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

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This study was commissioned and funded by the National Youth Affairs Research Scheme (NYARS). Louise Coventry undertook most of the initial data collection and wrote the first draft of the study findings. David MacKenzie contributed at all stages of the project and worked with Sarah Pinkney to produce the final version of this report. Many of the insights in this study reflect Carmel Guerra’s years of experience working on policy and services for refugee young people. Her commitment, encouragement and thoughtful advice have been central throughout.

Many people contributed their ideas, experience and enthusiasm during the lifetime of the project. Susan Ward, then with the Ethnic Youth Issues Network (EYIN) in Victoria, was a committed member of the project team while Carmel Guerra was away on leave. The members of the Project Reference Group provided wise advice leading to the first draft of the report. They were:

  • Paris Aristotle, Victorian Foundation for the Survivors of Torture;

  • Carol Croce, Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition;

  • Jo Elvins, (retired) Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs;

  • Susan Ferguson, Youth Affairs Network of Queensland;

  • Tony Fortey, Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs;

  • Nigel Hearn, Commonwealth Youth Bureau;

  • Paul Hoban, Brunswick English Language Centre;

  • Gail Hood, Milpera Intensive English Centre;

  • Barbara Leggott, Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs;

  • Margaret Piper, Refugee Council of Australia;

  • Susan Ward, Ethnic Youth Issues Network; and

  • Debbie Wong, Youth Action Policy Association.

In addition, many dedicated and experienced workers attended a series of forums to discuss ‘good practice’ principles and approaches. The policy ideas and arguments in this report were developed on the basis of input from key informants and some of the same people also served on the Project Reference Group. The following individuals gave considerable assistance to this project and advised the research team on many occasions: Paris Aristotle, Terri Bednall, Aileen Burgess, John Byrne, David Cox, Carol Croce, Jo Elvins, Susan Ferguson, Bill Frost, Peter Hosking, Merle Mitchell, Margaret Piper, Susan Ward, and Debbie Wong.

Thanks are due to the NYARS Secretariat, particularly to Ben Clews for his patient support of the project, and for his work in facilitating feedback on drafts of the report. Many helpful suggestions were made by the NYARS Steering Committee. We would also like to thank all those people from federal government departments who gave us information and expert feedback on earlier drafts of the report. The Client Access Unit of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs proved a valuable resource, and we would like to thank Margot Clifford for her energetic response to our requests for assistance particularly in the final stages of the project.

We would also like to thank the principals of the English Language Schools who gave their permission to ask selected students to participate in interviews and surveys. Their assistance made it possible to obtain some important new information.

Finally, we must thank the refugee young people interviewed for this study. These young people were keen for others to understand what they had lived through. They were generally optimistic about the future and happy to be making new lives in Australia. It is their positive outlook and creative potential to which the title of the report Wealth of All Nations refers.

March 2002

Executive summary

The study

The needs of refugee young people have rarely been the specific focus of research or policy development. Instead, young refugees have tended to be represented in policy and academic discussion as a subgroup either of young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds or of refugees in general. This study was commissioned by the National Youth Affairs Research Scheme (NYARS) as a first step in consolidating what is known about young refugees as a specific needs group. It aims to provide an information base on which to build more effective strategies to address the complex needs of these young people and assist their long-term independence within Australia.

The report brings together insights from consultation and interviews with young refugees, refugee families, policy-makers and service providers, and a range of information from previous research and official statistics to address the following key questions:

  • What sorts of characteristics define and differentiate the population of young people with refugee-like experiences currently residing in Australia?

  • How should the ‘needs’ of refugee young people be conceptualised and what sorts of supports does this diverse group of young people require to enable a successful transition to independence?

  • How well are federal policy and programs able to respond to the needs of refugee young people, particularly where family supports are inadequate or not available?

  • What can be done to improve this service response and what examples and principles of good practice can be drawn upon as guides?

The population of refugee young people in Australia

The term ‘young refugee’ is used in this report to refer to people aged between 12 and 25 years who share common refugee experiences, regardless of their visa classification or status upon entry to Australia. ‘Refugee experience’ is defined as exposure to political, religious or intercultural violence, persecution or oppression, armed conflict or civil discord that incorporates the following basic elements: a state of fearfulness for self and family members, leaving the country of origin at short notice, inability to return to the country of origin, and uncertainty about the possibility of maintaining links with family and home.

Many young refugees have lived with the constant threat of violence and some have witnessed or even experienced torture. The trauma resulting from such experiences is deeply felt, whether or not it is openly discussed. Young refugees almost inevitably begin their life in Australia dislocated not only from their former home but also from loved ones left behind or lost in the confusion and desperation of escape. Many have spent long periods in transit camps or places of temporary asylum before and, in some cases, after reaching Australia. Such experiences lay common ground between people from otherwise disparate cultural, national and socioeconomic backgrounds. The report estimates that there are currently between 16,000 to 20,000 young people with refugee experiences living in Australia.

