Arja Keski-Nummi & Libby Lloyd.

Reprinted from John Menadue’s blog, Pearls and Irritations.
refugees welcome
2015-09-27_14-35-08_ILCE-6000_DSC02257, Miguel Discart, flickr cc

Australia has one of the best refugee resettlement systems in the world. So said United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres some years back. We have achieved this reputation not by good luck, but because successive Australian governments have understood that early intervention and support in the settlement process are fundamental to long-term successful integration.

Australians have welcomed the announcement from our government that Australia will accept 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees, with a focus on resettling women, children, and families who have sought refuge and are in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. This means that, this coming year, Australia will resettle 25,750 refugees, including these 12,000 additional refugees from Iraq and Syria.

This is a good start, and similar to the figures during the height of the Indo-Chinese resettlement programs in the 1980s. We have done it before; we can do it again.

Now, the hard work begins.

Syrian Refugees in Vienna Transtation, Josh Zakary, flickr cc.

As well as the extensive goodwill that has been extended, we must put great thought and expertise into making a success of this movement of people.

We know a well structured and inclusive resettlement service must harness the expertise of professional service providers and the goodwill of the community – this is vital to the wellbeing of new arrivals. It has always been so. The building blocks are the immediate support available to people on arrival – access to housing, health services (particularly for people traumatised by war), and access to emergency assistance for the basic needs of food, clothing, and medical supplies.

While the world is different, and the way we organise settlement services for new arrivals has changed significantly since the 1980s, some things never change. Every person’s basic human needs for shelter, food, good health, education for their children, and a good life for all, whether we are Australians or people fleeing a brutal civil war.

The reality is that, for most refugees arriving in Australia, the first few years will be tough. While our settlement services are equipped to respond to those immediate needs, after the euphoria of being in a place of safety wears off, the hard rebuilding of interrupted lives begin.

Moving to a new country is a complex and many-layered process. One of the reasons Australia has been so good at immigration and delivered such good outcomes for many refugees is that we have always recognised that the migration experience does not end with a visa or entry to Australia. Its success has been in how we assist in the difficult first months and years of resettlement. Refugees need the opportunity and space to learn English early, and to be assisted in understanding how to negotiate a different and sometimes culturally incomprehensible system.

Equally important is the desire of people to have their dignity restored. The start of that journey means learning English, finding a job, having qualifications recognised, and children able to go to school and resume a childhood in safety.

But it is a journey with many obstacles: some of the many challenges to be faced and overcome can be inability to recognise or understand linguistic and cultural cues, mis-steps that can be humiliating to self esteem, bad news from home, guilt at being safe, the loss of a job, or illness.

Almost certainly, some of the people who will arrive over the coming months are professionals – doctors, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, engineers, skilled tradesmen. However, like generations of arrivals before them, they will face a lengthy and uphill battle for recognition of their qualifications and skills. Many will never be able to return to their chosen occupations.

We must learn from the past to improve the present and the future.

Heartening has been the groundswell of community sentiment for Australia to do more than it has already pledged. Many in the Australian community have not only asked the Government for this, but they have also shown that they want to be part of the solution.

There are currently government- and community-sponsored programs we should be bringing together to look systemically at how, as a community, we can assist and implement the most effective programs across the whole gamut of needs.

For example, the current Community Proposal Pilot (CPP), already oversubscribed with only 500 places set aside for this program year, should be expanded and made into a permanent program. While it will not be available for all and costs are prohibitive for many, it needs to be part of the mix of options available.

The government could, for example, reconsider the use of the Special Assistance Category as a visa option for fast identification of those in need of resettlement. The reality is that, in the chaos of war and displacement, many people with strong links to Australia may not be in UNHCR camps or registered with them. For many, it is impossible even to reach where UNHCR may be operating. This could be one way of identifying people, and if linked for example to the current CPP as the authorised processing organisation, could ensure integrity and transparency in the nomination process. Allocating a proportion of the 12,000 places to this visa category would be a start.

Without a doubt, Humanitarian Settlement Services Providers are gearing up to expect an increased number of people for their services over the coming few years. This will place added demands on already-overstretched arrangements, particularly for accommodation and early entry into ESL programs, as well as on volunteer support programs.

