Australian Human Rights Commission



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7.3Information overload

    Refugees have reported negative experiences when dealing with government service providers, often due to confusion around the roles of different agencies.43

    Under the current system refugees are provided with six months of assistance, which does not provide enough time to absorb and understand all the information they need to effectively settle and integrate into the broader Australian community. The literature reviewed suggested that a one-off orientation format can adequately prepare refugees to participate in Australian society or respond effectively to their personal needs.

    Too much information is offered to refugees immediately upon their arrival, which is not repeated or reinforced. As a result, individuals and communities are forced to come up with their own solutions to issues and experiences they have never faced before. Reinforcing and ongoing discussion of information is necessary to better support new arrivals. This information must be delivered in “manageable quantities and … more than once.”44

7.4Barriers in the health system

    A lack of understanding of how Australia’s health care service works, coupled with an inability to access health information, can lead to decreased care-seeking behaviour among new arrivals and an under-utilisation of health services.45 For example, Australia’s system of bulk billing for health care services is different than the ‘pay upfront’ model in Africa. Consequently, many refugees may avoid or postpone medical care and treatment because they do not have enough money on hand.46

    Through consultations with migrant and refugee women in Tasmania, Valencia found that newly-arrived communities lack awareness on how to locate and access health care providers. They also don’t understand Western health care philosophy and systems.47

    In general, refugees do not receive sufficient orientation on how Australia’s health care system operates, how it is set up and the specific services that are available to assist migrant and refugee communities.

7.5Examples of cultural barriers in the health system


    Cultural barriers can limit the ability of African Australians to access to health information, particularly in relation to sexual and reproductive health topics.48 While Australian-born women may not feel awkward discussing intimate details around sexual and reproductive health issues with a male doctor (because they view him firstly as a doctor), a woman from a culture where discussion of such topics are taboo between men and women will be reluctant to discuss her concerns. As a result, the doctor may be left with a false impression that the female African patient has nothing to discuss regarding her sexual health.

    Body size and body image is another area where cultural perceptions can impact on the effectiveness of health information. A series of focus groups were recently conducted with African Australians in Melbourne as part of a study on the apparent rapid weight gain and obesity risks observed among African migrant children.49 It found that many in Sub-Saharan African communities took pride and satisfaction in the increasing levels of obesity among their children, seeing it as a ‘job well done’ and reflecting their view that obesity is not a disease. In addition, the focus groups also highlighted intergenerational conflict about body size ideals between parents and their teenage children, with the latter preferring the model-like body sizes popular in Australia.50

    The study concluded that further research is “required to examine the association between shifting preferences in body ideals and obesity among traditional communities, such as sub-Saharan African migrants. The understanding of how changes in body image perceptions may influence eating and exercise behaviours among sub-Saharan African migrants would assist in the development of obesity-related preventive interventional programs for this at-risk population.”

8Issues of law enforcement

8.1Mistrust of government and authority, including police

    The legal system is very complicated and many refugees might have never lived in a country where law and order is the norm. In those countries, human suffering, violence, oppression, autocracy, intolerance and violation of human rights are part of daily life. It may also mean refugees having to adjust their initial knowledge and expectations of the law. The barriers are huge and designing ways for a smooth transition has to be the ultimate goal of everyone, whether it be the government, the recipient, or service providers.

    Dr Melika Yassin Sheikh-Eldin51

    Many refugees come from situations in their home country where the criminal justice system was the agent of mass violations of human rights, persecution and social control, rather than agencies in which they could entrust their safety. When they arrive in Australia they often carry with them traumatic experiences that can leave them paranoid and suspicious of government and authority.52

    When a refugee is in contact with the police, they can experience feelings of fear and anxiety which stem from this general mistrust of authority. This can also serve as a disincentive to registering a complaint with the police; for instance, when something goes wrong or if the person is mistreated by law enforcement authorities. Refugees that have experienced mistreatment may decide not to make a complaint out of a fear that the retribution for lodging the complaint will be greater than the original mistreatment.53

    This can place a significant burden on recent arrivals from Africa and compound other difficulties during settlement. Some of the consequences can include:


  • legal problems, which can create a barrier to effective settlement and to social inclusion in Australian and African communities

  • potential for a criminal record or conviction, which has implications for future employment opportunities

  • heightened potential for racial profiling by police

  • high levels of debt, resulting in financial stress and possible bankruptcy.54

    To effectively address these barriers, refugees must be informed about the role of law enforcement officers, what they can and cannot do to or for people, and what rights people have under Australia’s legal system.55 The literature highlights a number of recent programs that have been developed to build legal literacy among African Australians. For example, the Legal Education and Awareness Project (LEAP) held workshops for African young people and provided training sessions on youth justice issues and culturally appropriate service delivery to community workers, police officers and court staff, including magistrates and judges.56 A key strength of the project was its specialised knowledge of justice issues for new and emerging communities and its capability in cultural awareness training.

    Community policing can also develop strategies and provide reassurance to support newly arrived refugee communities, particularly around understanding their rights and responsibilities under Australian law.57 This knowledge can have a profound influence on the successful settlement of individuals and families from newly-arrived refugee communities.

    Police and other law enforcement authorities have a responsibility to provide effective, appropriate, sensitive and responsive services and they must work in partnership with refugee communities to foster trust and confidence.58




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