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

Statistical profile of young refugees

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3 Statistical profile of young refugees

One aim of this chapter is to describe the characteristics of the young refugee population resident in Australia. This is not necessarily a straightforward task, not only because of the limitations of available statistics, but because of definitional complexities. In this chapter we investigate the problem of estimating the size of the population of young people with refugee-like experiences. Statistics on Humanitarian Program entrants provide the most accessible source on information on young refugees, but do not include all young people with refugee experiences living in Australia. We look at the numbers of young people admitted to Australia (either alone or with family) under the Humanitarian Program over the last decade and give basic demographic information on their countries of birth, ages, gender and geographical distribution across Australia. Data presented in this chapter were derived primarily from the National Settlement Database (Appendix 2 sets out other key sources of data on young refugees). This chapter also outlines the new Australian Bureau of Statistics Standards for Statistics on Cultural and Language Diversity. We finish by identifying some of the more persistent gaps in statistical knowledge regarding the circumstances of young refugees, particularly those relevant to the planning of services.

Demographics of young humanitarian entrants

Statistics produced by DIMIA on new arrivals under the Humanitarian Program provide the most accessible information on the characteristics of young refugee settlers in Australia. These statistics are generated from the national Settlement Database (SDB). It is important to recognise, however, that Humanitarian Program statistics alone, underestimate the number of young people with refugee experiences. First, these statistics do not include young people who arrived under the Family Stream of the Migration Program to join refugee and humanitarian settlers in Australia. It is likely that a proportion of young Family Stream migrants share refugee experiences similar to entrants under the Humanitarian Program (see Table 1, Chapter 2). The second limitation of Humanitarian Program statistics is that they tend not to include people on temporary protection visas (TPVs). The Settlement Database excludes young refugees on TPVs because these young people are not permanent residents and are therefore not considered to be ‘settlers’ in Australia.1 We argue in Chapter 2, however, that this group of young people should be included in the target population for a youth-oriented settlement policy. We return to the problem of estimating numbers of people with refugee experiences later in the chapter.

Annual humanitarian intake

Table 3 shows the number of young people who entered Australia under the Humanitarian Program each year for the past decade. During this period, young people made up between one-fifth and onequarter of the total yearly humanitarian intake. This represents a lower proportion than previously, possibly reflecting a long-term reduction in the number of unaccompanied minors. Both the total number and age profile of young humanitarian entrants have fluctuated considerably between 1991 and 2000. Humanitarian intake peaked in 1995 with the arrival of 3,264 young people. This coincided with a peak of 14,890 arrivals under the Humanitarian Program as a whole.

Table 3: Young people aged 12-24 years, entering Australia under the Humanitarian Program, by age group, 1991-2000

12-15 years

16-17 years

18-24 years



















































SOURCE: DIMIA Settlement Database (IA1029 MRAOCDBK)

Table 4: Young people aged 12-24 years, entering Australia under the Humanitarian Program, by region/ country of birth, 1991-2000

Europe & Baltic

Middle East

Sth & Central America







































































Source: DIMIA Settlement Database (IA1029 MRAOCDBK) Small discrepancies between the total of the regional figures and the total intake of young humanitarian entrants are due to a small number of cases where information was missing at the time the settlement database was compiled.
Age and gender distribution

Young refugees under the age of 18 have been identified as a particularly vulnerable group. The proportion of humanitarian minors fluctuated over the last decade. In 1992, minors made up only 35% of the young refugee intake whereas in 1999, they were 58% of the total. Despite yearly variation it is possible to discern a shift towards a greater preponderance of entrants in the younger age group.

At the beginning of the decade, young men and boys comprised almost 60% of humanitarian intake in the 12 to 25 year age group – a slightly greater proportion of males than for humanitarian entrants as a whole. From 1995, the gender ratio was about 1:1, with young women and girls making up slightly more than half (51%) in 1997. This shift in the gender balance is also apparent among older humanitarian entrants.

Country of birth

The humanitarian intake comprises young people of many different national and ethnic backgrounds. The patterns of intake evident in Table 4 reflect Australia’s response to various refugee crises over the years. The figures under Europe and the Baltic largely reflect young people displaced during the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia. Vietnamese young people have been prevalent among those arriving from Asia. Over the past decade, there has been a steady stream of entrants from Afghanistan; the bombing of Afghanistan in 2001 as part of the ‘war on terrorism’ followed more than a decade of civil conflict in that country.

