Refugee Council of Australia
Large cardboard Welcome refugees sign in protest

State of the Nation 2017: Refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia

Regional settlement

The challenges and opportunities of regional settlement

The one current opportunity for people to live in Australia permanently is if they apply for a SHEV and then meet the conditions of working or studying in a regional area, including living without income support for most of these five years. Even then, people will only be entitled to a permanent visa if they qualify under part of Australia’s migration program (for example, as a skilled migrant) and not because they need protection. In practice, this will mean it is very difficult for most to ever get to call Australia home.

For people who do choose to move to a regional area, there are both opportunities and real risks: Will there be jobs? Will people be welcomed or isolated? Will people be able to get the help they need, such as mental health services? How will people cope if they have to move away from their friends and communities?

When SHEVs were first announced, many regional communities welcomed the opportunity of having new people join their communities and began planning. Enthusiasm was compounded by the suggestions in late 2015 that many people from the additional Syrian/Iraqi cohort might be resettled in regional areas. However, both the slow progress of ‘fast tracking’ and the slow pace of resettlement of people fleeing Syria and Iraq, as well as the ever-changing complexity of policy, has eventually withered most planning processes.

Most states as well as the Australian Capital Territory, only joined the SHEV scheme on 27 October 2016, largely as it became clear that the Commonwealth would not allocate any extra funding for regions to support the SHEV scheme. For the many people seeking asylum, that forced them to make difficult choices without any essential information. In early months of the ‘fast tracking’ scheme, most people did not apply for a SHEV, because the conditions to be met had not been clarified by the Department and because only NSW and Tasmania had joined up by mid-2016. People were rightly nervous of the possible restrictions that would be placed on whatever option they choose.

These challenges have greatly undermined the potential for success of the SHEV program. Past regional settlement programs have demonstrated the real opportunities in regional communities but have also emphasised that certain conditions need to be in place. The most often-cited success is that of Nhill and the Luv-a-Duck factory. Between 2010 and 2014, 160 Karen people settled in Nhill. Of these, 54 were employed by the Luv-a Duck production and wholesale distribution company. In 2013, Luv-a Duck was the single largest commercial employer in the town of Nhill. Resettlement in Nhill also benefited other businesses in the region, adding to the health of local economy and created new bonds within and between communities.

Several factors were critical to the success of the Nhill settlement initiative. These included: the availability of employment; strong leadership in the host community, including support for the new settlers from local champions with influence in the community; and the level of planning and preparedness of the local community prior to the arrival of the Karen community, including support for families and temporary accommodation on arrival.

Throughout RCOA’s consultations in 2016, we heard of the successes and advantages, as well as the strains and challenges, faced by people and organisations supporting refugees in regional and rural areas. Many of these areas report that, with a smaller and cooperative community, good working relationships between key champions in the community make many settlement issues much easier. Some communities have invested a lot of effort in being more welcoming, with real effects being felt by all:

That would be a big yes [to whether they would recommend someone moving to Ballarat]. I am in the process because Ballarat is pretty cold, but the people around me warm me up. I would encourage anyone who wants to settle, call a place a home where they will not experience any racism or stigma, Ballarat is a place to be. Given that Ballarat was the first city to start democracy, that is why we have the museum, MADE. They still embrace that and they still embrace that multiculturalism.

– Young community member, Ballarat

For people who have faced much displacement and isolation for many years, living in a regional area with strong support systems and welcoming neighbours, can be a better option:

The upshot is people want to come and live regionally because often they are from regional areas. Katanning and Mt Barker and Albany are very welcoming towns and there is probably a lot more community support in regional towns than what you would see in metropolitan areas. Katanning Shire council is particularly supportive… Particularly if you’re lobbying to get resources and to get an understanding, then Council support is important. Katanning people are generally very welcoming because they have seen many people from different cultures come through over many years.

– Service provider, WA

For most people, the greatest challenge in moving to a regional area is the difficulty in finding employment, particularly where unemployment is already high. When employment is available and accessible, the benefits are two-fold: for the individuals and for the broader community.

I would say that one of the primary issues that we face as migrants in general is employment. If we get employment in regional areas then no doubt you will have thousands of refugees flowing to regional areas. If there is accommodation and housing as well, that will be another factor that will encourage people to move and to have that sense of community, that sense of welcoming so people feel at home, people feel acknowledged.

– Young community member, Ballarat

In communities across Australia, local leaders and champions have worked hard to create opportunities for people in need of protection. During our consultations, we have heard of, and visited, many excellent local initiatives, including friendship groups, one-stop shops, fire service volunteering programs, mentoring programs partnering with Rotary members, as well as initiatives by local employers across many different industries.

To be able to better support welcoming communities and opportunities, the model of support needs to be reevaluated. Local communities and councils who are actively welcoming people to resettle to their areas could be better supported by federal government. Such support would have many benefits, particularly for the local economy and for social cohesion.

So the direct settlement that occurs tends to be reasonably well-planned, there’s some resources that get attached to it and the community is at least understanding of what is going on. But the 98% of our settlement is secondary migration. It’s poorly planned, there’s the matter of resources, the community isn’t aware of it largely, the settlement communities themselves manage the process. Agencies like us tend to pick up the pieces…No amount of government planning is going to be able to pre-empt that. What we’d like to see is the government planning be more responsive to where it does occur and that there’s a system in place where the funding can actually follow the client.

– Service provider, regional Victoria

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