Despite the considerable diversity in their individual circumstances, the broad commonality of experience shared by young people from refugee backgrounds is likely to result in similar sorts of barriers to both shortand longer-term settlement in Australia. The challenges faced by young refugees give rise to a range and complexity of support needs overlapping yet different from those of other refugees and migrants. For all young people migrating to a new country, achieving independence entails successful negotiation of two simultaneous transition processes: a transition from one culture to another and an interrelated transition from childhood or adolescence to adulthood. Refugee young people are forced to cope with the traumas of their recent past at a particularly vulnerable stage in their personal development. Certain groups of young refugees face even greater challenges in their initial settlement and longer-term transition to independence:

  • those who arrive in Australia as children or adolescents unaccompanied by family or a significant adult, and who therefore miss guidance and adult support at a critical time in their lives;

  • those who have endured extended periods in transit camps where basic nutritional, educational or recreational needs may have been neglected; and

  • those who arrive in the country without authorisation, since extreme fearfulness and a sense of loss of freedom and movement may continue well after arrival in Australia.

Once in Australia, needs are mediated by the response of the host society, and the extent of family and community networks young people can draw on for support. Many refugee young people have family and community links to help them through the challenges of growing up in a new and sometimes hostile environment, but this is not always the case. Similarly, while many young refugees join established migrant communities when they arrive in Australia, others belong to emerging groups with limited support networks.

A particularly disturbing finding of this study is the extent of homelessness among refugee young people. The risk of homelessness for young refugees is at least six to 10 times greater than for other young people of school age. This finding is suggestive of a broader risk of social disconnectedness that seriously undermines chances of long-term independence. It also indicates a failure of policy because significant numbers of refugee young people clearly seem to be falling through the social safety net.

A national young refugee support policy

Some of the most comprehensive and well-developed settlement policies and programs in the world are Australian, but the absence of an explicit identification of young refugees as a high-need or disadvantaged group creates policy blind spots with serious implications for practice.

Settlement policy and programs assume that if families are supported and functional, then young people who are part of those families will have their needs addressed within the family unit. This assumption is questionable, particularly where settlement is viewed as more than just a short-term period. It is a basic tenet of youth policy in Australia that young people have specific needs notwithstanding the level of support they receive from their families. It is further recognised that young people from diverse cultural backgrounds may need additional support and specialist services to ensure that their needs are adequately met.

The importance of injecting a longer-term youth perspective into humanitarian settlement policy is borne out by evidence that after an initial period of settlement, many young refugees do not access the sorts of services that analysis of their socioeconomic disadvantage suggests would be crucial to ensure adequate support. For example, the greater risk of homelessness among young refugees is not paralleled by proportionately greater use of accommodation and related services; indeed the reverse appears to be true. At the same time, it is not reasonable to expect that generalist policy and services addressed to all young people will be effective unless the unique support needs arising from clients’ experience as refugees are taken into account.

A potential solution lies at the intersection of youth policy and humanitarian settlement policy. The key recommendation arising from this project is for the development of a national policy for the support of young refugees that would incorporate this crossportfolio perspective. A national policy would also provide a framework for ensuring that the needs of young refugees are better addressed by more deliberate use of existing human and financial resources for support of this group.

Recommendation 1:

That a national young refugee support policy be developed by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, in consultation with other stakeholder state and federal departments.

Key components of an effective support policy

Ensuring agency commitment to access and equity

From the limited evidence available, young refugees appear to be under-represented among users of both mainstream and ethno-specific social services. This is likely to be because of limited awareness among this group about available supports. It may also suggest a lack of cultural appropriateness of the services. 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 ethnicity in the design and delivery of services.

The Charter of Public Service in a Culturally Diverse Society could potentially be used to bring about a stronger focus, in government and community agencies and services, on young refugees. However, mechanisms are needed to ensure that social service agencies follow through and are held accountable for the implementation of their access and equity policies.

Recommendation 2:

That the allocation of government funding to social service agencies be conditional upon appropriate access and equity policies at agency level, and be linked where appropriate to access and equity outcomes established under government guidelines and incorporated in service agreements.
Ensuring the coordination and integration of service delivery

The support needs of young refugees transgress both departmental and sectoral boundaries and make complex demands on the full range of human services. Consequently, the capacity for coordination and integration of services is a key component in building an effective national support strategy for young refugees.

The National Integrated Settlement Strategy (NISS) and Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy (IHSS) are explicitly designed to encourage the different tiers of the government and community sectors to work together in the interests of people with refugee experiences. These strategies are based on sound principles but lack adequate focus on the specific needs of young refugees as well as the resources for effective implementation.

