olliff, Asher Hirsch, Sahar Okhovat, Rebecca Eckard, Aníbal González Quinteros, Paula Cruz Manrique. Experts consulted include: Bernice Carrick, Refugee Research Online; Lina Garcia Daza, Australian Red Cross. Verification: [TBD]

[2] Refugee Council of Australia (2019). Settlement services. See Appendix A for a breakdown of the different categories of protection afforded to refugees.

[3] See: Australian Government (2010). Economic, Civil and Social Contributions of Refugees and Humanitarian Entrants – A Literature Review.

[4] Discrimination on the basis of immigration status is only illegal in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), and complaints can be made to the ACT Human Rights Commission. While the Commission dictates that discrimination due to being or having been an immigrant is against the law, this does not stipulate that discrimination on the basis of immigration status is against the law (Australian Human Rights Commission, Immigrant Status). The ACT is the first and so far only jurisdiction to include immigration status to the list of attributes protected by discrimination legislation (Expert opinion, Bernice Carrick, Refugee Research Online).

[5]Australia is party to seven international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which outlaws vilification of persons on national, racial or religious grounds. Similarly, Article 4(a) of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) criminalises dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred and incitement to racial discrimination, as well as acts of violence or incitement against racial or ethnic groups. However, on becoming party to the CERD in 1975, Australia made a provision that it was “not then in a position to criminalise all the matters covered in the article”. This reservation has not been withdrawn since, suggesting that legal avenues for redress are sufficiently limited (Australian Human Rights Commission 2002, Racial Vilification Law in Australia).

[6] Australian Government Federal Register of Legislation. Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

[7] SBS (2018). ‘Institutional racism ‘evident’ in Australian justice system; See: Scanlan Foundation (2021). 2021 Mapping Social Cohesion.

[8] For example, in 2016 former Immigration Minister Peter Dutton criticised former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s migration policies for resettling certain groups of people, specifically those of Lebanese-Muslim origin involved in terrorist-related offences. The insinuation that their involvement in terrorism was linked to their refugee background reflects the continued use of anti-refugee sentiment espoused by government officials in recent years (Anderson, S 2016, ‘Peter Dutton suggests Fraser government made mistake by resettling Lebanese refugees, ABC News); That same year, human rights expert Mutuma Ruteere called upon Australians, civil society organisations, and the government to fight against what he described as an “alarming” rise in hate speech, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination in the country. He noted that it was particularly concerning to see elected officials and government representatives espousing such beliefs, and that strengthening legislation such as a Human Rights Bill and the Racial Discrimination Act can help to combat this (UN Refugees and Migrants 2016, UN rights expert urges Australians to stand up against the country’s ‘alarming’ hate speech and racism).

[9] In 2021, 29.1% of Australia’s population was foreign-born. In 2020, Australia ranked ninth in the world for total number of migrants in its population (ABS 2022. Australia’s Population by Country of Birth).

[10] Parliament of Australia (2021). Multicultural policy since 2010: a quick guide.

[11] Cultural Infusion (2021). A Review of Australian Educational Policy and Curricula for Intercultural Understanding.

[12] Davies, T (2022). ’But we’re not a multicultural school!’: locating intercultural relations and reimagining intercultural education as an act of ‘coming‑to‑terms‑with our routes’.

[13] McKay, Hall, and Lippi (2017) showcase how branding of refugees as “a threat to national security” has served to sway political and public discourse towards exclusion rather than protection. Government campaigns such as Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) serve to further entrench these sentiments. OSB is aimed at deterring illegal human trafficking and smuggling operations, but its strict message of deterrence for anyone attempting to enter Australia through irregular means reinforces negative public perceptions of refugees who require protection. The lack of public pushback to OSB has been seen as a result of calculated tactics deployed by the State that are designed to encourage indifference and a denial of responsibility in the general population (see Laughland, 2014). As Barnes (2022) explains, the Australian Government has kept OSB “shrouded in secrecy”, making it difficult to discern what human rights abuses are happening (if at all). It also brands its main purpose as “saving lives”, focusing attention away from the practice of denying the right to seek asylum (Barnes, 2022).

[14] Department of Home Affairs. Australian Cultural Orientation (AUSCO) Program; IOM, Australian Cultural Orientation.

[15] Department of Home Affairs, Humanitarian Settlement Program (HSP); Department of Home Affairs, Settlement Engagement and Transition Support (SETS) – Client Services.

[16] Refugees on bridging visas waiting for a resolution of their status may not have work rights (see Pillar 3).

[17] In 2021 this program was called jobactive: https://www.dese.gov.au/jobactive.

[18] Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, Jobactive; Workforce Australia, What are mutual obligation requirements?.

[19] Cain, Daly, Reid (2021). ’How Refugees Experience the Australian Workplace: A Comparative Mixed Methods Study’.

[20] Kooy, J. V (2021). ‘Supporting economic growth in uncertain times’; Refugee Council of Australia (2022). 2022 Jobs and Skills Summit.

[21] For example, Thrive Refugee Enterprise offers microfinance loans and business assistance to refugee start-ups, which includes mentorship, planning, and support in navigating Australian business laws and regulations. CareerSeekers facilitates pathways into professional careers for qualified and skilled refugees.

[22] Refugee Council of Australia (2022). 2022 Jobs and Skills Summit.

[23] Exceptions to this are small numbers of refugees subject to immigration detention and those subject to offshore (regional) processing.

[24] Shergold, Benson, Piper (2019). Investing in Refugees, Investing in Australia.

[25] Department of Home Affairs, Settlement Engagement and Transition Support (SETS) – Community Capacity Building.

[26] See work of the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network, which works with young people, the government, and civil society actors to advocate on behalf of youth from refugee and migrant backgrounds and to support capacity building and self-reliance. For economic considerations, the Australian Government’s Youth Transition Support (YTS) Program offers vocational training and encourages social connectedness, while its Transition to Work and Youth Jobs PaTH are complementary programs that support youth employment.

[27] See: Shergold, Benson, Piper (2019). Investing in Refugees, Investing in Australia.; Settlement Services International (2020). Foundations for Belonging: A snapshot of newly arrived refugees

[28] Shergold, Benson, Piper (2019). Investing in Refugees, Investing in Australia.

[29] Settlement Services International (2020). Foundations for Belonging: A snapshot of newly arrived refugees

[30] Refugee Council of Australia, Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Rights.

[31] NEDA, Mission Statement; NEDA, Policy Engagements.

[32] Disability Royal Commission Issues Paper (2021). Promoting Inclusion.

[33] Department of Social Services, Support for Trafficked People Program.

[34] Australian Red Cross (2021). Barriers in accommodating survivors of modern slavery.

[35] Dawson, J (2016). ‘Protection struggles: Australia’s approach to LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees’, Asylum Insight.

[36] Migration Council Australia, Gender Responsive Settlement: Broader Learnings from LGBTIQ+ Refugees.

[37] Andrews, McNair (2020). LGBTIQ+ Inclusive Practice Guide for Homelessness and Housing Sectors in Australia; Op cit, Migration Council.

[38] RCOA (2021). Local government and settlement

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