Looking at the cumulative impact over the last five years, the largest number of young humanitarian entrants was from the former Yugoslavia (about 40% of the total), with significant proportions coming from the Horn of Africa (especially Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea), from Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) and a total of 6% from Afghanistan (see RRAC 2001).

Area of settlement

Of the 12,653 young people who arrived under the Humanitarian Program between 1995 and 2000, approximately 40% settled in New South Wales, 33% in Victoria and a further 10% in Western Australia.

In Victoria, refugees in general have tended to settle in significant numbers in only 22 of the 78 Local Government Areas, with more than half (56%) settling in just seven areas, these being Greater Dandenong, Brimbank, Darebin, Moreland, Hume, Moonee Valley and Maribyrnong. This pattern is, in the large part, shaped by the settlement program but people also congregate in communities of support, as did previous waves of postwar immigrants.

Estimating population size

For strategic planning and the provision of services, it is important to estimate the total number of young refugees at a specified point in time and, therefore, a cumulative rather than annual figure is required. Leaving aside for the moment the question of the inability of statistics on humanitarian entrants to capture the full population of young people with refugee experiences, an initial estimate can be obtained by adding together the numbers of young humanitarian entrants over a period of years. Table 3 shows that between 1991 and 2000 some 25,000 young people came to Australia under the Humanitarian Program as permanent residents. This approach is limited because it does not take into account the aging of new arrivals. A young person who is 12 years old in 1991 will still be in the 12–24 year cohort in 2000; however, a 23-year-old in 1997 will be 26 in 2000 and therefore no longer within the cohort.

There are two different ways of taking age into account. The issue is whether the target population is defined according to age upon arrival in Australia, or age at the time that services or funding are being planned. Where the latter definition is adopted, an estimate based on cohort analysis suggests that there are between 15,000 and 20,000 people currently aged 12 to 24 years living in Australia who at some point earlier, entered the country under the Humanitarian Program. Included in this estimate are people who came to Australia as very young children. It may be argued that while these young people share similar refugee experiences with those who arrived as adolescents or young adults, the fact that these experiences occurred much earlier in their lives is likely to change their current resettlement needs. Conversely, those people with refugee-like experiences who came to Australia as adolescents but who are now in their late twenties and hence excluded from the estimate may still be facing similar resettlement challenges to those only slightly younger.

This figure of 15,000–20,000 can be compared to an estimate reported by the Refugee Resettlement Advisory Council (RRAC) in its Refugee Youth Strategy Paper (RRAC 2001). The Council has, by implication, adopted the second approach to defining the population of young refugees. It reports that between July 1995 and July 2000 some 12,653 young people aged 13 to 25 years at the time of their arrival, came to Australia under the Humanitarian Program. Entrants who were aged 21–25 at the time of entry in 1995 would no longer be part of the 13 to 25 year age cohort by 2000, but are included in this estimate.

A third option would be to take into account both age at entry and age at the time of the enumeration. This would arrive at an estimate of the number of humanitarian entrants aged 12 to 25 on arrival in Australia who were still in this age group at the time of the enumeration. To ensure a full count, this approach would require investigation not over a five-year period (as in the RRAC estimate) but over a 13-year period in order to track those who first arrived at age 12 through to their 25th year.

At this point, we need to take into account the underestimation of the size of the population of young people with refugee experiences resulting from dependence on statistics relating to the Humanitarian Program. As noted, these statistics do not include young refugees currently living in Australia under temporary protection visas (TPVs) or young people from refugee backgrounds who entered under the Family Stream of the Migration Program. While it is possible to get figures on TPV grants (by age at the time of application and at the time of grant), because the TPV is a recent addition to humanitarian policy (created in 1999), data are only available for two years. Consequently, the cumulative numbers would not make much difference to the overall population estimate. If the use of TPVs continues to the same extent, however, visa grant allocations under this category will represent an increasingly significant portion of the young refugee population. It is important to monitor the overall change in the proportion of entrants under different visa categories because of the impact this has on entitlements to government assistance. It was pointed out in Chapter 2 that the proportion of young people with refugee experiences entering as Family Stream migrants is likely to be increasing. These young people are included in aggregate statistics relating to the Migration Program. However, it is possible to derive a reasonable estimate of their number by taking into account ethnicity, source country and year of arrival. Some 3,500 young people with refugee-like experiences were estimated by DIMIA to have arrived in the family migration stream between 1995 and 2000 (RRAC 2001). This estimate was based on numbers of Family Stream entrants from the 12 countries with the highest number of humanitarian departures to Australia.

