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04 Apr 2017


Are refugees contributing to housing stress?


But this time, the focus is on the apparent burden that some of Australia’s newest, and most vulnerable, community members are placing on housing in the Fairfield local government area.

Newspaper headlines such as Don’t ruin our lives and Help needed fuel speculation about the effect an ‘influx’ of refugees is placing on affordable housing in Fairfield. But what are the facts?

Settlement Services International (SSI) is the largest provider of humanitarian services in NSW, currently supporting 3,700 refugees in the Fairfield area – the majority of whom have found a place to live through the private rental market.

The main reasons newly arrived refugees chose to settle in certain areas are affordability, availability of suitable housing, access to services and proximity to family and community. Fairfield certainly ticks all these boxes, but to understand why there is so much emphasis on these factors, it is important to understand the circumstances that bring people to Australia in search of safety and their experiences upon arrival.

A refugee is someone who, through no fault of their own, has been forced to leave their home country to find security in another country. They must leave behind friends, family, and most of their possessions, often with little or no notice prior to departure.

No-one chooses to become a refugee. An average of 34,000 people are forcibly displayed every day as a result of conflict or persecution. Their first port of call is transient while they await the outcome of their refugee application through the UNHCR – the UN’s refugee agency. The forcibly displaced may be living in a refugee camp or in a neighbouring city bursting with other people in the same situation. Many people live like this for decades; one estimate puts the average duration of such displacement at 17 years.

After what is often years in limbo, and a 25-hour flight, some of the world’s 65 million-plus refugees will arrive in Sydney.

During 2016, SSI supported more than 16,000 refugees, humanitarian entrants and people seeking asylum.

They might be greeted at the airport by family already living here who have waited anxiously to be reunited with them. Or they might be the first branch of their family to come here, arriving to start a new life and new generations here in Australia.

All refugees, however, are entitled to support from the government-funded Humanitarian Settlement Services (HSS) program during their initial few months in the country. SSI is one of NSW’s leading providers of this program, meaning the majority of humanitarian entrants are greeted at the airport by an SSI staff member.

If new arrivals are not staying with family, they are taken to short-term accommodation which is immediate private rentals that are head-leased by SSI. Here they will find their feet in a new country, and orientate themselves to Sydney with its new language and new systems and services, and with the support of their housing officer, find the type of accommodation best suited for them.

Families that arrived are often larger than a typical Australian family and they therefore require a home with more bedrooms; however, these homes tend to be further from amenities and harder to access on public transport.

There are also a growing number of new community members who are elderly, or who have health and mobility issues and require accessible accommodation, ground floor accommodation and homes that are in close proximity to a hospital.

During this time, humanitarian entrants also go through initial orientation, signing up kids to school, opening bank accounts and the many other things needed to start a new life in a new country.

A key part of this orientation is an introduction to housing in NSW. War and persecution don’t discriminate based on someone’s economic background or community status. Some new arrivals have come from well-established, comfortable backgrounds, while others may have never had 24-hour running water and electricity.

Regardless of a person’s background, SSI housing officers explain life as a tenant in NSW – from how to operate ovens and washing machines, safety with gas, heating and pools, and as granular as rubbish separation and collection. Importantly, it also includes the responsibilities of tenants and landlords.

Each family is assigned a case manager and a housing officer to assist them to navigate the private rental market and this includes assistance with bond paper work and advance rent through Housing NSW Rentstart, and help to set up rental payments, complete condition reports and assist with utility connections.

One thing that is universal to all new arrivals is that they have no local rental or employment history and limited income. They most likely have limited English language skills; they may have experienced trauma or torture, have some have mental health challenges to deal with, and almost all have been separated from family or friends and are feeling anxious.

Soon after arriving, some families experience significant domestic pressure and stress. In an Australian context, there can be significant changes to traditional familial roles. This can affect relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children that can result in domestic and family violence and the separation of families.

Undoubtedly these issues contribute to the extra challenges people of refugee background face while trying to find a home.

These same factors are also experienced by people seeking asylum but are compounded by the lack of certainty surrounding their future in Australia.

An ‘asylum seeker’ is someone who is waiting for their claim for refugee status to be approved by the Australian Government. Every refugee has at some point been an asylum seeker.

People who sought asylum in Australia after 2013 are living in Nauru or Manus Island, but those who arrived earlier are living in detention centres across Australia or have been allowed to live in the community on Bridging Visas.

There are more than 30,000 asylum seekers living in Australia – mostly single men – waiting for a decision regarding their application for refugee status. Certain visa conditions can place these people at greater risk of homelessness and susceptible to unscrupulous landlords, overcrowded and sub-standard housing.SSI’s anecdotal observations of providing humanitarian settlement services backs up research showing that housing stability is crucial to the health, well-being and long-term prospects of refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia.

