Newly arrived refugees in Australia have been resilient in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research launched this week by Settlement Services International and Western Sydney University.
However, the research indicates areas of concern related to prolonged family separation, digital inclusion and gaps for refugee women.
Foundations for Belonging 2022, “Insights on newly arrived refugees: Family separation and reunion during the pandemic”, will be launched at the Australian National Maritime Museum on August 16.
Now in its third year, Foundations for Belonging gathers the perspectives of refugees and their everyday sense of welcome and belonging as they navigate a new chapter of their lives in Australia. As the research was conducted from 2019 to 2021 it provides a window into how refugees navigated the pandemic.
Overall, the findings demonstrate the resilience of refugees during the pandemic. Refugees’ positive feelings about their local community and neighbourhood remained strong. In the latest survey, the very high levels of trust in government and the police are sustained despite the stringent restrictions imposed from mid-2021 in Western and South Western Sydney, where most refugees who participated live.
Despite reporting COVID-19 related difficulties and hardships, the data from the 2021 does not signal any fracturing of refugees’ sense of welcome and belonging in Australia due to the pandemic.
Yet, compared to the general Australian population, the research indicates that refugees experienced greater financial stress during the pandemic and struggled more than the rest of the Australian community to pay for the necessities of life.
In addition, there were impacts arising from prolonged family separation, which heightened psychological distress among refugees.
Australia has a history of welcoming refugees, and refugees have a proud record of contributing to the social, cultural and economic fabric of Australia.
Refugees in this research report a very strong sense of feeling part of the Australian community and report much higher levels of support from community groups other than their own, when compared to other refugees in Australia.
The high levels of reported trust in government institutions provide a strong basis for government departments and essential services to be more culturally responsive by to minimise language barriers, which persist for refugees, especially women, even with longer residency in Australia.
In addition, refugee women report less ease compared to men in making friends in Australia and talking to their Australian neighbours and report weaker trust and more difficulties accessing services than men.
When ranking hopes for the immediate future, most nominated being free from COVID-19, followed by getting support to recover from COVID-19 impacts and gaining secure employment.
Efforts to reunite with family are crucial for refugees, while worry about family overseas is a significant stressor in everyday life, with COVID-19 exacerbating family separation difficulties.
Almost two-thirds of refugees reported at least some of their immediate family members were overseas – mostly siblings, parents and children.
Over one-third have applied to be reunited with their family since coming to Australia and, of these, more than half reported that COVID-19 has impacted the visa application process.
Overall, the findings indicate that family separation and family reunion is a critical issue for refugees, while worry about family overseas is resulting in some psychological distress in everyday life, in many cases exacerbated by the pandemic.
In this research, newly arrived refugees by and large report high levels of digital inclusion, though there are important gaps for women and older people. In an increasingly digital world, access and affordability of digital technologies and the skills to use them was threaded across all aspects of social and civic participation in this research.
While refugee women and men are adept at connecting digitally with family and friends, they are weaker in terms of engaging with commercial and government services online, revealing a gap in digital skills, particularly for women and older age cohorts.
Critically, and mirroring the findings of the first two phases of this research, the latest survey found that difficulties in using technology remains one of the most common barriers, alongside language difficulties, to government services that refugees need.
Integration is a two-way process that relies on shared responsibility and actions by everyone including new arrivals, the broader community and government.
Family is a cornerstone
• The Australian Government should examine ways to expedite humanitarian visa processing and expand family reunion pathways to reduce the negative impacts of ongoing isolation and uncertainty, exacerbated by the pandemic.
Digital inclusion is key
• The ongoing digital transformation of government services should be anchored in policy that promotes equitable access by refugees.
• Digital inclusion – access, affordability, and skills – should be embedded into government and settlement policy.
• Education policy at the jurisdictional level should ensure equitable access for refugee children to the devices they need (i.e., laptops/tablets) for optimal school learning.
• Mainstream service providers should develop stronger links with settlement providers to improve digital communication so that newly arrived refugees can access the services they need.
A focus on refugee women
• Digital and blended modes of essential service delivery should be culturally responsive to refugees’ needs and preferences to minimise the twin challenges of language barriers and weaker digital skills, which persist for refugees, especially women, even with longer residency in Australia.
• Settlement programs should continue to foster community engagement and opportunities for informal meeting and exchange for refugees, with a focus on women, at the local level, both within and between communities.
• Strengthening the digital skills of refugees, particularly older women, should be prioritised.
When: Tuesday, August 15, 2022
Time: 11.00 am – 12.00 pm
Where: Australian National Maritime Museum 2 Murray St Sydney, NSW 2000
About Foundations for Belonging 2022
Foundations for Belonging 2022 reports on a third phase of research carried out with newly arrived refugees in Australia. As with the two previous phases, it explores refugees’ social connections, their access to rights and fulfilment of responsibilities.
Data in the latest phase was collected in surveys (314) and family interviews in late 2021, at a time when major COVID-19 restrictions daily life had eased but international border restrictions were still in place.
To read the research paper in full, and the actions that governments, policymakers, service providers and civil society can pursue to strengthen their contribution to settlement and integration, visit ssi.org.au/ssi-insights/insights.