Refugee Council of Australia
Three men leaning over working

The strength within: The role of refugee community organisations in settlement

Key challenges

Key challenges facing refugee community organisations

While there is a growing recognition of the importance of refugee community organisations in providing settlement support to new arrivals, these groups and organisations also face many challenges. Often, the work of volunteer-run community organisations is invisible to mainstream services and government departments, particularly as most receive little or no government funding.

Research has also shown the complex processes at play in the constituting and sustainability of community organisations, highlighting the fact that refugee community organisations may not always be effective or representative (Pittaway and Muli 2009; Kelly 2007). Some of the challenges and complexities facing refugee community organisations include:

  • Developing robust organisational structures – Establishing and developing a viable community organisation is not an easy process for anyone, and can be especially difficult where the people seeking to establish an organisation are themselves recently arrived and negotiating their own settlement challenges. Finding the time for people to come together to plan and develop a shared vision and robust organisational structure in the settlement context can be enormously challenging.
  • Rebuilding relationships and trust within communities – A common experience for those who have experienced forced displacement, torture or state-sanctioned violence can be the destruction of relationships between individuals and within families, groups and networks. Targeted disruption of social structures and networks is often the central focus of contemporary political and military conflict (Ager et al 2005). As a result: “refugee communities may be fragmented, with a significant amount of internal conflict and few, if any, formal structures. The impact of war, persecution and torture may result in distrust and conflict between community members and beyond the community.” (Mitchell and Correa-Velez 2010; Westoby 2008) Rebuilding relationships and trust may require much greater focus and time.
  • Overcoming internal community divisions and conflict – As with any community development practice, creating structures where people work effectively together requires a shared purpose and commitment. This can be complex in the context of forced migration where politics and ongoing conflict in homelands can be played out in Australia. For example, violence perpetrated in countries of origin or asylum can create divisions within communities in Australia between individuals, families or groups that are affiliated with different factions (Turcotte and Silka 2007; Ager et al 2005).
  • Securing resources – Accessing the resources required to run an effective community organisation can be a significant challenge, particularly in the context of refugee communities whose membership is constituted by families on very low incomes. However, access to resources goes beyond simply financial issues but also access to infrastructure (such as office or meeting spaces) (WCC 2008) and personnel. (Some organisations rely on a single funded worker, for example, through Federal settlement services funding and the viability of the entire organisation can be jeopardised if this funding is lost).
  • Building relationships with service providers and other communities – The relationship between refugee community organisations and other funded settlement services can sometimes be fraught, particularly in the context of auspice arrangements between emerging refugee community organisations and funded mainstream agencies. Tensions can be created within communities and between community leaders and auspice organisations that are deemed to be representing needs in order to receive funding, and where there is a mismatch between what the community perceives as their needs and funding arrangements (Mitchell and Correa-Velez 2010; Ager et al 2005; Westoby 2008; Abur 2012). Some refugee communities, particularly emerging communities, may also have limited contact with other more established communities or access to information and support that these communities can and are willing to offer. As such, organisations in newer communities can often find themselves “re-inventing the wheel” as they establish themselves, navigate systems, seek access to resources and implement activities.
  • Juggling expectations – Ensuring that the community members who run these organisations (many of whom are also community leaders) are able to juggle multiple expectations and the demands made on them can be difficult in the face of significant community needs. In the case of emerging communities, leaders can feel pulled in many directions. This can lead to frustration and burn-out, threatening the ongoing sustainability of organisations or the splintering of communities into multiple organisations. Pressures on community leaders can come from both community members themselves and service providers. For example, within communities there may be cultural expectations of what a leader (“big man”) should provide – resources, free activities and events – that is based on leadership practices overseas and that may not translate into the Australian context. Service providers may put demands on leaders to participate voluntarily in consultations and projects and link other community members into services. This can take significant time and resources, such as having to call individual community members to solicit participation.
  • Navigating and brokering solutions within a complex funding and service system – Research and anecdotal experience highlight the enormous challenges faced by refugee community organisations in securing sustainable funding or brokering solutions that will meet community needs (Kelly 2007). For example, attracting funding often requires portraying communities in a deficit model (e.g. as vulnerable and at risk of social problems such as drugs, alcohol, gangs, delinquency and extremism). Leaders who are best able to do this and attract funding may not always be the best at getting things done or rallying the community. Grant makers are also moving towards funding of organisations that reach a bigger cross section of the community. This means that often ethno-specific groups do not receive funding despite the need and their ability to reach the community.
  • Accessing decision-makers – For many refugee community organisations, a key issue is not access to funding but access to decision-making structures and finding the most effective ways of advocating for community needs to effect systemic change. This may be in part due to a lack of understanding of complex Australian systems and services but also relates to the ways in which policy-makers engage directly with communities.
  • Ensuring organisation’s representative nature – A challenge for community organisations formed along ethnic or national lines is in ensuring its representative nature, in particular, that young people, women and sub-groups within the community can have their voices heard (Bloch 2002). This can be a difficult process of negotiation that is linked with broader cultural transitions in settlement and requires strong leadership. It can also present challenges for mainstream services and funding bodies that are uncertain who exactly an organisation is representing and this can unfortunately lead to mistrust and an inability for an organisation to make wider connections. Kelly (2007) uses the term “contingent community” to describe a group of people who will to some extent conform to the expectations of the host society in order to gain the advantages of a formal community association but the private face of the group remains unconstituted as a community. She writes: “What is viewed from the outside as a community may in fact be a construction without the linkages and interdependence associated with communities.”
  • Engaging the media – The leaders of refugee community organisations can be called upon by the media to represent their community. More often than not this is to provide a perspective on sensational and negative issues (e.g. “ethnic gangs”). This can be particularly fraught for those who are not media savvy or trained. How these organisations and their leaders are able to represent their community, and how the community members themselves respond to this representation can create divisions and difficulties.
  • Becoming a viable community organisation in very small and dispersed communities – All of the challenges highlighted above can be accentuated in the case of very small and dispersed communities, and where organising across large geographical areas can be particularly difficult and costly. (Bloch 2002; Kelly 2007; WCC 2008)
  • Remaining responsive to the changing needs of communities – As a refugee community becomes more established in Australia, its needs will inevitably change (Giorgas 2000). Organisations that have been set up to support the immediate settlement needs of new communities must evolve as the community itself evolves. Ensuring an organisation remains representative and responsive to community needs requires ongoing negotiation.

Be a champion for refugee rights

Join our mailing list and be the first to receive active resources. We need you to show Australia cares about refugees.


  • Category

  • Topic