Identification of strategies to assist refugee young people in transition to independence

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6 Good practice

This chapter aims to identify key elements of ‘good practice’ in addressing the support needs of young people with refugee experiences. It starts with a brief look at the concepts of good practice and quality assurance as they relate to human service contexts. Concrete examples of good practice in policy-making, program development and service delivery are highlighted in this chapter, including successful or innovative models developed overseas. While much can be learned from good practice wherever it is developed, the specific circumstances of young refugees and the community and government infrastructure that they can draw on for support differ considerably between countries and this often means direct comparisons are unhelpful. Nevertheless, in this chapter we make a first attempt to identify generic principles that underpin good practice in service design, delivery, evaluation and management, while recognising the necessarily contextdependent nature of implementation.

Quality and excellence in service organisations

Originally the notion of quality assurance was developed in manufacturing but now has a much wider application. However, the adoption of a quality assurance perspective in the human services should not be undertaken uncritically. Jones and May (1992) note several difficulties in applying quality control concepts to evaluation of human services. Most importantly, they point out that the notion of ‘enhanced service quality’ may itself be contested in a human services context. Quality is the concern of service providers who define it in terms of professionally derived standards, but it is also the concern of clients or consumers who may perceive quality quite differently. The consumer perspective is often neglected. Efforts to enhance service quality can consequently move in two, not necessarily parallel directions. One is the professional route that emphasises the importance of professional education and accreditation, peer review, improved practice theory and methods. The other emphasises the development of empathy and trust between organisation, worker and consumer, with more consumer participation and input. This is consistent with Sanderson’s dichotomy between the ‘technical’ dimension of quality assurance that refers to how well a service (or worker) conforms to its specifications, and the ‘subjective’ dimension of how well a service satisfies the requirements of its users (Sanderson 1992, p.17; and see Beilharz & Chapman 1994).

Most of the practitioners consulted in this study argued that ‘quality’ cannot be defined or conceded without taking into account young refugees’ perceptions of how successfully their needs have been met. This perspective presumes consultation with young refugees will feed into both the development and evaluation of policy and programs.

Elements of good practice work

How can models and examples of ‘good practice’ be identified? The strategy adopted in this study was to consult widely with nominated ‘good practitioners’, that is, people seen by their peers as experienced and knowledgable in working with young people from refugee backgrounds. Consultation was structured into two rounds of workshops in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales. (The workshop and consultation processes are explained further in the research design section of Chapter 1 and in Appendix 8.) Insights from front-line workers were integrated with suggestions from key informants made during the course of the project, and information from the wider literature on quality in social service practice. In addition, the interviews with refugee young people yielded many useful insights from a client perspective. The combination of information sources enabled an understanding of the sociopolitical context in which services are delivered in the different states as well as an overview of the ideals of practice abstracted from practitioner experience in Australia and overseas.
Cultural and linguistic appropriateness

It is not surprising that the key elements of good practice identified in discussion about meeting the needs of young refugees overlapped significantly with best practice associated with service responses to both young people in general and culturally diverse populations in general. Good practice in addressing the needs of refugee youth at an agency level implies a capacity to take into account the intersecting perspectives of youth and cultural diversity in the design and delivery of services.

Good practice is founded on inter-cultural sensitivity and an awareness of the nature and possible impact of the past experiences of young refugees. Staff in mainstream organisations were seen to need additional support, resources and training to raise their awareness of refugee-producing situations and relevant sociopolitical and cultural sensitivities, and to develop an understanding of the typical experiences of young refugees, both before and after migration. Empathy with young people presents a particular challenge for ethno-specific services since these often identify more easily with a parental perspective on the types of service required. Conversely, over-identification with young refugees was seen as a potential problem within some mainstream organisations.

Over-identification with the client is generally associated with high burnout rates, especially for volunteer workers. Workers with people from some cultural backgrounds may be deemed honorary family members in recognition of the support they are offering. Inclusion in family life in these instances is considered a ‘natural’ part of the process of establishing rapport and trust with the young people. However, once co-opted into the family, it may be difficult for workers to extricate themselves or to give advice that they know family members will have difficulty accepting.

