Refugee Council of Australia
Citizenship ceremony

Settling in Australia: The challenges


Classroom with teacher in front of whiteboard and students
People in need of protection who come to Australia are often keen to study and start training, to make up for lost time and opportunities. Young people are especially likely to be motivated.

However, they also face many challenges in studying and training, especially if they come with little English and have had a very limited or different experience of education in the past.

Learning English

A key challenge is learning English. Although many refugees will speak several languages, they often come from countries which do not speak English. Learning English is a common challenge many of them face. This is often made harder because at the same time, they are busy dealing with other challenges of settling into Australia, as well as the trauma of their past experiences.

The Australian Government funds free English language lessons for refugees who have resettled in Australia, as well as migrants, through the Adult Migrant Education Program (AMEP). This is one of the key settlement programs for refugees in Australia. One of the key concerns of refugee communities is the support available to help them learn English through the Adult Migrant English Program. While the Program is a good start for settlement, it is often not enough for people to learn the level of English needed to succeed in mainstream education or training, or to get work.

There is, however, more limited support for people seeking asylum. People seeking asylum are not entitled to the Adult Migrant Education Program, until they are granted protection. As this may take years, they find it challenging to learn English, although many take part in free or low-cost English programs offered in the community. Access to schools for those under 18 is determined by State and Territory policies.

While learning English is a challenge for anyone, there are some refugees who will find this harder. Refugees who are older, who are not literate in their own languages, who have disabilities, and who are raising children or caring for others all face extra challenges.

Refugee young people and school

Young people in school face other important challenges in their education and training in Australia. These include:

  • Transitioning from life in refugee camps or a lengthy limbo
  • Being placed in classes by age, rather than their educational level
  • Adjusting to formal education for the first time
  • Pressure to start working to support themselves or their family
  • Under-resourced public schools that find it difficult to meet their needs
  • Difficult home environments where the process of settlement means family members cannot support them as much
  • Pressure to support older family members because of their better English, and
  • Discrimination and racism in and outside school.

Many overcome these challenges and do just as well, or even better, than those born in Australia. However, there are also a significant number of children and young people who struggle to learn.

Young people and post-compulsory education

Those who come between the ages of 16 and 24 have many skills and experience. Yet they also face many challenges in adjusting to education and training in Australia.

Many have had their schooling disrupted, or could not go to school at all. They also face other pressures compared to younger children. Many may feel there is more pressure to do well in their education, even though they are likely to have had less experience of education. They are likely to have more responsibilities for their families. Their development may have been delayed or suspended because of their experiences as a refugee. They may also find it harder to get services they need because of age limits.

There is often a risk that, because these are people who do not have to be enrolled at school, they may fall through the gaps. This can be devastating, as it can mean they become disengaged from education and employment, and become socially excluded.

Vocational education and training

An excellent way for many people to train or re-train is through Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses. This can be especially useful if coupled with English language training and pastoral care.

However, many people get qualifications and still struggle to get work in their chosen field. Apprenticeship and traineeship application processes can be very challenging for people with lower literacy. Those who have newly arrived often find it more difficult to find an employer to take them on because they do not have networks and lack knowledge of the industry.

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