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

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Risk and resilience

I borrowed a book about Australian history from the local library, because I wanted to know more about Australia, because I will be here for a long time (Afghani refugee, aged 19).

The approaches to identifying and measuring need outlined above have different strengths and limitations depending on the specific use to which they are put. All three approaches present difficulties when applied to young refugees. Moreover, there is a sense in which a constant focus on ‘need’ may over-emphasise the vulnerability of refugee young people as a group. Cahill and Ewen (1987) highlight the ‘problem orientation’ of much of the literature on migrant youth and urge researchers and policy-makers to avoid perpetuating what they call the ‘poor migrant syndrome’. Indeed, much of the research and commentary about young refugees fails to acknowledge the sheer determination of this group of young people. Young refugees are proven survivors and the incidence of serious longterm maladjustment is fairly low (Krupinski & Burrows 1986). The majority (90%) of young refugee settlers commit to full-time study and tend to have a realistic approach to work. Initial high rates of psychiatric morbidity decline within two years (Krupinski & Burrows 1986).

A standpoint of cautious optimism seems most appropriate. As North (1980, p.144) suggests: ‘Refugees are refugees not because of their dependence, but because of their independence.’ One of the reasons that people become refugees is because they (or their parents) were participating members of their former society, usually employed and often prominent in their communities. In this context, the greatest need of young refugees is for compassion and understanding by people in their new country, followed by practical support until they can contribute to their own and their community’s well-being. The difficulties faced by young refugees are considerable, but, as Australia’s long history of assisting refugees shows, they often go on to become some of the country’s strongest citizens.

At the same time, the concept of need, and methods for identifying need, remain central to social policy, particularly in a context where targeting scarce resources to those ‘most in need’ is seen as a key principle of distribution within the social security system. As demonstrated in the remainder of this chapter, the needs of refugee young people are complex and multifaceted, and together suggest strongly that young refugees be seen as a ‘high risk’ group meriting priority attention and specific allocation of resources in many areas of social policy.

The findings of this project suggest that, from the point of view of planning government assistance, there is a meaningful comparison to be drawn in Australia between refugee young people and young homeless people. As noted in Chapter 3, the two populations are of a similar size. But the similarity goes beyond this. A significant subgroup within the young refugee population shares some of the same characteristics of marginalisation and social dislocation as homeless youth. Research conducted as part of this project shows young people from refugee backgrounds have a particularly high risk of homelessness (see the section on housing needs later in this chapter). From a comparative perspective on need, the young refugee population should be acknowledged as particularly disadvantaged and consequently warranting a concerted response at the policy and program levels, much in the same way as homeless young people have received such attention in recent years.

Similar concerns about the targeting of refugee young people for government assistance have arisen in the policy debate on responding to marginal and ‘at risk’ young people more generally. There is a tension between recognising and responding to risk, while at the same time avoiding the possible negative impacts of labeling, including the perpetuation of disabling and long-term dependencies. The discord in the debate is substantially resolved once it is recognised that the notion of risk is an analytic category useful for making sense of the dimensions of a problem while the concept of resilience emphasises the positive resources that individuals use to take charge in changing their lives. The approach advocated in this report is for the adoption of a comparative definition of need, which acknowledges the relative disadvantage of young refugees, but which is tempered by appreciation of the capacities and resilience that young refugees bring to their situation.

Comparison of needs

Table 5 provides a useful comparison of the likely experiences and consequent needs of refugee and humanitarian entrants with migrants from the United Kingdom and migrants from non-Anglo-Saxon backgrounds. The variables are organised to illustrate changes in needs and experiences over time, from the pre-migration period, through the early stages of settlement on arrival, to post-settlement. An analysis of Table 5 shows refugees to be more likely than other migrants to have a range of difficulties when they first arrive in Australia. However, with regard to long-term adjustment and, by implication, capacity to contribute to Australian society, the outlook for refugees is very positive. People from refugee backgrounds are more likely than other migrants, particularly those from the UK, to strongly identify with Australia. They are also more likely to take up Australian citizenship and report high levels of satisfaction with Australia as a home after 10 years of residence. In terms of financial stability, refugees are likely to have mixed experiences but their children are more likely than those from other migrant backgrounds to be ‘high achievers’. Thus, although the costs of meeting the diverse needs of refugees in the short-term may be high, Richmond’s analysis suggests economic benefits to the community will be realised in the longer term.

While it is important to know that it makes longterm economic sense to meet the needs of refugee young people, the rationale for Australia’s Humanitarian Program is centred on recognition of moral obligations to support refugees in an international context.

