One downside to the widely-held view that Australia is a cohesive society is that government assistance to ‘special groups’ can be seen as a benefit to some at the expense of the national good.277 Assistance to special groups is seen as prioritising the few, rather than promoting a sense that ‘we’re all in it together’.
Recent world events have tempered a desire to embrace other cultures and further promote multiculturalism. It has also coincided with the shifting face – both literally and figuratively – of humanitarian entrants to Australia.278
“Recent evidence includes a Sydney academic publicly warning against accepting black African refugees since they are less intelligent, violent, and crime prone.”279 Such inflammatory statements, coming from socially prominent figures, can only serve to further stall the social inclusion process for refugees.
The Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (now known as the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, DIaC) initiated a policy of dispersing new arrivals across the country and outside urban centres.280 A goal of the policy was to limit the extent to which refugee groups would gather together and create residential communities. This can either be viewed as a positive attempt to prevent ‘ethnic ghettos’ that might increase social exclusion or as an effort to break refugee community ties in a move towards assimilation (rather than social inclusion of difference.)
What the policy failed to do was appreciate the difficulties inherent in the refugee situation and the settlement process and the benefits of meshing with, but not merging into, Australian society. Nor did the policy acknowledge the importance of peer support within refugee communities and the fact that geographical isolation only compounds their social isolation. Furthermore, refugee communities settled outside major metropolitan areas often face a lack of accessible services, employment and housing options, English language training courses and appropriate interpreters.281
Starting in 2006, DIAC has made efforts to deal with these concerns through a series of pilot projects which aimed to provide systematic and planned settlement of refugee communities in regional areas. In particular, the projects have targeted areas where previously there had been no effort to assess community capacity for successful settlement with respect to services, housing, health facilities, employment and the like.282 This was a government response to both the concerns of a previously haphazard approach to settlement, as well as an effort to capitalise on the perceived benefits of settling refugees in rural areas, particularly those refugees from rural areas in their home countries who have skill sets suited to the needs of regional areas. The pilot programs – in Shepparton (2006, Congolese refugees), Mount Gambier (2007, Burmese refugees) and Ballarat (2007, Togolese refugees) – evaluated the success of settlement when advanced planning was undertaken to ensure “commitment from all levels of government, availability of appropriate services (both mainstream and specialist), appropriate employment opportunities, and a welcoming environment”.283 The three programs met with varying degrees of success, directly linked to the varying degrees of preparation and planning that preceded the arrival of refugees and, importantly, attempts to educate the community and service providers about the specific cultural background of the refugee community.284
25.3Finding a balance between challenges to inclusion and benefits of inclusion
There is a need to create new systems that allow refugee communities to foster a positive self-concept. Being in a new social and cultural environment can lead to feelings of powerlessness, which can be a predictor of poor social inclusion. Communities must be empowered to support each other and embrace their own community, while at the same time using their mutual support to allow social inclusion to prosper. In striving for successful social inclusion, issues must be dealt with on a multi-dimensional plane. None of the issues facing refugee communities exist in isolation.285
Vulnerabilities faced by African communities that hinder their inclusion with mainstream Australian society can include limited English; low educational attainment; unrecognised skills, including lack of recognition of overseas qualifications as well as Australian culture not valuing skills that are highly regarded in African cultures; few community resources for mutual support; and insufficient treatment available for torture and trauma or other mental health issues. ”Effective intervention and support in the early settlement phase enhances the opportunities for long term integration and participation in the community.”286
“Refugees arrive in Australia with limited resources, such as money, language skills, qualifications or family networks, and are amongst the most disadvantaged and poorest in the Australian community.”287 While this statement is true, such a focus runs the risk of victimising the refugee population and creating a mindset whereby they will always be ‘the refugee’. “One stops being a refugee when they can become active participants in all aspects of community life by contributing to the social, cultural and political capital in their community and also by benefiting from others’ contributions.”288 This definition emphasises the requirement on refugees to actively contribute to their new society. However, it is also necessary to ensure that opportunities for participation are open to them, which is the complementary responsibility of Australian society. Once those opportunities are available to refugees, they have a responsibility to take advantage of them and contribute to their new society. The literature shows that, in refugee communities, closer identification with dominant Australian attitudes tends to occur with increased length of residence.289
Culture shock, coupled with experiences of discrimination and exclusion, can lead to difficulties adapting and integrating. Some of these difficulties are attributable to a lack of understanding of mainstream Australian values and norms.290 This can be a self-perpetuating process, as fear of negative attitudes and interactions with other Australians often holds refugees back from engaging with the broader community.
There is a common misperception in the Australian-born community, reinforced by media misrepresentations, that all Africans belong to a single discrete community, rather than being a collection of people from many different countries who are culturally, linguistically and religiously unique.291 “The media has proven inaccurate and capricious in its coverage of the African-Australian communities, vacillating between inflammatory reports that unjustly collectively punish whole African communities, and heart-warming stories of human interest. This distorts reality and creates barriers between communities.”292