Issues of cultural and linguistic appropriateness are relevant to all levels of an organisation’s practice: the nature of services delivered, the process for delivering these services, the system and culture of management, and the nature of external organisational relationships. Culturally appropriate practice requires both an organisational and a personal commitment.

Training in respect and cultural sensitivity is important, but ‘culture’ ought not to be thought of as simply a fixed body of information to be learnt by staff in a discreet series of training sessions (Barker 1980; Minas et al. 1996; Hartley & Anderson 1998). Social and cultural values may change over time and, therefore, developing cultural sensitivity must be seen as an ongoing process of learning and professional education and re-education.

A broader perspective on cultural awareness recognises how one’s own values, as well as the overt and covert values of institutions, impact on service users from different cultural backgrounds. Culturally sensitive service delivery involves:

  • knowledge of other cultures: treating young people as sources of knowledge about their own culture and being willing to learn from them is important in this regard; and

  • insight into the impact of one’s own values, ideologies and cultural patterns on others (Barker 1980).

The need for flexible and individualised response

Two young men from Eritrea arrived in Australia as stowaways on a ship.They were not related, and had no pre-existing friendship before their journey. They just happened to board the same boat. However, because they had arrived together and appeared to get along well, they were treated similarly, and the younger man who was under 18 was placed into the care of the older man (allegedly against the wishes of both young men). This arrangement broke down after a short time, and the men separated. To date, one of the young men has failed to recover from his experience. He has had mental health difficulties, general adjustment problems and is in trouble with the law. The other young man has settled relatively well and is succeeding in his school/work.

Good practice early intervention and partnerships:

Early intervention program in refugee health

The Early Intervention Program was piloted by the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture (VFST) in 1996 and is currently being implemented on a national scale as part of the Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy.

The pilot program was a joint venture of DIMIA, VFST, Springvale Community Aid and Advice Bureau and five Migrant Resource Centres in the western, northern and south-eastern regions of Melbourne. The pilot program provided health assessments to residents in on-arrival accommodation (OAA). The health assessment provided by VFST staff determined the level of need for medical services and referrals were made to GPs, dentists, pathologists, radiologists, other specialists and hospitals. By introducing newly arrived refugees to these services and ensuring that they receive sensitive and effective care, their ability to access the Australian health system with independence and confidence is enhanced. Torture and trauma issues are often raised during the assessments. OAA staff address issues that can be appropriately handled in the short-term. Issues requiring longer-term counselling are referred on to the Foundation’s generalist team. Source: VFST Annual Report 1995–96

Good practice housing:

Springvale Community Aid and Advice Bureau (SCAAB)

The Springvale Youth Housing Service auspiced by the Springvale Community Aid and Advice Bureau and based at Nobel Park Youth Research Centre is an example of good practice in providing housing services to young people, many of whom are refugees. The features of this service are as follows:

The target group is young people aged 15 to 25 years from non-English speaking backgrounds. There are six workers; four are multilingual. Each worker has a maximum caseload of 11 young people (over six months), which was expected to rise to 12 later in 1998. Cases are reviewed every three months. The support needs of service users are often very high and complex.

The workers supervise 10 houses containing a total of 20 residents, plus six additional young people housed in one-bedroom units that are managed by the local council. A further 40 or so young people in the community (with other families) also receive support from the workers. Some live outside the region, but may return daily for support. As at June 1998, only four service users were not refugees.

The 10 available houses have two to three bedrooms. Properties are usually designated male or female only. Properties are available for medium or longterm housing. Those under 18 years are eligible to stay for up to 18 months, whereas those over 18 are eligible to stay 12 months.

SCAAB’s policy ensures that interpreters are used as required. Workers do not allow themselves to be regarded as interpreters when supporting service users to access other services. Rather, they maintain a co-worker status with other (mainstream) services.