Recommendation 3:

That the Federal Government develop a comprehensive youth strategy for young refugees as an integral part of the National Integrated Settlement Strategy (NISS) and Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy (IHSS).
Encouraging continuous improvement by consultation with refugee young people

The common practice of allowing older refugees to speak on behalf of younger refugees, and of nominating community leaders to speak in general terms about the needs experienced across an entire community, tends to elicit a parental perspective on the needs of young refugees. Direct consultation with young refugees is rare and this is a missed opportunity for pertinent feedback on the effectiveness of policy. Consultation with refugee young people should be a foundation principle of a national support policy. One possibility is for a non-government peak organisation to assume responsibility for on-going consultation with young refugees and other young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Recommendation 4:

That the Federal Government ensure ongoing consultation with young refugees and service providers working with them about the issues and support services that affect young refugees. Consideration should be given to resources needed to support the mechanisms for this consultation to take place.
Ensuring data is available to evaluate the effectiveness of policy and programs

The capacity to evaluate the effectiveness of policy or programs that claim to meet the needs of refugees, old or young, is severely constrained by lack of consistent recording of refugee or humanitarian status in agency records. It is not always feasible or appropriate for information on a migrant’s entry or protection visa classification to be recorded. There are some possible exceptions to this. Given the relationship between visa category and access to income support, it is desirable that Centrelink and other agencies dispensing emergency financial assistance record this information.

The problem of developing indicators of refugee experience falls within the larger project of developing a standardised approach to collecting data on the ethnic, cultural and linguistic background of clients in order to monitor the potential disadvantage (or in some instances, advantage) arising from these factors. In 1999 the Australian Bureau of Statistics responded to the widely recognised need for a nationally consistent framework for the collection and dissemination of data on ethnicity by developing Standards for Statistics on Cultural and Language Diversity. The implementation of the ABS Standards is a pressing issue on which other policy research and development depends.

Recommendation 5:

That the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs in collaboration with the Australian Bureau of Statistics develop a process to monitor the national implementation of the ABS Standards for Statistics on Cultural and Language Diversity in both the government and non-government sectors.
Recognising risk and resilience

A key aim of this study has been to identify strategies to enable the early and effective settlement of young refugees. The enormous challenges faced by many young refugees upon arriving in Australia would appear in some cases to raise insurmountable barriers to successful settlement. However, an exclusive focus on the ‘neediness’ of these young people may result in unwarranted pessimism about their longer-term prospects. Young refugees, like young people generally, tend to be resilient and adaptive; moreover people from refugee backgrounds are proven survivors, having often overcome considerable difficulties to reach Australia.

Agencies supporting young refugees must find ways to build on the strengths of young refugees and assist them to participate in the community. At the same time, failure to recognize the multiplicity and complexity of the needs of this diverse group of young people will undermine the ultimate effectiveness of government and community support. Therefore, young people with refugee experiences should be seen as a ‘high risk’ group, meriting priority attention and specific allocation of resources in many areas of social policy, much in the same way as homeless young people have received such attention in recent years.

Appreciating and responding effectively to the needs of young refugees necessarily involves a longerterm support perspective than that which defines the parameters of current settlement programs. The review of government support and services undertaken for this study suggests that the least developed program areas are those that potentially respond to the longer-term needs of young refugees. This is not a problem any department of immigration can solve by itself. The federal departments responsible for education, income and employment services will need to assume greater responsibility for addressing the needs of young refugees within their programs and services. The explicit identification of young people with refugee experiences as a special needs group within the program areas of relevant departments is one way of enabling a longer-term perspective on strategies for assisting successful settlement.

An effective national policy for young refugees should focus not only on an initial period of settlement but beyond to their future lives as new residents and citizens of Australia. The importance of adopting a longer-term perspective on ‘settlement’ raises the issue of how to define the target population of young refugee settlers. Currently many young people with refugee experiences living in Australia are not considered by government to be prospective ‘settlers’. This is true in the case of temporary protection visa holders who, by definition, are allowed to remain in Australia for a limited time; it is not intended that people under the terms and conditions of these visas settle and make Australia their home. Most mainstream government services, including income support, are only available to migrants with permanent residency status.

We argue that young people with refugee experiences who are resident in Australia on a temporary basis and/or whose claims for refugee status and protection are still being processed (asylum seekers), should be included in a national young refugee support policy even though their ‘final’ destination may be a country other than Australia. Both temporary protection visa holders and asylum seekers are resident in Australia for an uncertain period of time. Even young people who remain ineligible for permanent protection visas and hence permanent residency status may remain in Australia for longer than three years since temporary protection visas may be renewed. For people in their teens and early twenties, even relatively short periods without adequate support can seriously undermine long-term life chances and independence (whether in Australia or elsewhere). On humanitarian grounds and on the grounds of enhancing the effectiveness of policy designed to enable early and effective settlement, all young people with refugee experiences living in Australia and seeking Australia’s protection should be treated ‘as if’ they were going to remain in the country indefinitely. This would entail having access to education, income, employment and other mainstream supports from the beginning of their stay.

