The Australian approach to integrating Syrian refugees

By Lisa Cornish 22 September 2016

Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister of Australia, addresses the United Nations high-level summit on large movements of refugees and migrants. Photo by: JC McIlwaine / U.N.

Just over a year since Australia announced it would offer 12,000 places to refugees displaced by conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the country’s prime minister pledged new support in New York at U.S. President Barack Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull promised an additional $130 million Australian dollars ($98 million) over three years to assist refugees in countries first asylum such as Lebanon and Pakistan. The government will also permanently increase its annual refugee intake from 13,750 to 18,750. This is in addition to the 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugee commitment.

By Sept. 9, 2016, one year since the Syria and Iraq program was first announced, official statistics show that 4,086 refugees had arrived in Australia. An additional 2,772 visas had been granted with more than 5,000 visas still to be decided.

As the intake picks up speed, government, not-for-profits and community groups are coming together to facilitate resettlement. Australia’s approach stands out for its emphasis on supporting the specific needs of individual refugees over the long term. It is a starkly different strategy from the urgent transition programs now underway in Canada and Germany.

As governments and NGOs across the globe grapple with how best to accommodate Syrian refugees, Australia’s unique approach may provide some insights.

The Australian government approach

The Syrian and Iraqi settlement process began with just a trickle of entries, sparking accusations that the Australian government “cherry-picking” non-Muslim refugees. The pace has now accelerated, though some have called on the government expand the number of refugees it is willing to accept. Australia also faces persistent criticism for its harsh policy of offshore processing and detention, whereby unapproved refugees, including boat arrivals, are refused entry and sent to detention centers in Nauru and Manus Island for processing.

But once refugees arrive, community groups told Devex they were happy with the Australian government’s support for integration. “Local agencies and the government are doing a great job,” George Salloum, president of the Syrian Expatriate Association of Victoria, told Devex.

Australia’s support begins with temporary accommodation in a house or apartment, in a location determined by the government. Refugees can then receive up to five years of financial support, including through the country’s Humanitarian Support Services program, Complex Case Support program and Settlement Grants. Combined, these programs provide health, education and employment services with the aim of building self-reliance and integration into society.

“Primarily, we want to ensure that existing settlement services are in place in the communities where refugees are being settled,” a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services, the agency responsible for settlement services, told Devex. “Many of the new arrivals have family members living in Australia.”

The government-funded services for refugees from arrival onwards are outsourced to a range of contractors, primarily from the not-for-profit sector, within communities where resettlement occurs.

“Australia has a very strong and well-established refugee program, so when refugees are arrived, they are met at the airport and are provided with short-term accommodation,” a spokesperson for AMES Australia, a contracted service provider, explained to Devex.

“In addition, they are helped to secure their own long-term accommodation, they’re connected with all the essential services they might need including health services, Centrelink [the Australian government agency responsible for providing benefits] and local banking. If they have children, we help their children to enroll in local schools.”

The government, through contractors, also employs local community guides to provide hands-on and practical instructions about daily life within refugees’ new communities. “These are people who have been refugees themselves,” the AMES spokesperson said. “Typically, they will speak the language of the new arrivals, will have walked the refugee journey and know the pitfalls and shortcuts.”

Service priorities for Syrian refugees

The Australian government targets services toward particular refugee needs. In the case of arrivals from Syria and Iraq, mental health support is a high priority. The government is engaging a range of not-for-profits, including Foundation House in Melbourne, to provide counseling and build support networks.

“The continuing crises in Syria and Iraq are likely to have a significant effect on mental health if there are loved ones back home still at risk,” Joyce Chia, senior policy officer for the Refugee Council of Australia, told Devex.

Meanwhile, support services focusing on language, education and employment are aimed at enabling self-sufficiency and engagement in the wider community. Here again, the government has focused its efforts for Syria and Iraq; employment training will be the major emphasis.

“One of the things that hasn’t worked as well in the past is getting refugees into employment,” the AMES spokesperson said. “With this group, we are piloting a new program aimed at putting intensive job training and information over a three month period, including workplace language skills.”

Finding a job, applying and preparing resumes are all part of this program. Contractors also utilize their business network to identify volunteer work experience, which improves resumes and references.

“We have started trialling this in the last few months and it seems to be working much better than in the past,” AMES said.

Despite these plans, civil society groups told Devex that cracks are appearing in the system, as the flow of refugees increases. One issue, according to Salloum of the Syrian Expatriate Association of Victoria, is making sure programs and services are widely publicized within the community.

“We are hearing some concern that the numbers now arriving are outpacing the ability of the Humanitarian Support Service providers to provide adequate support,” Chia said.

Additional support from diasporas

The Syrian diaspora has been critical in providing additional ad hoc support to the integration process — before, during and after refugees arrive in Australia.

“What typically happens is that the community are in touch with family and friends that will enter Australia before and after they leave Syria,” Denise Cauchi, executive director of Diaspora Action Australia, explained. “There will be a certain amount of coordination happening like that. In Victoria, the Syrian diaspora community have been engaged strongly in this process.”

The Syrian Community/Humanitarian Community Forum, co-founded by Salloum and Chris Piper, managing director of NGO TorqAid, was initially established to link NGOs with the Syrian diaspora to respond to the crisis within Syria. They have since been restructured to provide support networks in Australia.

“When Australia announced they would be taking the additional 12,000 refugees, the focus of the forum shifted to looking at issues around settlement,” Cauchi said. “They meet every month to bring together a range of agencies involved in the settlement. Some are the Syrian community but others are settlement agencies, mental health organizations and NGOs.”

Government contractors utilize the forum to better engage the Syrian community and cater services to their needs. In turn, the Syrian community learns about programs and services available to them, which may not have been widely promoted. Red Cross and Save the Children are amongst the NGOs in attendance, as well as mental health service providers and researchers.

More forums such as this are springing up, including the Diaspora in Action conference held in Melbourne next week. The conference will bring together diaspora organizations, government, churches, international NGOs and business for the first time, Cauchi told Devex. “This is the first time they have been brought together in one spot and it is an opportunity to explore collaborative opportunities and understand each other.”

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About the author

Cornish img
Lisa Cornish@lisa_cornish

Lisa Cornish is a freelance data journalist based in Canberra, Australia. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane and online through Lisa has recently been awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.

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