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



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1 Introduction

Background to the project


The National Youth Affairs Research Scheme (NYARS) annually commissions significant research into current social, political and economic issues affecting Australia’s young people (those aged between 12 and 25 years). In 1997, NYARS commissioned the Centre for Youth Affairs Research and Development and the Centre for Multicultural Youth Issues (then the Ethnic Youth Issues Network) to undertake a study to identify strategies that would enable refugee young people to make a successful transition to independence within their new country.

Young people from refugee backgrounds potentially face many barriers to successful resettlement resulting from their pre-migration and migration experiences. Relatively little research focuses specifically on young refugees to ascertain how this group’s settlement needs may differ from those of older refugees and other migrants. In his landmark report published in 1994 about the settlement of refugee, humanitarian and displaced immigrants in Australia, James Jupp argued that the absence of a distinction between the settlement needs of refugees and those of other migrants represented a key policy failure. Jupp identified the ‘study of the social adjustment […] of refugee youth’ as one of the priority areas for further research (1994, p.84).

Young people with refugee experiences might reasonably be expected to have different or more complex needs compared with most other young migrants regardless of their ethnic or cultural background. Young refugees face the difficulty of having to work through past traumas and rebuild relationships, while starting life afresh in a new country whose language and culture is new to them. Usually, but not always, they do this with the support of at least some family members. Unlike their parents or other adult family members, refugee young people simultaneously face the challenge of ‘growing up’ in their new country. This study is grounded in the realisation that a better understanding of the specific needs of young refugees and the nature of the difficulties they experience in making the transition to independence is a prerequisite to developing more effective policy and programs.

Project partners


This project was jointly undertaken by RMIT’s Centre for Youth Affairs Research and Development and the Centre for Multicultural Youth Issues.

The Centre for Youth Affairs Research and Development (YARD) is a university organisation that has close links with the youth sector. The centre has established a national reputation for its work in a number of important areas of youth research and development.

The Centre for Multicultural Youth Issues (CMYI) is a Victorian community-based support and resource organisation for young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and the organisations that work with ethnic minority young people. It is an independent body auspiced by the Australian Multicultural Foundation. The centre’s immediate predecessor, the Ethnic Youth Issues Network, was established in 1988 and was auspiced by the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria.

A Project Reference Group was established at the outset of the study to advise on the best way to achieve the project objectives and to assist in the interpretation of findings. A list of reference group members can be found in Appendix 1.


Objectives and research design


The project was designed to answer 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 do 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?

Mindful of Moss’s observation that ‘large scale, quantitative studies into the needs of refugees are not appropriate and may not yield much useful data’ (1993, p.175), the project adopted a multi-method approach comprising several components.

Component 1:

Review of academic and policy-related literature

The literature review covered: theorisation on the conceptualisation of need; accounts of the premigration, migration and settlement experiences of refugees, particularly of young refugees; and empirical and theoretical studies identifying the risk factors and barriers to settlement associated with the refugee experience.



Component 2:

A review of government policies and program information

This review is current to March 2002. Information was obtained directly from relevant government departments and agencies, and from their web sites.



Component 3:

Analysis of secondary data sources to profile the target group

The research team initially sought data from seven sources: Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Australia (LSIA), the Translating and Interpreting Service Information System (TISIS), the Adult Migrant English Program Reporting and Monitoring System (ARMS), the National Settlement Database (SDB), the (former) Department of Social Security, and from Brunswick English Language Centre (which had collected information about migrant students with low literacy levels). Refer to Appendix 2 for information about these sources of data.



Component 4:

Consultation with a range of policy-makers and service providers to elicit their views on the adequacy of government policy relevant to young refugees

The people consulted for the study were those identified as having considerable expertise in working with young refugees over many years. They came from both the public (federal and state) and community sectors, with specific expertise in housing, management, service development, torture and trauma, mental health, youth policy, juvenile justice, education and language services. Our informants were asked to talk about their views on the strengths and weaknesses of government policy affecting young refugees. Topics included access, eligibility, coordination and information sharing, assessments, on-arrival assessments, asylum seekers, health, employment, income, education and training, justice and law, housing, identity, language services and practice concerns.