No matter how much refugees may contribute economically and in other ways to this country, this is not the underlying purpose of the refugee and humanitarian program (Refugee Resettlement Working Group 1994).

The remainder of this chapter describes the common needs of the population of young refugees in the areas of employment, education, training, housing, health, justice, income and psycho-social support.

To begin life again in a new country, migrants need practical assistance, psychological support and personal stamina (Report of the Canadian Task Force on Mental Health Issues Affecting Immigrants and Refugees 1988, p.15).

Table 5: Refugees and other migrants – a comparison of experiences


Other (non-Anglo) migrants

UK-born migrants


Premigration trauma/displacement



- -

Voluntary migration/chosen by Australia

- -



Possibility of return to country

- -




Culture shock on arrival




Initial language problems




Initial prejudice and hostility



- -

Severe mental health problems



- -

Non-recognition of occupational qualifications



+ -

Initial employment difficulties




Discrimination in housing and employment

+ -

+ -

- -


Strong ethnic community organization

+ -


- -

Residential concentration




Pluralistic integration




Eventual high income

+ -



Full recovery or improvement in occupational status

+ -



High achievers among second generation




Strong identification with Australia



- -

High and early take up of citizenship



- -

High satisfaction with Australia (after 10 years)




Note: This table was adapted from Richmond (1980).

Legend: ++ very high probability, + high probability, + - mixed experience, - little probability, - - hardly ever or none

Employment needs

The problem is jobs (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 19).

Young refugees, like most other young people in Australia, generally want personally satisfying work and, eventually, a career. As with other young people, young refugees are interested in the broad spectrum of employment opportunities, reflecting the diversity of their experiences and aspirations. Young refugees tend to be ambitious, and their parents are ambitious for them, and encourage them to excel in their school work.

I am interested in any kind of job. I am serious and genuine. And in the long-term, I would like to work in a profession (Sudanese refugee, male, aged 22).

However, there is a high risk that the work aspirations of many young refugees will be thwarted by adverse labour market conditions. Young people have higher unemployment rates than adults, although the unemployment rate for teenagers is now lower than it was in the mid-nineties. In May 1999, some 142,000 teenagers were unemployed, representing 11% of the age group (15- to 19-year-olds) and 19% of teenagers in the labour force (Prime Minister’s Youth Pathways Action Plan Taskforce 2001, p.120). In August 2000, some 13% of teenagers were in neither full-time education nor full-time employment (Prime Minister’s Youth Pathways Action Plan Taskforce 2001, p.6).

Most migrant groups have higher unemployment rates than Australian-born people (DEWRSB 1998). Refugee groups have some of the highest unemploy- ment rates of all groups in the community (Iredale & D’Arcy 1992). People from some refugee-producing countries have unemployment rates as high as 54% (DEWRSB 1998). Not only are refugees more likely to be unemployed than other jobseekers, but they are also likely to be unemployed for longer periods and are less likely to be employed in occupations appropriate to their level of skill and qualifications (Iredale & D’Arcy 1992).

Exact unemployment rates for humanitarian entrants cannot be determined, because visa categories are not recorded in the Labour Force Survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. However, given the labour market disadvantage of young people as a population group and of refugees as a sub-group, young refugees are clearly likely to experience considerable labour market disadvantage.

Labour market success can be measured in a variety of ways including rates of employment, earnings and occupational attainment. Young people suffer disproportionately from hidden unemployment (Whitfield 1987) and exhibit high rates of turnover and occupational and industrial segregation, especially in the retail and hospitality industries (Coventry & Bertone 1998). In general, young people command minimal bargaining power at the point of entry into the labour market, or at the earliest stages of a career, and, therefore, youth wages are low. Another factor is that ,over several decades, part-time employment has expanded at the expense of full-time jobs. In the 1990s, full-time wages for teenagers fell to $290 as average weekly earnings rose to $660 (Dusseldorp Skills Forum 1998). The introduction of a youth wage has formalised this position of weakness. In some industries, rates of payment are determined on the basis of age.

I would like to have a part-time job, but it is hard. Because I am 19 years of age and there are other people here (in the school) who are 15 or 16, it is cheaper for the employer to employ them instead of me (Bosnian refugee, male).

The labour market disadvantage suffered by young people in general is compounded for many young refugees by several factors including:

  • low levels of English language proficiency;

  • lack of job-seeking skills (especially if they are unfamiliar with the concept of an open labour market);

  • lack of access to support networks;

  • inadequate career information;

  • biased employer attitudes, especially the undervaluing of biliteracy and bilingual skills;

  • non-recognition or non-transferability of qualifications;

  • an absence of local work experience or lack of documentation about relevant work experiences; and, finally,

  • the general economic insecurity experienced by young refugees.