We could, for example, examine how underlying principles of the previous Community Refugee Settlement Scheme (CRSS), that operated so well for over 20 years, could be adapted to this new inflow of refugees. When first put into place for Indo-Chinese refugees, it arose precisely because communities, as they are today, wished to be part of the solution – to welcome refugees into our communities, and assist them with the path to integration. CRSS provided direct links between families – a host family or groups of families attached to an agency and a refugee family or individual. Many of these links remain in place over 30 years after the initial arrival of a refugee family.

We can also learn from the way organisations have come together in the past few years to support people being released from detention. This required a large effort in finding accommodation, creating community-based ESL programs for people not eligible to attend funded ESL classes, linking volunteers to assist with orientation into new communities following in some cases years in detention, dealing mostly with men, who had left their families behind and who had become disoriented and damaged by the detention experience.

These arrangements were a catalyst for imaginative and new approaches, for example harnessing the enthusiasm of retired ESL teachers in the delivery of community-based ESL classes, working strategically with different housing providers for emergency and medium-term housing arrangements, or encouraging training providers to provide places free of charge for some to undertake basic entry-level training such as in the cleaning and construction industries.

While today’s circumstances may be different, the needs remain universal.

Now is the time for government and communities to come together in a unique way to make sure we do the best we can in assisting people to resettle away from the ravages of war. In reality, governments and communities are symbiotic. No amount of professional services funded by government can provide the span of services and support needed, and no community-based organisation can do it alone. But now, we can perhaps look for increased opportunities for new groups and individuals to become directly engaged in close assistance for these new arrivals.

We could, for example, encourage businesses and unions, not traditionally active in this area, to come together with service delivery agencies to be part of a strategic response. We could examine how the use of Social Investment Bonds could support a holistic approach. Governments with business, unions, and peak welfare bodies could agree to the creation of a Refugee Resettlement Fund, with a dollar-for-dollar matching scheme.

Such a fund could assist with:

  • Emergency housing on arrival
  • Support for regional resettlement initiatives by funding access to programs such as ESL classes, community orientation, and other services which can be difficult to access in regional Australia (housing in regional Australia can be more available and cheaper than in cities)
  • Encouraging regional communities and support groups in the resettlement of increased numbers of refugees in regional centres where housing availability and employment opportunities exist, such as in centres with abattoirs and agricultural industries
  • Supporting trades and skills recognition (currently a prohibitively expensive process for many)
  • Developing a skills-matching database to assist job-search and match jobseekers to employers
  • Supporting access to workplace training programs to assist people to become job ready quickly
  • Creating small business hubs to facilitate the creation of new enterprises. What is most evident from previous refugee intakes is that many who will arrive in Australia were small business owners, and what is clear for Australia is the need to harness that new talent pool.

This could be done by the creation of a multipartite resettlement council, comprising state and commonwealth government agencies together with key business, union, and advocacy and welfare/resettlement bodies. Such a council could work with regional and local service providers in assisting in design, delivery, and funding of local services for people resettling in their communities.

The challenge which now faces us is to make the path to resettlement as smooth as possible. That means building new partnerships with new players, looking broadly at opportunities for resettlement away from big cities, and building the capacities of regional and rural communities in supporting refugees’ integration into their communities.

By involving and linking new arrivals to direct assistance from local communities, we harness direct and positive goodwill to people who can, in some cases, become isolated and detached from our broad multicultural society which is teeming with goodwill.

What is certain is that a one-size model does not fit all. What is needed are flexible and imaginative approaches responsive to the unique needs of individuals and families, while operating within an overall framework that seeks to assist people as quickly as possible to renew their independence. That way lies success for people coming to Australia as well as for Australia.

 Arja Keski-Nummi was formerly First Assistant Secretary of the Refugee, Humanitarian and International Division in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship 2007-2010.
Libby Lloyd has worked with refugees for more than 30 years – with UNHCR in Indonesia and Iraq, with the Department of Immigration in Canberra, in the community with NGOs and on ministerial advisory councils.  Libby was made a Member of the Order of Australia through her work in international relations and with refugees in Iraq.
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