Component 5:

A survey of 200 students attending selected English Language Centres (3) and Adult Migrant English Programs (5) in Queensland and New South Wales

English Language Centres and Adult Migrant English Programs provide an important point of access to refugee young people. All states and territories with the exception of Victoria provided appropriate ethics clearance for the project to survey or interview young refugees in English Language Centres. Victoria’s refusal to participate in the project is unfortunate, since this state is home to the second largest proportion of new humanitarian arrivals after New South Wales. To compensate for this, the results of the survey were compared with data from a 1995 pilot survey conducted in Victoria. Students were asked to complete a questionnaire (see Appendix 8) in a classroom situation under the supervision of their teacher. The questionnaire, a plain language statement and the consent form were translated into 10 community languages. Additional interpreters were used for other languages. The survey was piloted with a small group of students and amendments made before the large-scale administration of the survey. Respondents were asked about the conditions in former countries that led them to seek refugee status, their living and housing arrangements in Australia, and their future plans. See Appendix 8 for a copy of the survey instrument.



Component 6:

A national survey to estimate the extent of homelessness among young refugees

This study sought to investigate common anecdotal claims that refugee young people have a high risk of homelessness extending beyond an initial period of settlement in which housing instability would be anticipated for all new arrivals. Homelessness, in its various degrees, is an important indicator of social disconnectedness. Young people living in temporary or inadequate accommodation for long periods of time, as well as those living on the streets or in squats, are likely to encounter acute difficulties in taking advantage of various employment and education opportunities and preparing themselves adequately for their future lives in Australia. To assess the extent of homelessness among young refugees, Adult Migrant English Programs and English Language Centres across Australia were asked to count the number of students during the week of the survey whose situation matched various categories of housing stress or homelessness. A four-category definition of homelessness was devised specifically for the purposes of this study (see Appendix 3). The results of this survey were compared with new data from the national census of homeless school students (MacKenzie & Chamberlain 1995).



Component 7:

Face-to-face interviews with selected students at English Language Centres and Adult Migrant English Programs in New South Wales and Queensland

Altogether, 33 interviews were conducted, each between 40 and 80 minutes in duration. Interpreters were used as required and interviews were taperecorded. Twenty-one interviewees were male and 12 were female. About one-third of the interviewees came from Bosnia (12), but a range of other countries were also represented namely Algeria (1), Afghanistan (2), Pakistan (1), East Timor (1), Croatia (2), Vietnam (3), Iraq (5), Somalia (4), Sudan (1) and Eritrea (1). Interviewees ranged in age from 15 to 25 years. English Language Centres and Adult Migrant English Programs were chosen as data collection sites because they are the last near-universal point of service contact with refugees. Individual sites were selected for accessibility and the cultural mix of the community in which each institution was located. Participating sites were: Liverpool Adult Migrant English Program, Milperra Intensive English Centre, Keebra Park State High School, Southbank TAFE, Yeronga TAFE, Beverly Hills Intensive English Centre, Fairfield Adult Migrant English Program and Auburn Adult Migrant English Program. See Appendix 4 for a copy of the interview schedule.



Component 8:

Interviews with five refugee families living in Victoria

These interviews were conducted by staff from the Job Placement, Education and Training (JPET) program employed by the Ethnic Youth Issues Network (now the Centre for Multicultural Youth Issues), and families were chosen because of their existing links and rapport with JPET staff. The aim of the interviews was to explore families’ expectations for their children and to get a sense of cultural variability in notions of ‘independence’. Five families were interviewed. This was an exercise in sensitisation rather than an attempt to interview a representative cross-section of refugee families. The family interview schedule is included in Appendix 5.