There is no doubt that refugees and people seeking asylum are in the same predicament as other vulnerable people in the community who are on low incomes and paying more than 30 per cent of their household income in rent. In some cases refugees are paying 50 per cent and more to secure accommodation.

According to research from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, a concerted policy response is required to put an end to the “housing stress” and the increase of affordable housing supply for all Australians is the long-term housing solution to ensure people don’t pay more than 30 per cent of their household incomes on rent.

Anglicare’s Rental Affordability Snapshot Survey for 2016 highlighted that zero per cent of properties on offer in Sydney for the week the survey was conducted were found to be affordable for people on Newstart, youth allowance of disability support. Less than half a percent of properties were found to be affordable for people on other types of government income support, such as family tax benefit, and only six percent of properties were affordable for households earning a minimum wage.

Of interest, however, is that these extra challenges and barriers are somewhat mitigated by the support available to recently arrived refugees through SSI case managers, housing officers and other support provided through the holistic approach of SSI to support the vulnerable communities it works with.

There is also an overwhelming sense of resilience expressed by many new community members and a strong motivation to persevere and achieve what they aspire to in their new home country.

By the time this story is published, Laith Alfatlawi will have been in Sydney just 12 months and he says it will be like celebrating his first birthday.

“I feel like I was born again when I arrived here, and like a baby I am learning everything again, he sai. “Things here in Australia are totally different – it is like night and day with Iraq, and without the help of SSI it would have been almost impossible to work out the systems here.”

Mr Alfatlawi is happily settled in Merrylands. His choice of housing was based on being near Westmead Hospital, where he often visits to meet his daughter’s ongoing health needs.

“Without a car we need to be close to transport and to shops, so we are happy here for now until my daughter recovers,” Mr Alfatlawi said. 

The HSS program offers support to refugees for the first six to 12 months in Australia, until they are able to live independently. Mr Alfatlawi has now exited SSI’s service and he admits it is a little harder without the personal help but luckily his competent English skills help him get through tenancy and other issues.

“I can get support from the Migrant Resource Centre (MRC) but I try by myself now,” he said.

Through the network of SSI member MRCs, new arrivals can continue to get support if needed from organisation that provide the Settlement Grants Program (SGP), which continues the work of helping people to become self-reliant and participate in Australian society as soon as possible after their arrival.

Ninety per cent of refugees SSI supports find homes in the private rental market within three months of arrival. Wherever possible, SSI negotiates a 12 month lease to ensure some stability for its clients on exit from the HSS program.

Those who qualify may be granted immediate social housing, otherwise they will join waiting lists just like others in the community. Less than three per cent of new arrivals supported by SSI receive Social Housing within the first 12 months after arrival. A small number of clients who meet the criteria have successfully secured Affordable Housing tenancies through registered Community Housing Providers. Even if on the waiting list, SSI housing officers encourage and assist to secure acceptable rental accommodation in the interim, before they are exited from HSS.

Senan Zughbi arrived from Iraq three months ago and thanks God for his fortune. On arrival Senan and his family were placed in short-term accommodation in Smithfield. They settled well and decided to continue living in Smithfield.

“We have a house that is close to TAFE for my daughter and close to shopping and to Fairfield-we are very happy,” Mr Zughbi said.

The experiences of Mr Zughbi and Mr Alfatlawi are by no means unique. Despite their vulnerability to housing insecurity and homelessness, and the complexity of the refugee experience, AHURI research found that “refugee’s experience, in the main, positive housing journeys”.

As for anyone in the community, SSI understands that a stable home plays an important role in their health and well-being.

Over the past 12 months SSI Housing has explored and initiated a range of effective housing strategies based on the experience it has gained and the close working relationships it has developed with real estate agencies and the housing. This background has placed SSI in a position that it can expand its housing initiatives to help anyone in the community who is experiencing homeless or is at risk of homelessness, not only people of refugee background or seeking asylum.

SSI Housing is helping to address the dearth of crisis accommodation in Sydney through its Emergency Housing Assistance initiative and, as a registered Community Housing provider, it is expanding the availability of affordable housing options for the broader community by providing property management services to landlords who are choosing, for altruistic reasons or otherwise, to lease their property through SSI.

Even though new arrival numbers are increasing – more than half of arrivals for the financial year 2015-2016 arrived in a period of just three months – SSI is still able to source housing at the same rates as before and continues to achieve the best outcomes it can for the people it supports.

Written for March 2017 edition of Around the House, the newsletter of Shelter NSW.

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