Service access is offered with flexibility: informal outreaching occurs (three nights per week) and formal appointments are also offered. The Springvale Outreach Service, co-located at the centre, is conducted jointly with the local council (City of Greater Dandenong). The outreach service involves a bus on two nights and a foot patrol on the third night. The service is staffed by drug and alcohol workers, a nurse and a lawyer. Workers at the outreach service are often multilingual. A needle exchange is also offered.

Exits from the housing service are made to permanent, long-term housing. Exits are a slow process because follow-ups are conducted over at least three months. Problems occur because very little secure, low-cost housing is available to young people.

Funding for the housing service is provided by the Supported Accommodation and Assistance Program, through a joint Commonwealth/State agreement.

Good practice mentoring:

UK Children’s Panel

Up to 300 young people seek asylum in the United Kingdom each year. Most of these young people have been invisible to the mainstream community services, to immigration officials and borough services. The British Refugee Council was concerned about this fact and initiated a project to guarantee individual support for each of these young people.

The UK Children’s Panel was developed in response to the increasing number of minors entering the United Kingdom seeking asylum. Legislation was passed by government to ensure that each unaccompanied child had an advisor, and a panel of trained advisors for unaccompanied refugee children who enter the UK was established. A panel member is assigned on an individual basis to support each child aged under 18 who enters the country without their parents or lawful caregivers and applies for asylum. Advisors are carefully matched to the young people. The advisor acts as a friend and advocate, helps the young person to understand the asylum process, links them into appropriate social services and ensures the provision of sound legal advice. A program coordinator oversees the program and ensures that the relationship continues being positive.

Good practice inclusion and consultation with young people:


The South-East Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) is the umbrella organisation for approximately 125 ethnic Mutual Assistance Associations (MAAs) throughout the USA. One of SEARAC’s major program areas is leadership development. SEARAC aims to foster intergenerational dialogue and improve the status of young leaders within the larger framework of Asian community organising. In 1995, SEARAC sought to develop the leadership ability of young people. Y-Select was designed to increase the skills of South-East Asian young people so that they could respond to needs in their communities and breathe new life into MAAs and, simultaneously, to establish a mechanism for narrowing the intergenerational gap that threatens the longevity of newly established communities.

Fourteen young South-East Asians attended leadership training with seven Executive Directors of MAAs. The young people then attended national nonprofit agencies for one week’s work experience. Following this, the 14 returned to their local MAA and began a 12-month internship, during which time they were expected to plan and implement a youth project. Interns were visited regularly, and offered both technical and personalised support. Participants reconvened to share their experiences and consolidate their training. Both interns and mentors participated in evaluations and assessments of the project and a report prepared by the young interns was publicised.

Table 9: Summary of good practice for working with young refugees

Philosophical Assumptions

Organizational Issues

Process Practices

Cultural awareness and knowledge;

Culturally appropriate practices;

Knowledge about young people;

Trust and rapport;


Expectation of diversity;

Community development with both the professional communities of service providers and the refugee communities;

Early intervention;

Family and community involvement managed with cultural sensitivity;

Identification of need;

Focus on resilience for practice.

Agency level access and equity policies;

Long-term commitment and goals;

Integration or coordination with services in the community relevant to the needs of young refugees;

Case management undertaken in ways appropriate for refugee young people;

On-going reflexive intercultural training program for staff;

Strategic interventions;

Committed and skilled staff;

Research oriented approach to practice because of the complexity of issues.

Consultation with refugee communities and refugee young people;

Advocacy of refugee rights and entitlements;

Culturally appropriate personal professional relationships with young people from refugee backgrounds;

Reliability and consistency in the delivery of support;

A cooperative team approach amongst staff.

Good practice employment, education and training

In 1994, the Centre for Multicultural Youth Issues (formerly the Ethnic Youth Issues Network) in Victoria conducted an employment, education and training pilot project for young refugees, which was the precursor for obtaining JPET funding. The pilot project established two positions in English Language Centres to coordinate services to young refugees, advocate on behalf of the target group and provide counselling and referrals for refugee young people. The project represented ‘one of the links needed in the chain of support for refugee young people’ (MacKenzie 1995) in that the project facilitated and monitored the transition of refugee young people from specialist support services to mainstream services.

