Australian research has barely touched upon the role played by refugee community organisations in the settlement experience of humanitarian entrants. The capacity of community organisations to relate to and understand the unique lived experiences of refugee and humanitarian entrants gives them a particularly important role in the early stages of settlement, as new arrivals navigate the complex challenges of finding their way in a new country.
This discussion paper provides an overview of some of the roles and challenges faced by some of these organisations in supporting the settlement of newer members of refugee communities. It highlights that a strengths-based approach to assisting refugees to resettle must not only focus on individual and family resilience and strengths but also the strengths and resilience within refugee communities.
The role played by refugee community organisations in the settlement experience of humanitarian entrants has been barely touched upon in Australian research. Research commissioned by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) in 2011 found that community groups make a significant contribution to settlement outcomes for refugee and humanitarian entrants, although this research does not detail the nature of the support provided.
For example, the Settlement Outcomes of New Arrivals report found that 21.4% of humanitarian entrant respondents had accessed support through a “cultural organisation or community group” in the past six months, compared with 4.3% of family migrants and 3.1% of skilled migrants. Other research has highlighted the value of refugee community organisations because of their capacity to relate to and understand the unique lived experiences of refugee and humanitarian entrants, playing a particularly important role in the early stages of settlement as new arrivals navigate the complex challenges of finding their way in a new country.
From the perspective of the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), it is unsurprising that community structures are quickly formed as new waves of refugees settle in Australia. Negotiating life in a new country in the context of forced migration presents enormous challenges; it is understandable that people seek what is familiar to build bridges and help them understand their new reality, drawing strength from their shared experiences, language and cultural understandings.
The ability to establish community structures and supports also provides an important opportunity for refugee communities to regain self-determination. Recent research conducted with new and emerging refugee communities in Melbourne, for example, found that developing internal strength and sustainability rather than remaining dependent on governments and organisations was a much desired and stated goal for communities whose pre-migration experience had been in situations of forced dependence.
It is also unsurprising that ethnic community structures evolve and remain relevant many decades after initial settlement, as we are bound together by our deeply-rooted social and cultural bonds (for example, children of Vietnamese refugees may still associate with Vietnamese ethnic organisations, although their reasons for connecting to these organisations may be very different from those of their parents). Research from the UK on refugee integration highlights the importance of social bonds with ethnic communities to refugees feeling settled and a sense of belonging. Moreover, many refugee and humanitarian entrants come from collectivist cultures which emphasise family and group goals. Forming collective structures makes perfect sense.
In recognition of the important but often unrecognised role played by refugee community organisations in settlement, the following discussion paper provides an overview of some of the roles and challenges faced by these organisations in supporting the settlement of newer members of refugee communities. It highlights that a strengths-based approach to assisting refugees to resettle must not only focus on individual and family resilience and strengths but also the strengths and resilience within refugee communities.
Information presented in this discussion paper is sourced from existing Australian and international literature as well as from the views of refugee and humanitarian entrants that have been consistently raised in RCOA’s annual community consultations over many years. Feedback on the content of this paper was also sought from key refugee community leaders and settlement service providers. Case studies have been included to provide illustrations of the breadth of settlement and other support provided by refugee community organisations. These case studies were selected to represent a range of communities, organisational structures, goals and activities.
Further research be undertaken to explore the roles played by refugee community organisations, the challenges they face and how they can be strengthened.
A strategy be developed by the Department of Social Services for supporting, strengthening and incorporating refugee community organisations in the national settlement framework.
Funding bodies consider ways to support refugee communities to build viable organisational structures.
Local, state and federal government policy-makers consider ways of critically engaging refugee community leaders in decision-making forums.
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