A common misunderstanding about refugees is that they are the sole beneficiaries of our country’s resettlement program. A government-commissioned report released last week challenges this misconception by highlighting all that we have to gain by effectively welcoming newcomers.
Released on Friday, November 22, 2019, the Department of Home Affairs’ Investing in Refugees, Investing in Australia report outlines a number of recommendations to better support refugees and set them up for success in Australia, optimising the contributions they make to our social fabric and economy.
“Refugees are risk-takers. While they have experienced traumatic violence and displacement, this often builds tremendous strength and resilience. They arrive determined to build new lives for themselves, their families and their communities in a safer place that offers them stability, order and opportunity,” it says.
“Successful integration into the Australian economy can assist refugees to achieve the self-reliance and independence that they seek and, by doing so, enhance the economic and social contribution that they make to their new home.”
I was heartened to hear this. It affirms the strength-based approach that is at the core of SSI’s services. This strength-based approach is exemplified in our regional refugee settlement in Coffs Harbour — or Armidale, where we have worked hand-in-hand with the local community to settle more than 300 refugees from Iraq and Syria since February 2018.
The government settlement review recommends more regional settlement of refugees generally — an action that SSI welcomes, provided it is done with a whole-of-community approach. This is at the heart of SSI’s success in Armidale, where we have prioritised an approach that meets the needs of both the host community and newcomers.
The Armidale refugee cohort is from the Ezidi people (also known as Yazidi), an ethno-religious minority who came to global attention due to the systemic attacks they suffered under the Islamic State. By taking a whole-of-community approach, we have been able to identify their unique strengths, and work with the local community to ensure they are positioned for settlement success.
Two new pieces of research from SSI and the University of New England demonstrate the effectiveness of our whole-of-community approach in retaining new arrivals and driving positive community attitudes to refugees.
While SSI welcomes many of the recommendations set out in the government refugee settlement review, we believe four areas warrant particular attention:
1. Regional resettlement
The report proposes that 50 per cent of refugees are settled in regional areas by 2022. This is a target that could lead to a multitude of benefits for both refugees and host communities — but we need to start planning now.
Our experience in Armidale and Coffs Harbour has demonstrated the importance of integrated and long-term planning, community activation and coordination with government. For the government to meet this ambitious target it needs to start working with settlement agencies, local communities and civic institutions straight away.
The report validates SSI’s experience that targeted, tailored initiatives are most effective in supporting refugee employment, and that more focus and funding should be allocated to these.
A great example of this is the NSW government’s Refugee Employment Support Program (RESP), which SSI has delivered for the past two years. Nearly one in every four RESP participants secures employment. This exceeds comparative figures from mainstream employment programs, where refugee employment rates generally sit below 20 per cent. One of the keys to RESP’s success is avoiding a one-size-fits all approach, and offering tailored support from our bilingual, bi-cultural staff.
3. Coordinator General.
The report also recommendations the appointment of for a national Coordinator General for refugee settlement. Having worked in partnership with the NSW Coordinator General Peter Shergold, SSI sees the benefits of this approach and the potential for national amplification of the many benefits refugee settlement brings to communities.
SSI and other community organisations in NSW played a critical role in crafting and implementing the NSW strategy.
We aim to work with the National Coordinator General in a similar capacity. A complementary national appointment will allow for a stronger narrative around the contribution of refugees to Australian society and social cohesion.
4. Complementary visa pathways
SSI welcomes the report's recommendation on introducing complementary permanent visa pathways for refugees, specifically a community sponsored visa which harnesses the 'collective strength' of whole communities to support refugees resettle and integrate.
SSI has witnessed the goodwill of Australians towards refugees and sees the benefit of a pathway that could harness this and provide additional resettlement places. SSI is committed to working towards a community sponsorship program and supports the Australian government’s review of the current Community Support Program (CSP).
The government has committed to implementing many of the report’s recommendations, and this week, SSI was in Canberra to present strategies we have developed to address some of these areas. We look forward to working with the government and national Coordinator General to support more refugees to live safe, prosperous lives in Australia.