What makes this project an example of good practice is:

a legitimate gap in the service system was identified (and documented), and a careful response was planned and implemented on a pilot basis;

the support workers were strategically located;

support workers were culturally sensitive and specialised in understanding the complex needs of the target group (needs-focused);

the focus was on early intervention and case management; and

capacity for community development work was in-built.

Good practice family involvement, prevention, raising

awareness and understanding

In Toronto, the East Metro Youth Service targets young people aged 12 to 18 years. The agency has a high level of commitment to providing services to migrant young people. The service established a family interaction program, in which families are matched with another family from another cultural group to share an important social or cultural event, such as Greek Easter and Chinese New Year. The children of each family who attend junior high school, report to the school about what they have experienced and learnt from attending the event. They also write a school project about the activity. At the end of each year, the families involved are brought together to evaluate their experiences and share some traditional Canadian hospitality.

Good practice mainstreaming

Organisational arrangements must be facilitated to ensure that issues faced by young refugees are not marginalised, but incorporated effectively into the mainstream. Two states with the largest numbers of young refugees have adopted different approaches to encouraging advocacy of refugee young people and fostering inter-agency coordination. In Victoria, the Centre for Multicultural Youth Issues (formerly the Ethnic Youth Issues Network), was auspiced by and co-located with the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria (YACVIC). The historical inter-dependency of the two agencies has been a constructive and mutually beneficial arrangement which has assisted a high priority for ethnic youth issues in the advocacy community and the policy processes. Although the CMYI is now independent, close working relations continue. In New South Wales, following a similar path, the Youth Action and Policy Association has established a steering committee for young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds as a standing committee of the association. In this way, issues faced by these young people can be raised, explored at length and addressed by those with the relevant expertise within the context of broader organisational support and commitment.

Good practice policy development

An example of good practice policy development is the New South Wales Government’s Strategic Directions for Refugee Health Care. This policy document represents a first attempt at formulating services specifically for refugees, rather than for immigrants or people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in general. The policy was developed on the basis of consultation and was linked to other key policies such as NSW Ethnic Affairs Action Plan 2000 and the NSW Government’s Vision for Health. It adopted a broad definition of refugees, inclusive of those with ‘refugee-like experiences’ (for example, those who may have entered Australia to be reunited with refugee family members). The policy has an early intervention focus, and the health needs of specific refugee groups are discussed. The issues faced by unaccompanied and detached minors are distinguished from issues faced by other refugee adolescents.

Good practice program design and development:

Job placement and employment training

The Job Placement and Employment Training (JPET) program for homeless and at-risk young people is widely regarded as a highly successful support program within the employment, education and training sector. Indeed, JPET explicitly targets young refugees, who may not necessarily be homeless, as a disadvantaged group under the guidelines of the program. JPET is the only support program within the sector to acknowledge that the nature of the refugee experience implies high support needs in terms of these young people’s chances of finding employment.

A notable feature of JPET is its recognition of the quality of the staff needed in the case management role. Staff have a strong commitment to make an ‘extra effort to get outcomes’ for their young clients (Prime Minister’s Youth Pathways Action Taskforce, 2001). Given that refugee needs tend to be articulated by community spokespeople representing a parental perspective of young people’s needs, JPET has an in-built capacity to provide an avenue for young refugees to express their own needs. The guidelines for JPET mandate workers to advocate on behalf of young refugees.
Appreciation of family context and involvement of family

It is unrealistic to try and solve refugee children’s [or young people’s] problems without raising the issue of the insecurity of the refugee parents, because dealing with the children alone would be [like] wallpapering a damp wall (Tsele 1987, p.13).

