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

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4 Needs in context

A refugee’s experience is comprised of traumas enountered in their home country as well as traumas associated with the exile, migration and resettlement process. These do not act in isolation but interact together in varied and complex ways. Such occurrences are balanced and mediated through the refugee’s own strengths and weaknesses and psychological and cultural attributes, as well as the attitudes of the host environment in Australia (NSW Department of Health 1997).

The purpose of this chapter is to identify the challenges and barriers commonly faced by refugee young people as they attempt to adjust to life in Australia. This is a difficult task as the above quotation suggests. Young refugees have a range of premigration experiences that in part determine their settlement needs. They also have variable strengths and support systems that influence the sorts of assistance they are likely to need from government and non-government agencies. Their needs will be further shaped by the attitudes they encounter in the host culture. The chapter begins with an account of the societal response young refugees are likely to meet when they begin resettlement. The ultimate goal of policy and service interventions is to assist young refugees make a successful transition to independence in their new country, but the notion of independence itself requires further scrutiny. We go on to inquire how the concept of ‘need’ might be applied to help develop a better understanding of the service response required by young refugees to assist in this transition. The chapter outlines the common needs of young refugees for adequate income, housing, health, justice and psycho-social support (including the ability to communicate with others); for access to education; and for employment and training opportunities.

Comparisons with other young people, including young migrants from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and with older refugees, are made, wherever practical, to highlight some of the important distinctions and differences in the needs of refugee young people. At the same time, we draw attention to circumstances where young people within the refugee population are likely to have particularly acute needs.

The information presented in this chapter has been obtained from surveys and interviews with young refugees, interviews with refugee families, practice and policy advice from key informants, analysis of data from the national census of homeless school students, and from a review of relevant literature.

Context of settlement

Among the many factors determining whether migration will be a negative or positive experience, the orientation the host society displays towards newcomers is among the most important (Report of the Canadian Task Force on Mental Health Issues Affecting Immigrants and Refugees 1988, p.13).

In Australia, the settlement experience of young refugees takes place within a context of mixed messages. On the one hand, new settlers to Australia encounter an ethic of multiculturalism which tells them they are welcome and valued additions to society; on the other hand, they encounter racist attitudes and practices that suggest the opposite.


The best thing about Australia is multiculturalism (Bosnian refugee, aged 22).

Australia has an official policy of multiculturalism which recognises that ‘Australia is and will remain a culturally diverse country’ (DIMIA Fact Sheet 6, Nov 2001). The aim of multicultural policy is to ensure that diversity works as a positive force in Australian society and to find ways of ‘managing the consequences of diversity in the interests of the individual and society as a whole’ (ibid). Both major parties support multiculturalism in principle.

In December 1999, the Federal Government launched its multicultural policy statement, A New Agenda for Multicultural Australia. Following recommendations of an earlier report by the National Multicultural Advisory Council, the New Agenda emphasises the following core principles:

  • civic duty, which obliges all Australians to support those basic structures and principles of Australian society which guarantee us our freedom and equality, and enable diversity in our society to flourish;

  • cultural respect, which, subject to the law, gives all Australians the right to express their own culture and beliefs and obliges them to accept the right of others to do the same;

  • social equity, which entitles all Australians to equality of treatment and opportunity so that they are able to contribute to the social, political and economic life of Australia, free from discrimination, including on the grounds of race, culture, religion, language, location, gender or place of birth; and

  • productive diversity, which maximises for all Australians the significant cultural, social and economic dividends arising from the diversity of our population.

The Council for Multicultural Australia was established at this time to help coordinate the implementation of the new multicultural policy, to raise awareness levels in the broader community regarding the relevance of this for all Australians and to highlight the economic and social benefits of Australia’s cultural diversity.