Component 9:

Good practice forums and consultation with community service agencies

Three half-day forums were conducted in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne to generate ideas about good practice in working with young refugees and to document examples of services and programs that seemed to work particularly well. Between 18 and 30 individuals with experience working with refugee young people attended each of the forums. Attendees were from both the public and community sectors and were predominantly involved in direct service work, although a significant number of policy workers and youth advocates also attended. Attendance was by invitation only, and invitation lists were compiled by youth peak bodies in each state, in consultation with the project team. Ideas about the concept of good practice were presented at the outset of each forum, after which the discussion was oriented towards specific indicators of good practice in working with young people with refugee-like experiences. Forum participants worked through two rounds of workshops focused on service responses to young refugees. The first round of workshops considered differences between good practice work with young refugees and with young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds across several service areas: employment, education and training; housing; health; and racism, identity and culture. Young people from culturally diverse backgrounds were chosen as the point of comparison because, of all potential service users, they most closely resemble young refugees. The second round of workshops recognised that service provision ought to be considered along a temporal continuum. Participants were asked to identify examples and indicators of good practice work with young refugees in a reception context, in a settlement context and in a post-settlement context. (See Appendix 7 for a more detailed description of the forum agendas and method.) Further consultation with workers from a range of community service agencies (selected on the basis of information gathered in study Components 1 to 9) was carried out in order to develop clearer strategies for assisting young people in their transition to independence.


Structure of the report


The report is divided into seven chapters addressing the project objectives, and eight appendices that provide detail on specific aspects of data collection. Chapter 2 explains the definition of ‘young refugee’ adopted by this study. The notion of ‘refugee experience’ is contrasted with official classifications of refugee and humanitarian status embodied in international law and Australian migration policy. The chapter identifies the common threads of experience that unite young people from refugee backgrounds and, in the context of an overview of Australia’s immigration program, explains the different visa classifications under which these young people enter, or are allowed to stay in, Australia. Chapter 3 estimates the total number of young people with refugee-like experiences currently living in Australia. It presents a range of statistical data on the source countries, age, gender and geographical distribution of young refugees who entered Australia under the Humanitarian Program, and highlights the gaps in our current knowledge about the wider population of young people from refugee backgrounds. Chapter 4 considers how refugee experiences before, during and immediately after migration potentially erect barriers to young people’s successful resettlement and longer-term independence. The chapter outlines problems associated with the conceptualisation and measurement of ‘need’ with respect to this client group and provides a descriptive account of key issues in the areas of employment, education, training, accommodation, health, justice, income and psycho-social support. Chapter 5 reviews the capacity of the current service system to meet the immediate and longer-term support needs of young people with refugee experiences. It explains Australia’s commitment to refugees generally and the de facto policy context in which the needs of young refugees are currently addressed, including an overview of federal government services and programs. Chapter 6 draws attention to key examples of good practice in service delivery, and in policy and program development, and makes a first attempt to identify the principles that underpin good practice. Finally, Chapter 7 summarises key findings and draws out the main policy implications of the study, with recommendations for improving support to young people with refugee experiences.

Note on terminology


In this report, unless otherwise stated, the term ‘young refugee’ is used to refer to people aged between 12 and 25 years who share common refugee-like experiences, regardless of their strict entry status or visa classification. This is to recognise that not all people with refugee experiences have official refugee status or entered the country under the Humanitarian Program of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (as explained further in Chapter 2). The terms ‘young refugees’, ‘refugee young people’, ‘young people with refugee experiences’ and ‘young people from refugee backgrounds’ are used interchangeably. The migration categories under which young people with refugee experiences have entered Australia are described using their official title to avoid possible confusion, for example, ‘entrants under the Refugee component of the offshore Humanitarian Program’.

The term ‘mainstream’ is used frequently in this report. Conventionally it is used to refer to organisations that are seen as central to the Australian way of life and endorsed by the broader community. Such organisations are generally contrasted with ‘ethnic or ethno-specific’ organisations and services that are by implication seen as more marginal. In this report, the term ‘mainstream’ is used more neutrally to describe those services or organisations that are set up for all groups in the community in contrast with services specifically designed to meet the needs of a particular group or groups.

The term ‘Anglo-Australian’ has been used as a shorthand reference to people who come from Englishspeaking communities and cultures, and does not refer exclusively to those whose families originated in Great Britain.

Note on currency of the report


The interviews and consultation for this study were carried out between 1997 and 1998. Several factors, including changes to the research team, delayed publication of the findings. However, an initial draft of the report was substantially revised prior to eventual publication in 2002. This report incorporates new data and discussion of federal government policy and programs current to March 2002.




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