The estimated high unemployment rate of young refugees suggests their disadvantaged position in the labour market is maintained despite higher than average levels of educational achievement for some groups. First-generation migrants and, to a greater extent, second-generation migrants achieve, on average, higher educational levels than other young people (as measured by high school completion rates and post-secondary qualifications). While it has been suggested that immigrants eventually catch up and even surpass other young Australians in terms of their labour market performance (Flatau & Hemmings 1991), the problem of low participation and high unemployment during settlement and the early post-settlement period presents considerable difficulties.

The worst thing about being in Australia is that I do not have a job. Being jobless is the worst (Sudanese refugee, male, aged 22).

Like other young people, young refugees are often willing to accept low-skill and low-paid work that does not require a high level of English language proficiency. Many perceive English to be the difference between having and not having a job.

The worst thing for me is that I can’t find a job, but that does not apply to Australian people who speak English very well (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 23).

The lack of local work experience or the lack of documentation of previous work experience (especially references) makes it difficult for young refugees to compete in the labour market.

No-one knows how to get a job interview. If you are asked if you have work experience, you say no. Then, the employer says, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t help you’. Employers want someone with work experience. I was working about one year in Bosnia in a pizza shop. I tell the employers that, but I don’t have any proof that I was working there and so they don’t believe me. They say, ‘Anybody could say that they were working like that. You must have proof’ (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 19).

Young people who have formal qualifications from another country, but cannot get them recognised in Australia, encounter similar problems.

My qualifications are not recognised here. I must either go to school and retrain or work for six months without pay (Croatian nurse, aged 25).

Young refugees seem constantly mindful of their marginal and tenuous position in the labour market. Some are frustrated by their dependence on the good will of others.

I want to go to TAFE and learn painting, but I have not got an employer to give me an apprenticeship. I have to find an employer. That’s the problem. Whatever you want to do, you must have somebody to help (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 23).

The boss gets a bit cranky sometimes and screams. She wants to see how I react to that, so I am not going to start talking back to her. I would get fired in a flash. And there would be someone ready and waiting to take my job (Bosnian, male, aged 17).

Despite the barriers in their pathways to employment, most young refugees seem to retain high hopes and expectations of a bright future. This is encouraging because work in Australia has important symbolic values, helping us to feel worthy, and enabling us to participate in society.

The best thing about Australia is the opportunity to have a job (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 15).

Education, training and English language needs

School is the most important thing (in life). It seems you have to finish school before you can do anything (Bosnian family reunion entrant, male, aged 17).

While the key objective measure of adaptation for adult migrants has been the ability to hold a job, for young people it is adaptation within the school environment (DeVoe 1994). In general, young refugees in Australia are committed to their education and grateful for the opportunities Australia has to offer.

The best thing about Australia is the opportunity for education (Sudanese refugee, aged 22).

However, taking advantage of the opportunities for an education can be a problem, because young refugees need English language skills in order to progress effectively through the educational system. Theorists and young people alike identify language as the key for refugee access to programs and services and for effective settlement more generally. Canadian experience suggests that young refugees who do not have proficiency in English are less likely to be able to access appropriate supports and, where they do seek support services, are more likely to terminate contact with the service prematurely or experience an unsatisfactory outcome (Report of the Canadian Task Force on Mental Health Issues Affecting Immigrants and Refugees 1988).

Language is the most central, pivotal element to being Australian. Language alone can keep you from doing something (Bosnian refugee aged 22).

Whenever immigrant disadvantage and social mobility are discussed, language must be seen as the key factor and the ultimate gate-keeping mechanism, and not merely another important variable (Cahill & Ewen 1987, p.46).

Without language, one can never truly enter a culture (Report of the Canadian Task Force on Mental Health Issues Affecting Immigrant and Refugees 1988, p.23).

Just less than one-third of students (30%) attending English language schools have literacy problems. According to a 1995 study of students in Victorian English Language Centres, 9% were not literate in any language and more than one fifth (22%) were only semiliterate in any language (see Appendix 2 for details of this study). A further 3% of students had no experience of school and a quarter (25%) suffered a disruption of three or more years to their schooling. Young people from refugee backgrounds were consistently identified among those with the most severe disruptions to their schooling.

I think I must go to school. I don’t have a choice, even if it is hard (Vietnamese family reunion entrant, female, aged 18).

