In December 2017, the Joint Standing Committee on Migration released its report ‘No one teaches you to become an Australian: Report of the inquiry into migrant settlement outcomes’. The Refugee Council of Australia made a submission to this inquiry, as did many of our members. The aim of the inquiry was to examine what Australia is doing well in terms of ensuring that migrants successfully integrate into the community, and what Australia should do better in this space.
In particular, the report focused on the experiences of migrant youths and their ‘social engagement’ with the community, with the Chair of the Committee, Liberal MP Jason Wood, highlighting concerns with anti-social and criminal behaviour among this group.
The report highlighted many positive aspects of Australia’s current approach to migrant settlement, including the contributions of local governments and organisations. It also praised the expanding mix of community hubs and the critical role of extracurricular activities such as sport and the arts.
However, the inquiry also recommended various changes to address flaws in the system, covering settlement services, education and language, employment, challenges facing migrants, approaches to migrant youths and finally amendments of the character test provisions of the Migration Act (1958).
The Committee considered the issue of migrant settlement in Australia from a range of perspectives. Its findings and subsequent recommendations were based on submissions from government agencies, civil society bodies and service providers, as well as a study of different jurisdictions including the USA, the UK and several European countries.
According to the report, Australia’s approach to migrant settlement, outlined under the National Settlement Framework, suffers from a tendency towards a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that does not provide equally nor effectively for all migrants. Given the different requirements of migrants, the report identifies concerns with the five-year limit for settlement services, which has left groups such as primary givers (primarily women) without the sort of support that they need.
Nonetheless, the Committee argues that Australia’s settlement outcomes are improving through various approaches. These include the development of community hubs (already 70 in Australia), which have shown a strong capacity to engage migrant families and to effectively provide settlement services.
The importance of local communities also emerges as a key theme, with references to the Refugee Council’s ‘Refugee Welcome Zones‘ and an initiative called Welcome Cities, which aim to create a welcoming environment to engage and to support migrants and refugees. On a systemic level, the committee argues that the National Settlement Framework lacks clarity with a need to redefine roles and responsibilities for better settlement outcomes.
English and employment
For migrants settling in Australia, English language proficiency plays an important role in enabling migrants to integrate into and to engage with the community. Every migrant arrives in Australia with a different level of English, with some proficient and others requiring educational services. The report acknowledges many of the challenges that migrants face in learning English in Australia, such as competing priorities and constraints placed by programs such as the Adult Migration English Program (AMEP).
The Committee recommends that newly arrived migrants should have more flexibility in registering for English classes (beyond the current restriction of one year after arrival). Further, it proposes that the existing focus on providing a certain number of hours of English learning should be replaced with priority on outcomes to allow migrants to function effectively in mainstream society.
Settlement outcomes are often linked with the ability of migrants to gain employment in Australia. The Committee recognises various challenges that migrants face in obtaining ongoing employment, including language deficiencies, difficulties in having overseas skills and qualifications recognised in Australia and restricted employment pathways for young migrants. The report recommends that the qualification and skills process be made more affordable.
In its findings, the Committee is critical of Jobactive, the Federal Government’s national job program, and employment outcomes for humanitarian entrants. This echoes the Refugee Council of Australia’s concerns about the program. It recommends that Jobactive expand its employment support service to cater specifically for newly arrived and longer-term migrants.
Young people and inclusion
Given the focus on migrant youths, the Committee also finds that there is a gap in the provision of services for young migrants to participate in work and education. Though pilot programs such as the Youth Transition Support program showed positive signs, the employment, vocational and educational pathways available to young migrants continue to be a problem in Australia.
The Committee highlighted the positive role played by local sporting and arts communities, which have helped to produce a sense of belonging, to improve migrant’s English proficiency, to provide opportunities for social interaction and to forge links between migrants and young Australians. Such activities were found to be integral to the settlement process, although some bodies, notably the Football Federation of Australia, were criticised for their reluctance in providing affordable access to such opportunities.
The Committee recommends that the Department of Health establish a Sport and Active Recreation Program to increase participation by migrants in sport and other recreational activities to improve settlement outcomes for migrant youths.
Young people and crime
A primary focus of this inquiry was to identify why young migrants engage in anti-social or criminal behaviour (such as involvement with gangs), as well as to evaluate potential strategies to address these problems. Although each experience of migrating to Australia is different, the Committee recognises that migrant youths may become disengaged, alienated and marginalised as a result of exposure to violence, a lack of support services (health care, education, housing and employment) and time spent in Australian detention facilities. Here, there is a broad recognition that Australia is failing to provide the sort of support for migrant youths to prevent some of them engaging in anti-social or criminal behaviour.
The report argues that Australia should pursue early intervention strategies to address challenges faced by migrant youths, ranging from youth mentoring to justice reinvestment. Many successful examples of mentoring are discussed, given the ability of mentoring to help young migrants to engage with the community and to aspire to become mentors themselves.
For example, the Committee recommends that the Department of Social Services introduce a pilot migrant youth mentoring program that incorporates members of the sporting, arts, and academic communities. As part of an early interventionist strategy, justice reinvestment would see money normally targeted at punitive measures, such as imprisonment, directed to communities to address some of the underlying causes of youth criminal behaviour.
Character and visa cancellations
The Committee is supportive of these sorts of early interventionist measures, but it argues that mechanisms need to be in place to put young visa holders on notice and to give the Department of Home Affairs (previously Department of Border Protection) more discretion in revoking the visas of youths found guilty of serious crimes. The Committee argues that the management of criminal behaviour among migrant youth’s is restricted by a gap in the collection of information concerning whether visa holders have committed offences. As a result, it recommends that the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission receive funding to collect relevant data.
The report focuses on the provisions in the Migration Act 1958, particularly in relation to character tests. Although a range of submissions claimed that revoking visas would not work, that it would be a breach of Australia’s international legal obligations, and that it would serve as a double punishment under criminal and migration law, the Committee contends that stronger measures should be considered.
It recommends that despite not mentioning age under Section 501 of the Migration Act 1958, anyone between the ages of 16-18 convicted of a serious violent offence (such as carjacking or serious assaults) should have their visa cancelled, with deportation delayed until the person is 18. This is deemed necessary to ensure social cohesion and the protection of the broader community in Australia.
Finally, the report addresses links between migration and extremism (including violent and non-violent) on the basis that it is essential to address the societal drivers leading to alienation and disengagement among Australia’s youth and the most vulnerable members of the community.
Given these concerns, the Committee recommends that the Federal Government develop a community designed and led crisis-service (with a hotline and online portal for family or community members to express concern about someone vulnerable to extremist views) and that an intervention order regime be developed for those at risk of violent extremism. This regime, the Committee believes, should be mandatory, incorporating mentoring and counselling support for migrant youths.
Although the Joint Standing Committee on Migration showcases many of the strengths of Australia’s approach to migrant settlement, it argues that relevant government agencies should have more power in protecting the community from criminal behaviour and violent extremism.