There is also bipartisan support for the principle of racial tolerance. In October 1996, the then newly elected Coalition Government reaffirmed ‘the right of all Australians to enjoy equal rights and be treated with equal respect regardless of race, colour, creed or origin’ and denounced racial intolerance in any form as ‘incompatible with the kind of society we are and want to be’ (DIMIA Fact Sheet 6, Nov 2001). The statement was supported by the Leader of the Opposition and was given the unanimous approval of the House of Representatives.


Castles et al. (1988, p.13) warn that the discourse of multiculturalism is regressive in some ways, because it may be used to trivialise serious social inequalities between ethnic groups in Australia resulting from systemic racism. Chambers and Pettman (1986) identify four interconnected types of racism: racial prejudice or negative attitudes; racial discrimination or negative behaviour; racist ideology or social myths that reinforce power relations; and institutional racism. Institutional racism is identified as the most subtle and insidious form of racism. This form of racism is seen to infiltrate the education system, media, social services, political and administrative bodies, and private corporations. Racism is often unconscious and taken for granted by individuals partly because systems and institutions that perpetuate the disadvantage of minority groups were often established before racist values were explicitly challenged in public debate.

Discussion of cultural difference can be uncomfortable for many people, especially those who worry about appearing racist, or provoking racism, or just of being ‘too political’. Acknowledgment of cultural difference should not be confused with racism. However, when certain cultural practices seem unacceptable to Anglo-Australians, the task of responding to them becomes even more delicate. For example, discussion of issues like female genital mutilation must be done with great sensitivity and maturity and in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust between groups of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Young refugees, like many other young migrants from certain ethnic or cultural groups, are generally aware of racism. It is a real concern for them, yet because racism is entrenched, it often goes unnoticed by those responsible for providing community services. Zelinka (1993) discovered that the majority of young people from culturally diverse backgrounds in the outer west of Sydney considered racism as one of the most pressing problems they faced: while the majority ranked it as the most important problem from a list of eight, youth workers and other service providers ranked it only seventh. In her review of literature on young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds living in south-east Queensland, Ferguson (1994) found that racism was highlighted as an issue in nearly all of the reports she examined. While it is known that newly arrived young refugees are less likely to express their concerns about racism than more established young people, this study corroborates Ferguson’s finding:

Some Australian people don’t like Asians. When I travel home from school on the bus, I see Australian people teasing Asian people and asking them why they are here when they belong in Asia. I don’t understand English well enough to know if people are teasing me too. I think people are teasing me. When I lived in the other area, many people laughed at my scarf and long dress (Somali refugee, female, aged 15).

Racism is what I hate the most in Australia. Like when people don’t like you because you are from overseas, and they want to put you down and think you are dumb (Bosnian, male, aged 17).

Seeto (1991) claims that ‘racism [...] against non- English speaking background young people [is] the biggest barrier to their successful social integration and personal growth’ (cited in Ferguson 1994, p.7).

Societal attitudes towards migrants and refugees

In Australia, racist attitudes tend to resurface in contexts where new waves of immigration are seen to pose a particular threat to the existing community. Although not confirmed in the research literature, it is commonly felt that a high intake of migrants at times of high or growing unemployment serves to exacerbate the unemployment problem. In recent years, currents of anxiety about immigration have been expressed through support for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party.

Following September 11, and the commencement of the ‘war on terrorism,’ anxiety has shifted to matters of national security and the putative threat posed by asylum seekers. During political debate and media coverage in the lead-up to the November 2001 federal election, old and new fears converged in widespread animus aimed, if not towards asylum seekers directly, then indirectly through concerns about the syndicates responsible for people smuggling. Asylum seekers have consequently been maligned not only as ‘queue jumpers’ but also as ‘possible terrorists’ (Age 15 September 2001; Age 29 August 2001). At the same time, there has been growing concern within Australia regarding the treatment of asylum seekers, particularly children and young people. In November 2001 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission announced an inquiry into the treatment of children in Immigration Reception and Processing Centres (Age 28 November 2001).

Refugee young people arriving in Australia at the beginning of the 21st century will encounter a society clearly divided on the issue of the country’s humanitarian commitment.

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