Australia has a long and proud history of resettling some of the most vulnerable refugee women and their families, however, major gaps in support services for these women have been identified and need to be addressed.
Speaking today in Sydney at the Refugee Women at Risk forum hosted by Settlement Service International (SSI), SSI Manager Humanitarian Services David Keegan said that based on consultations with refugee women, it’s clear the current level of support should be reviewed.
“Research conducted by the UNSW Centre for Refugee Research suggests refugee women in Australia under the Woman Risk visa category experience higher levels of post-traumatic stress and face greater challenges on resettlement,” he said.
As the largest provider of services to refugee women in NSW, SSI has observed that a significant number of refugee women who enter via other visa classes have also suffered extreme physical and sexual violence and trauma prior to their arrival and require higher level specialist support services during settlement in Australia.
“SSI currently supports about 1000 vulnerable women, and consultations with 50 women have highlighted a greater need for support services, particularly in employment, affordable housing, health and education,” Mr Keegan continued.
“The Woman at Risk visa can be accessed by women living outside their home country, who have lost a male relative or provider, and who are in danger of victimisation, harassment or abuse because of their gender. A recent report by the UNHCR suggested 145,000 women fleeing the Syrian conflict alone could be experiencing those circumstances right now. We will need to be prepared to support those women that Australia resettles through its ongoing humanitarian intake program.”
The forum today brought together more than 120 sector specialists and service providers to raise awareness of the specific barriers and issues impacting Women at Risk, many of whom are also single mothers.
Assistant Minister Immigration and Border Patrol & Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women; Senator Michaelia Cash remarked in her opening address that she was proud Australia had a program that welcomed vulnerable women and their children to Australia with open arms.
“In terms of the Women at Risk visa, refugee women particularly are at far greater risk than others and these women are recognised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as the most vulnerable women in the world,” she said. “They have suffered exploitation from security threats, sexual and gender-based violence torture and exploitation. In recognition of this, the Australian Government said in 1989 that it would put in place a specific program to recognise these women.
“We are one of the few countries in the world that has a specific allocation for women at risk, which is something we can be very, very proud of. But it’s one thing to say we are prepared to be a safe haven, but as we all know, when these women and children arrive in Australian it is but the beginning. We need to ensure that we have the appropriate services in place that they need.”
Professor Eileen Pittaway, Honorary Associate of UNSW Centre for Refugee Research, called on government and non-government service providers to break the “silos” of support and link housing, education, employment and counselling services. Because each significantly affected the other, she said.
“As we can imagine, it’s very difficult for children to get a decent education or for a woman to get a job, if they have to move three or four times in a few months,” Prof. Pittaway said, “and if you have to worry about putting food on the table constantly then you are not going to do well in counselling sessions.”
SSI Manager, Housing Services Patrick Yeung announced that he had been working on a program to help relieve the housing burden on women at risk and their families.
“As we rely on the private market for long term accommodation, our clients may currently have to pay up to 55 per cent of their household incomes in rents,” he said. “It’s already a very hard road for women at risk, but the settlement journey becomes a roller coaster ride once they have exhausted their 6 months stay in supported accommodation.
“I have been working with housing partners to explore affordable long-term housing assistance to women at risk and now we can confidently say we have a solid plan to provide a pathway for women at risk to appropriate and affordable housing that costs closer to 25 per cent of incomes. By September we hope to have begun placing Women at Risk into these housing places."
The forum concluded by making recommendations for the sector, which included:
- Work together to secure more funding and resources;
- Consult with women at risk to deliver the services they need and want;
- Support women at risk to have a public voice;
- Highlight the need for specialist, targeted services by professionals who have shared cultural, linguistic and refugee backgrounds;
- Link those services to provide a holistic approach to support;
- Supporting women at risk to feel respected and dignified with pathways in constructive occupations.
SSI Online Communications Coordinator, Callan Lawrence 0416 895 076
SSI Communications Officer, Rekha Sanghi 0422 304 578