Recommendation 6:

That broad youth policy in the federal and state jurisdictions explicitly address the special needs of young people with refugee experience along with other special needs groups where appropriate.

Ensuring equity and efficiency in criteria of eligibility for government services

This report argues that the target population for a national support strategy should comprise young people with refugee experiences resident in Australia and that eligibility should be decided according to need. At present, eligibility for a range of mainstream and migrant specific supports and services is determined on the basis of visa classification and residency status. We argue that the ‘hierarchy of benefits’ set in place by current distinctions in the visa classification system, results in serious inequities in the treatment of young refugees. First, people with similar claims for refugee status, or more broadly, for humanitarian protection, are treated differently according to the means by which they entered the country. Second, young people who share similar refugee experiences and settlement support needs, entered, or were allowed to stay in Australia on visas that confer very different entitlements to government assistance.

Two subgroups of young people with refugee experiences residing in Australia are identified as being particularly disadvantaged by current visa and eligibility arrangements. These are temporary protection visa holders and young people who were sponsored to Australia by refugee family members under the Family Stream of the Migration Program. The number of young people in both these subgroups can be anticipated to increase. The likely impact of restrictions to eligibility for government assistance is to undermine the chances of some particularly high-risk groups of young migrants for successful settlement. Current arrangements are not only inequitable but, from the point of view of strategic settlement policy, they are also likely to be ineffective. The approach to determining eligibility stands in marked contrast to federal youth policy generally, where emphasis is increasingly placed on ensuring young people at risk of not making a successful transition to independence are specifically targeted for preventative assistance. The overlap in the populations of young refugees and homeless young people heightens this contradiction. The report makes the case for a needs-based approach to eligibility on the grounds of equity and the long-term effectiveness of refugee settlement policy and youth policy.

Recommendation 7:

That the eligibility criteria for government assistance to young people with refugee experiences be reviewed with the objective of investigating how a needs-based approach might best be implemented.
Fostering community support and understanding

As young refugees begin their lives in Australia, they tend to become aware of conflicting messages. On the one hand, they encounter an ethic of multiculturalism which tells them they are welcome and valued additions to Australian society; on the other, they encounter racist attitudes and practices that suggest the opposite. Racist attitudes and practices constantly undermine the official policy stance of multiculturalism. There needs to be continuing community education to encourage a more positive, empathetic and generous response to disadvantaged groups including refugees and asylum seekers. This is important for receiving broad community support for extending equitable and humane treatment to these young people.

Recommendation 8:

That the Federal Government undertake continuing community education to encourage people in the broader community to respond positively and generously to refugees and asylum seekers, particularly by highlighting young refugees as future young Australians.
Developing cultural awareness among service providers

An unintentional lack of cultural sensitivity is observable in some service institutions and service providers. Cross-cultural awareness training is often a low priority and low status activity in Australia, and this needs to be overturned. In-service training and the training of mainstream service providers by ethnospecific service providers can help sensitise mainstream professionals to the issues. Beyond the individual commitment of staff, and opportunities for training, 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 external organisational relationships.

Recommendation 9:

That a proportion of government funds for organisations working largely with clients from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds be tied to crosscultural awareness staff training and organisational development.
Further research

This study has highlighted many gaps in our basic knowledge about young refugees in Australia. Two areas are recommended for further attention. A need is particularly evident for reliable information on the circumstances of refugee young people who first came to Australia without authorisation. Another group of young people about whom little is known and whose needs may consequently be overlooked are the children of refugees.

Recommendation 10:

That further research be conducted to ascertain similarities and differences between the needs of refugees and their children.

Recommendation 11:

That further research be undertaken to investigate the needs and access to support services of refugee young people currently living in the Australian community who arrived without authorisation and/or who hold bridging or temporary protection visas.


The importance of developing a national young refugee support policy lies in enabling some 16,000 to 20,000 young people find a real home in Australia and make their full contribution to Australian society. This contribution promises to be considerable, but first these young people must be assisted to meet the challenges that confront them on arrival. To be effective in helping young refugees make a successful transition to independence, policy and program development must explicitly take the complex and multifaceted needs of these young people into account. It must also recognise that an adequate response to the needs of refugee young people entails a long-term commitment. The adoption and successful implementation of the good practice approaches identified as part of a national strategy in this report require the commitment and care of practitioners and service providers. Success also depends on the political will and dedicated support of the Federal Government.

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