The involvement of the family has commonly been identified as a key element of good practice with young refugees and is important for ensuring culturally appropriate responses (Hartley & Anderson 1998; Aristotle 1997). At the same time, there is an inevitable tension between acknowledging the primary role of the family as caregivers and providers of support for a young person, and being aware that the young person is growing up and will almost certainly have views independent of his or her family. Cultural norms about independence, responsibility for decision-making, and the respective roles of children and parents must be carefully considered. A starting point is to ask questions (and find people who can assist in answering them). The questions might include:

  • What is the usual mode of relationship between parents and children in this culture?

  • How has it changed during the refugee experience?

  • Did the young person have to increase his or her responsibility within the family prematurely during the flight to freedom?

  • What does the young person want? How would he or she like to involve his or her family in making decisions and using services?

Individualised service delivery and a holistic approach to identifying need

Two important principles for good practice in service delivery emerge strongly from the relevant literature (see Hartley & Anderson 1998):

  • individuals’ problems should be examined in their social, cultural, economic and family contexts; and

  • the focus must be on the whole person rather than on ‘the problem’.

A high value was placed on individualised service delivery. This was seen to entail an expectation among service providers of diversity and difference within the population of refugee young people. The multiplicity and complexity of issues in young people’s lives and the diversity in individuals’ experiences and needs should be brought to the forefront when planning appropriate interventions. Case management was generally seen as an appropriate vehicle for maintaining a flexible person-centred approach to the delivery of services. The following example demonstrates the importance of responding flexibly to young people in accordance with their differing needs.

Forum participants emphasised that needs assessments should be thorough and regularly revised to enable responsiveness to the changing circumstances of clients and to give effect to a needs-based approach to determining eligibility.

It was emphasised that case management was not about one or two workers being ‘everything and all’ to a young person. Despite commitment, dedication and skill, workers move in and out of young people’s lives. Case management must aim to avoid dependencies, and instead attempt to strengthen the young person’s connection and relationships with family and the broader community.

Forum participants highlighted the importance of developing trust and rapport with young refugee clients. This was seen to require particular patience, allowing sufficient time for good relationships to develop without undue pressure for immediate results.

Another recurring theme was the need to adopt a non-labeling approach to working with each young person. This meant finding ways of identifying the strengths and capacities of the young person, including their existing networks of social support, and building on these to achieve positive results. Focus should be on developing self-esteem, and encouraging selfacceptance, self-confidence and assertiveness through empathetic, caring responses.

Integration and coordination

Two further core features of good practice work with young refugees were identified. These were the need for:

  • closely managed and supported referrals; and

  • broader, more sophisticated and well-established networks between agencies and services.

It was widely recognised that young refugees are less likely to initiate access to alternative (referred) services than most other service users and that referral protocols need to reflect this. Referral protocols must be developed to facilitate the movement of young refugees from agency to agency, and this should be initiated and encouraged at a senior management level as well as implemented by front-line staff.

Forum participants also made it clear that the supports needed by young refugees cross traditional sector and service boundaries, and are sufficiently complex that inter-organisational relationships and protocols with a diverse range of agencies are essential for good service provision. For example, a housing service networked with other housing services and some generalist support services may be adequate to the needs of most clients. However, when working with a young refugee, this same service may need to forge and utilise connections with recreation services, dental health services, torture and trauma services, ethno-specific organisations, religious groups and other agencies not normally encountered in the daily work of mainstream housing service providers. This is consistent with Hartley and Anderson’s (1998) conclusion that an integrated network of services and strong linkages between complementary services are key features of good practice. Hartley and Anderson also identify multiple entry points to the service system as prerequisites to effective service delivery.

Whole of organisation’ commitment

Work with young refugees requires flexibility, cultural knowledge and commitment. Front-line staff must, therefore, be sufficiently skilled to fulfil their responsibilities to this group of young people. A ‘whole of organisation’ commitment to people with refugee-like experiences is equally necessary. This commitment must be evident in every facet of organisational functioning, and be well integrated into the organisation’s operational culture.