When this figure is added to the cumulative total of Humanitarian Program entrants, we arrive at total estimate of just over 16,000 (12,653+3,500) young people with refugee experiences who entered Australia between 1995 and 2000 when they were aged 13 to 25 years. If this estimate is expanded to include earlier arrivals still within the 13- to 25-year age cohort, the figure is closer to 20,000.

There is scope for further research on both definitional issues and the methodology for deriving population estimates. For our purposes, however, it is sufficient to note that the population of young people with refugee experiences is in the order of 16,000 to 20,000. This is a significant number, and approximates the size of the population of homeless young people at any point in time.2

Data requirements and indicators of refugee experience

The difficulty encountered in trying to estimate the size of the young refugee population raises the question of how best to identify a person’s refugee background or experience for statistical purposes both for use in research and in service provision contexts (to monitor client access and to anticipate need). 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 1992, researchers in the field of ethno-psychiatry argued that perhaps the most urgent requirement of any systematic program of research development is:

the need to improve upon the deplorable state of current methods of data collection, in particular, the measure- ment of ethnicity data. In the absence of reliable and valid data based on well-designed instruments of measurement, especially as regards cross cultural equivalence, there is little prospect of generating any worthwhile research in this general area, especially research that is useful for policy purposes (Jayasuriya, Sang & Fielding 1992, p.48).

Since that time, standards have been developed for the collection of statistics on cultural and linguistic background and diversity. This is a task recently tackled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in response to widespread demand.

ABS Standards for Statistics on Cultural and Linguistic Diversity

Standards for statistics on cultural and linguistic diversity were developed to enable the consistent collection and dissemination of information relating to the cultural background of a person (or group of people) and the cultural diversity of a population (whether, for example, Australia as a whole, or subgroups within). One of the main purposes was to ‘provide a way to identify, measure and monitor service needs associated with advantage or disadvantage related to cultural and language background’ (ABS 1999, p.2). The development of statistical standards followed a request to the ABS from federal government in recognition of the importance of generating quality data on cultural and linguistic background for the improvement of strategic planning and the evaluation of service programs. The project was initially directed towards finding a replacement for the category ‘non- English speaking background’ (NESB) which was seen to be an inadequate indicator of possible socioeconomic disadvantage arising from cultural and ethnic diversity and unable to express the positive aspects of cultural diversity.

One of the aims of the use of the Standard Set of Cultural and Language Indicators is to enable agencies to make decisions about a person’s needs on the basis of direct and accurate information about their background, language and English skills without making unfounded assumptions about individuals on the basis of the general characteristics of the community group to which they belong (ABS 1999, p.14).

The ABS notes that adequate measurement of cultural and linguistic background and related advantage and disadvantage requires ‘a combination of variables which produce […] a range of data about a person’s background’ (ibid). A number of indicator variables were tested for use on surveys and administrative forms in various settings, including DIMIA processing offices. A minimum core set of indicators and a more extended ‘standard set’ were developed. (Standards for the definition and measurement of each of the indicators selected for inclusion had been standardised by the ABS at an earlier date.)

The core set consists of four indicators:

  • country of birth of person

  • main language other than English spoken at home

  • proficiency in spoken English

  • Indigenous status (for data collections not focused on migrants to Australia).

The full standard set includes the following additional indicators:

  • ancestry

  • country of birth of father

  • country of birth of mother

  • first language spoken

  • languages spoken at home

  • main language spoken at home

  • religious affiliation

  • year of arrival in Australia.

The standards were endorsed by the Ministerial Council of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (MCIMA) in April 1999. MCIMA recommended that the minimum core set of indicators be implemented in ‘all national and state and territory statistical and administrative collections which required information on cultural and language diversity’ (ABS 1999, p.6). In June 2001, the committee published a guide to assist government departments and agencies to implement the standards. The guide includes a checklist for implementation and urges departments and agencies to develop a system for monitoring the implementation process.3
Indicators of refugee experience

Statistics on cultural and linguistic background do not exhaust the data requirements regarding people from refugee backgrounds. The Charter of Public Service in a Culturally Diverse Society (see Chapter 5) identifies refugee settlers as a group at ‘possible double disadvantage’ in their access to government services, since refugee experience is likely to compound other difficul- ties resulting, for example, from limited proficiency in English or cultural difference. While visa category does not coincide exactly with the presence or absence of refugee experience, it is the closest measure of this variable available in official statistics. However, the recent experience of the ABS in developing indicators to measure cultural and linguistic diversity found that, despite its potential usefulness as an indicator of potential disadvantage, it would be ‘difficult’ to collect data on a migrant’s entry visa category in many service provider contexts (ABS 1999, p.4). Part of this difficulty relates to the sensitivities around asking clients for information of this nature in certain types of administrative setting. This means that in many instances proxy measures will have to be used.

