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

Independence and wellbeing


Settlement support

Whether funded or unfunded, refugee community organisations and their members provide a range of settlement supports to new arrivals. Common examples include providing transport, meeting and greeting new arrivals at the airport, providing short- and long-term accommodation, interpreting and translating, orientation, providing employment links, education advice and supplying material goods (Fozdar and Hartley 2012).

This support, when provided by communities for their own members, can draw directly on culturally-specific knowledge, norms and language, reducing the need for language and bicultural facilitators (e.g. interpreters) (Radermacher et al 2008). Refugee community organisations can also emerge to fill gaps in mainstream service provision, particularly where there is a mismatch between community needs and funding priorities and timing (Waxman 1998; Bloch 2002; Simich et al 2005).

Orientation and community education

It is common for former refugees to informally and formally provide information and advice to newer arrivals about living in Australia and how to navigate systems (Waxman 1998). In research conducted with refugee community groups in Melbourne, participants spoke about the importance of community networks in providing opportunities to discuss issues that living in a new culture presented: “Analysis of issues using different experiences and perspectives facilitated the exchange of ideas and solutions, providing comfort and increased confidence to overcome problems.” (WCC 2008)

While formal orientation programs are mostly focused on earlier stages of settlement, refugee community groups often continue this role for many years, reflecting the long-term reality of settlement. For example, by establishing ethnic radio or media programs in community languages, groups continue to provide information, advice and interpretation of the nuances of life in Australia.

Personal wellbeing

Promoting health and wellbeing

Greater levels of community participation, social support and trust in others in the community have been associated with enhanced wellbeing (Kenny et al 2005) and reduced experience of psychological distress, which is particularly important in the context of settlement support for survivors of torture and trauma (Mitchell and Correa-Velez 2010, Simich et al 2005). As Mitchell and Correa-Velez argue:

Recovery from the impact of torture and trauma is most effective where all aspects of the model inter-relate, bringing together therapeutic work, community development and systemic advocacy… In harnessing community development as one strategy within an integrated approach to recovery, the link between participation in a strong community and subjective wellbeing is of fundamental importance. (See also Ingamells and Westoby 2008).

Canadian research has found that a like-ethnic community of significant size confers mental health advantage (Beiser 2005). A common way in which refugee organisations promote health, wellbeing and community cohesion is through sport and recreation, such as running sports tournaments or supporting young people from the community to participate in sporting teams.

Conflict mediation

Reflecting cultural practices, some refugee community organisations can play important roles in terms of conflict resolution between individuals, families and within communities; a common phenomenon in the context of forced migration (SCOA 2013). Particularly when built along traditional family or tribal lines, community organisations are often called upon to get involved in resolution of conflicts within families, between families or between community factions. These conflicts can go unnoticed by those outside of the community unless they attract attention of Police or other authorities.

Where access to these structures is absent or limited (e.g. rural and regional areas), conflicts can escalate. Some defer to community leaders for support with family mediation and in times of personal crisis, preferring these supports to more formal supports provided by social services in Australia (Westoby 2008). As one Sudanese participant in a Melbourne study of refugee community organisations describes: “We help each other if there’s an occasion, a festival, if there’s good or bad news, for example, when there’s a funeral, we sit together and solve problems.” (WCC 2008)

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