Doyle and Rahi (1991) have documented organisational approaches to the multicultural realities facing social service organisations. They argue the ‘melting pot or assimilationist’ approach is increasingly outdated though this approach has been dominant during the 20th century. The ‘ethno-specific service approach’ and the ‘add-on multicultural approach’ devolve responsibility for meeting the needs of young refugees respectively to the refugee communities themselves or to the government (in that extra funds are requested before real and systemic change is undertaken). The ‘integrated multicultural’ approach, the fourth and most appropriate model, ‘requires total organisational change through a comprehensive process of dismantling visible and invisible barriers in order to achieve the full participation of all minority groups within the community’ (Doyle & Rahi 1991, p.8). The advice that emerged from the good practice forums was broadly consistent with this fourth model.

Early intervention and long-term support

When young people with refugee experiences first arrive in Australia, particularly if they arrive without close family, their needs are complex, multifaceted and pressing. The sooner these needs can be addressed, the less long-term disadvantage is likely to result; the logic of early intervention is particularly apt with respect to developing effective service responses to refugee young people. Language, education and health needs are all likely to be compounded unless addressed rapidly.

Many forum participants stressed the potential role of schools in early intervention because of their capacity to identify and reach at-risk young people. Some participants suggested that the bulk of resources available to young refugees should be directed through schools, preferably through full-service schools, capable of providing referral, information and a range of support services to their students.

Timely and appropriate provision of information is critical. Past experiences often make refugee young people distrustful of government officials and other public authority figures. This makes initial contact particularly important. The window of opportunity for sensitive response to requests for assistance is small. Minimal waiting periods were consequently seen as highly desirable.

At the same time as the importance of early intervention was emphasised, forum participants highlighted the need for ‘long-term goals, long-term planning, long-term interventions’. The depth and range of support needs prevalent in the young refugee population means that a long-term perspective should be adopted. This relates both to the activities of individual services and agencies, and to ‘settlement’ policy as a whole. Good practice here requires crossportfolio commitment within and across the different levels of government.

Consultation and community support

Consultation with refugee young people as part of the planning process for individual agencies and for broader policy development was identified as a foundation principle of good practice. Consultation should include the involvement of service users in decision-making and, where appropriate, issues relating to the management of the service.

Forum participants identified substantive consultation with relevant ethnic communities and the integration of services into the local community as important aspects of good practice. Again, working with young people in the context of their family is an integral part of this.

There is also a clear need for awareness-raising within the wider community about the needs and experiences of young refugees. As highlighted in the discussion of multiculturalism and racism in Chapter 4, there is much work to be done in this regard and the gap between ‘ideal’ policies and ‘real’ behaviour must be a focus for policy development.

Research orientation

One suggestion that emerged from the forums was the particular need for evidence-based policy development. Because of the complexity of issues surrounding the experiences and needs of refugees and the challenges of developing effective responses, it is important to recognise the value of research, policy and direct service work and the capacity of each to assist and inform the other.

The following practice issues require additional exploration:

  • the additional importance of addressing the recreational needs of refugee young people;

  • the potential of mentoring;

  • the provision of outreach; and

  • the use of the arts, especially in creative alternatives to verbal communication. The Western understanding of information provision is limited and culturally bound. Other ways of sharing information include storytelling. Lessons about the importance of non-Anglocentric communication also derive from validation therapy. These alternative methods are not widely acknowledged or used.


Good practice work with young refugees rests on several core tenets. First, total organisational commitment is required. This can be understood in terms of Doyle and Rahi’s (1991) ‘integrated multicultural approach’ to organisational change. Second, good practice work with young refugees relies on sound cultural understanding of both refugees’ issues and young people’s issues. Third, good practice involves focusing on individuals in their socioeconomic, cultural and family contexts, and understanding their problems as part of this broader context.

In addition to these core tenets, good practice work with young refugees requires:

• a holistic approach to identifying and responding to need;

• closely supported and managed referrals as part of an integrated service system;

• flexible and individualised service delivery;

• active maintenance of cultural appropriateness;

• the involvement of family members and the development of broad community networks; and

• commitment by front-line staff to developing their cultural knowledge and skill in the supportive context of a ‘whole of organisation’ commitment to meeting the needs of refugee young people.

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