Arja Keski-Nummi and Libby Lloyd. Resettling Syrian and Iraqi Refugees: A Program for Government-Community Action

Sep 17, 2015

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.

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

We know that a well structured and inclusive resettlement service must harnesses the expertise of professional service providers and the goodwill of the community – this is vital to the future well being 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, 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 better 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 recognized 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. Learning English, getting a job, having qualifications recognised and their children able to go to school and resume a childhood in safety are the start of that journey.

But it is a journey with many obstacles: not recognising or understanding the linguistic and cultural cues; missteps that can be humiliating to a sense of self esteem; bad news from home; guilt at being safe; the loss of a job, or illness are just some of the many challenges to be faced and overcome.

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 previous qualifications and skills. Many will never be able to return to their chosen occupations.

We need to learn from the past to do better in the present and into the future.

The groundswell of community sentiment for Australia to do more has been heartening.   Many people in the Australian community have not only asked the Government to do more, they have also shown that they want to be part of the solution.

There are currently government and community sponsored programs that we should be bringing together to look systemically at how, as a community, we can collaboratively assist and get the most effective programs running 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 the 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 to quickly identify people in need of resettlement. The reality is that with 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 even the ability to get to where UNHCR may be operating is an impossibility. 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 the Humanitarian Settlement Services Providers are gearing up to expect a greater number of people to utilise 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 their 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, like 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 30 and more 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 after, 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, encouraging training providers to provide free of charge places for some to undertake basic entry level training such as in the cleaning and construction industries.

While the circumstances may be different the needs still remain universal.

Now is the time for government and communities to come together in a unique way to make sure that we do the best we can in assisting people to resettle away from the ravages of war. In reality governments and communities are in a symbiotic relationship – no amount of professional services funded by government can provide the span of services and support that are 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 more directly engaged in close assistance to 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 more holistic approach. Governments with business, unions and peak welfare bodies could for example agree to the creation of a Refugee Resettlement Fund – with a dollar for dollar matching scheme.

Such a fund could for instance 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 are harder to get in regional Australia (housing in regional Australia can be more available and cheaper),
  • encourage regional communities and support groups in the resettleement of greater numbers of refugees in regional centres where housing availability and employment opportunities exist such as in centres with abbatoirs and agricultural industries
  • support trades and skills recognition (currently a prohibitively expensive process for many),
  • develop a skills matching database that would assist people in their search for jobs and matching jobseekers to employers,
  • support access to workplace training programs that assist people to become job ready quickly,
  • create small business hubs that facilitate the pathway for 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 we need to harness that new talent pool).

This could for example 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 body could for instance work with regional and local service providers in assisting in the design, delivery and funding of local services for people resettling in their communities.

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

By involving and linking new arrivals with direct assistance from their local community we additionally harness direct and positive goodwill to people who can in some cases become isolated and detached from our broader multicultural society that at this moment is teeming with good will.

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