Ethnicity, in particular, is a key indicator of refugee background when used together with information on year of arrival and source country, in order to link new arrivals with refugee producing circumstances. However, defining and measuring ethnic background has proved a particularly persistent problem. It has been common in administrative data collection settings to use source country or, alternatively, country of birth as a surrogate measure of ethnicity (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 1996). Figures on the birthplace of new arrivals to Australia do not coincide exactly with ethnic identity because arrivals from countries such as Afghanistan originate from several ethnic groups. In addition, the designated country of origin for arrivals to Australia may differ from their country of birth. In general, the variable of birthplace ‘has limitations in identifying ethnic and cultural groups which form minorities in their country or countries of origin and groups which have significant populations in countries outside their country of origin’ (ABS 1999, p.10).

An ethnicity variable has been developed by DIMIA Humanitarian Branch to capture the ethnic groups covered by the Humanitarian Program. For example, arrivals from Afghanistan can be identified as Hussar, Pashtun, Vardak or Hazara. This variable is recorded in the Settlement Database.

It is also important to develop indicators of refugee experience or refugee background appropriate to the circumstances of young people. Progress has been made in this direction by the Job Placement Employment and Training (JPET) program. This program (described more fully in Chapter 5) specifically targets young people with refugee experience for assistance in finding and participating in suitable employment and training opportunities. ‘Refugee experience’ is defined as including one or more of the following characteristics:

  • pre-arrival experiences of torture or trauma;

  • poor English language ability;

  • cultural differences;

  • fear and distrust in accessing government services;

  • forced migration;

  • fewer resources;

  • disrupted education;

  • feelings of isolation; and/or

  • disrupted or destroyed relationships.

These characteristics are understood to pose specific barriers to educational, training and employment opportunities. JPET service providers make an individual assessment of need on the basis of these characteristics for young people who have entered Australia under the Humanitarian Program or as immediate family members of a humanitarian entrant.
Key variables

Once again it should be emphasised that there is considerable diversity of need and experience within the population of refugee young people. This diversity ought to be reflected in the collection and reporting of statistics on young refugees. The support needs of young refugees, as for all migrants, are affected by their length of residency in Australia and their English language proficiency (both these variables are included in the ABS standards on cultural and linguistic diversity). Refugee young people coming to Australia may join newly emerging ethnic communities, minority communities, or communities which have a longer history in Australia. These characteristics are likely to impact greatly on the extent of social infrastructure and support services young refugees have access to in Australia. Information about the socioeconomic status of young refugees has never been systematically collected. The potential for individual variation is such that stereotyping on the basis of ethnicity, or country of birth, is likely to be inaccurate and misleading. Collection and reporting of data relating to socioeconomic status would assist the planning of effective, targeted services to young refugees arriving in Australia.


This chapter has established that between 2,000 and 3,000 young settlers arrive in Australia under the Humanitarian Program every year. However, Humanitarian Program statistics underestimate the number of young people with refugee experiences because they do not include entrants under the Family Stream of the Migration Program and because they tend not to include the number of temporary protection visa holders. Cumulative rather than annual figures are required to make an assessment of the size of the target client population. We estimate that there are between 16,000 and 20,000 young people with refugee experiences currently residing in Australia. The range in this estimate reflects different definitions of the relevant target population. More work is needed to develop methodologies for deriving population estimates. Young refugees are a heterogeneous group representative of diverse cultural and national origins. Available data is not adequate to enable detailed characterisation of the population of young refugees, particularly with respect to their use of services. This will change as the ABS standards on cultural and linguistic diversity are implemented, although the implementation process itself may be lengthy. A further issue is the need to develop indicators of refugee background and refugee experience relevant to young people in order to monitor the relative disadvantage or, in some instances, advantage of this group of young people relative to others.

1 The figures include onshore grants of permanent protection visas.

2 Indeed, young people from refugee backgrounds (either classified as such officially or entrants whose family members came as refugees) are at high risk of becoming homeless compared to other groups (see Chapter 4).

3 This publication is entitled The Guide: Implementing the Standards for Statistics on Cultural and Language Diversity and can be downloaded from the DIMIA website at:

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