Refugee Council of Australia
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The strength within: The role of refugee community organisations in settlement

Social and economic role

The Australian Government’s national settlement framework defines someone who is “settled” in terms of their social participation, economic wellbeing, independence, personal wellbeing, life satisfaction and community connectedness, ultimately under the banner of Australian citizenship (DIAC, The Settlement Journey). As noted above, refugee community organisations are extremely diverse structures and play varying roles depending on their organisational capacity and how and why they are formed. Most do, however, make a significant contribution to supporting good settlement outcomes as defined by the ational settlement framework. Although by no means an exhaustive list, some of the roles that are played by refugee community organisations include fostering social participation, economic wellbeing, independence, personal wellbeing, life satisfaction and community connectedness.

Social participation

Providing a bridge to mainstream services

An often cited role played by refugee community organisations (and particularly leaders) is as bridge-builders to mainstream services (Westoby 2008, Valtonen 2002) More established community members and leaders are often well placed to provide information to newer arrivals about the services and supports that exist, encouraging participation (Kenny et al, 2005). This bridge-building goes beyond simply information provision.

Information provided by fellow community members or leaders is often given greater weight by new arrivals who may be wary of government-affiliated services, influencing whether someone chooses or not to access a particular service. Many service providers in RCOA community consultations, for example, have acknowledged the role played by community leaders in promoting (or otherwise) access to their services.

Advocacy and empowerment

One of the primary reasons why refugees form their own community structures is to advocate for members of their own community who are marginalised and have limited access to decision-making structures, whether this is in Australia or overseas (Pittaway and Muli 2009; Ager and Strang 2008; Valtonen 2002). The important advocacy role played by refugee community groups can empower those who participate and provide a stronger voice for those who may be otherwise voiceless. These groups also strengthen the capacity of mainstream service and community structures to engage with marginalised groups (Kelly 2007).

Democratic strengthening and civic participation

Although grassroots community structures are not without their challenges, one of the functions they provide is as a platform for democratic strengthening and civic participation (Bloemraad 2005). That is, community leaders within organisations are often elected and elections are held on a regular basis.

This enables leadership to change, communities to remain dynamic and ensure greater opportunity for shared decision-making within communities (WCC 2008). Refugee community organisations can also provide community members with a springboard into other civic participation opportunities by helping them to build leadership and other skills required for running a successful organisation.

International refugee protection, aid and development

An often unrecognised but significant role played by refugee community organisations goes beyond support to community members in Australia, but contributes significantly to international refugee protection through development aid for projects in countries of asylum and origin (see also Villacres 2013). Many organisations, for example, are set up to advocate and raise awareness and resources for the benefit of vulnerable refugee communities overseas (Turcotte and Silka 2007).

There are countless examples of refugee community organisations in Australia that have raised funds and channelled considerable resources into education, human rights, health and other initiatives benefitting refugees and people seeking asylum in the places where they have strong links. As such, they represent a form of social participation and a dividend to international refugee protection and development that can be invisible to governments and NGOs working in this field.

Economic wellbeing

Pooling financial resources

Refugee communities often come together and pool resources to support each other, playing a vital role for community members who face financial hardship (WCC 2008, Bloch 2002). Examples include: collecting money to pay for airfares for family reunification, pooling money to pay for unexpected expenses such as funerals, weddings and medical care, and collectively purchasing property or businesses (Dorais 1991). These informal financial supports can provide essential access to economic resources for individuals and families on low incomes that may have limited access to bank or other types of formal loans (Turcotte and Silka 2007).

Supporting employment transitions

Research has highlighted the significant barriers to employment faced by refugee and humanitarian entrants (Olliff, 2010). Refugee community organisations can provide important employment links and support, helping newer members of communities to find work or to gain Australian work experience and entry into the labour market through established ethnic-run businesses (Turcotte and Silka 2007). More established community members who are working can act as conduits between employers and other community members looking for work (Finnan 1982). A

As one commentator has argued: “density in social networks increases social capital, which in turn enables members of a community to utilise alternative social and economic resources not available elsewhere in society… Ethnicity itself becomes a distinct and powerful form of social capital developed through cultural endowments (obligations and expectations), information channels and social norms” (Giorgas 2000).

Multiculturalism, culture and language development

One of the important roles that refugee community organisations play is in maintaining, strengthening or developing cultural traditions and languages (Ager and Strang 2008; Valtonen 2002), contributing to the wealth of Australian multiculturalism (Fozdar and Hartley 2012). New communities bring with them language capabilities, food, music and traditions that all contribute to the fabric of Australian diversity which has been widely-acknowledged as one of Australia’s strengths. The language and cultural knowledge that new communities bring also contributes to the potential of Australia to make links internationally (Turcotte and Silka 2007, Villacres 2013).


The significant social and economic capital represented by refugee community organisations is often not recognised by community members themselves, whose commitment to the plight of fellow community members is seen as a duty and the welfare of the community as their responsibility. As one community worker (Adama Kamara, Community Projects Officer, Auburn City Council) describes:

Often the work of these communities isn’t seen or promoted as volunteering by these organisations. There could be several reasons for this including language and cultural factors. This mismatch in use of language or the term volunteer can mean less recognition for the refugee community organisation’s work. It should also be noted that acknowledgment or recognition in many cases is not the motivating factor for individuals getting involved in refugee community organisations.

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