Young refugees are provided with an opportunity to learn English before entering mainstream education, although in Queensland, tuition in English as a Second Language is offered concurrently with mainstream education. The transition from specialist language tuition into mainstream education can be very difficult for many young refugees. In particular, language skills may not be sufficiently developed, or school placements ill-considered (Hepperlin 1991). Young refugees are often confused and less supported in the transition than they need to be.

I thought I was not allowed to go to high school, only TAFE. That’s what I was told in Melbourne. But in Queensland, the people at TAFE started to ask me why I did not go to high school, so my brother asked the teachers if I could come here and they said yes (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 19).

Once in mainstream education, significant differences between Australian schools and schools in the country of origin become apparent. In Australia, a competency-based curriculum is now the norm, following a series of major reports on the provision of education and training (Mayer 1992; Finn 1991; Carmichael 1991). However, Kalantzis (1992) has argued that the competency-based approach may not suit young people from culturally diverse backgrounds. She believes that competency-based education involves a new form of streaming, in which young people from diverse ethnic backgrounds are likely to be disadvantaged by the formal assessments and test-driven assessment of competency. In practice, it seems that young people from non-English speaking backgrounds are more likely to choose science and mathematics subjects, perhaps because they perceive that these subjects do not require high levels of English proficiency (Myhill, Derriman & Mulligan 1994).

I think school is good because you can choose your subjects. In my country, I had to do compulsory subjects, about 15 subjects were compulsory. Too many subjects. Here, it’s better because you can choose your subjects and you only learn the subjects that you need (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 19).

The impact of school disciplinary practices on young refugees has been identified as another barrier limiting the adaptation of young refugees to the school environment. The issue of racism in schools is a criticism that has been leveled in the past (PePua 1996) and it is conceivable that misunderstanding of young refugees’ behaviour in school, resulting from low levels of cultural awareness, can cause inappropriate disciplinary action.

Cahill and Ewen (1987) suggest that young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are generally dissatisfied with career education in the Australian context. This is supported by evidence from this project.

We are not told how long it will take to finish each level of the certificate. And some courses you have to pay, some you don’t, but I just don’t get it somehow. I just want to try and make plans about when I might be able to start and do certain things (Bosnian refugee, aged 22).

I would be interested in finding out more about educational possibilities related to nursing. I have no idea where I can ask that. Shall I go to the hospital and ask? (Croatian migrant, aged 25)

School is an important preoccupation for both young refugees and their families. Failure at school can exacerbate a young refugee’s sense of failing the family. Conversely, success at school and dedication to school work at the expense of peer activities can lead to ostracism. Refugee young people from some cultural backgrounds are under considerable pressure to perform well at school. Lao parents, for example, have been reported as encouraging their children to perceive their education as their vocation in life, and commonly students are excused from a range of other family or household duties in order to complete homework (Ngaosyvathn 1993). Similarly, Loh (1985) reported the difficulties that young Vietnamese people face in meeting family expectations. In this context, young people are often dissatisfied with the educational system because they believe it lacks the direction and discipline needed to help them meet family expectations. Attempts to live up to family or personal expectations of high educational achievement may be a source of frustration and contribute to poor concentration, under-achievement, school non-attendance or withdrawal and depression. At the same time, family encouragement is a key factor in motivating and enabling success.

Health needs

The specific health needs of refugees may be overlooked … during the resettlement process when other problems such as language learning, housing, financial security and education may take precedence … (Refugee Resettlement Working Group 1994, p.119)

The psychological well-being and physical health of young refugees is an area of particular concern. Key health issues include torture and trauma experiences, the subsequent risk of depression or even suicide, the use of alcohol and other drugs, sexual health and dental health.

The serious physical and psychological ramifications of having experienced torture and trauma can impede and, in some cases, even prevent a young person’s successful transition to independence. Some young people from refugee backgrounds may experience depression and show suicidal tendencies. The broader range of psychological difficulties experienced by y oung refugees includes general anxiety, the re-living of trauma, sleeping difficulties and withdrawal (Aristotle 1997). Depression and anxiety associated with trauma is exacerbated by the ongoing sense of loss and grief that many young refugees experience, having left behind their homeland, their friends and other family members.

Generally, young refugees who have experienced torture have a very high risk of mental disorder (Luntz 1998; NSW Department of Health 1997; Minas et al. 1996). However, the prevalence of disorders generally declines over time with effective settlement (Krupinski & Burrows 1986), and the majority of young refugees have neither serious nor long-lasting difficulties (Hepperlin 1991). Some survivors of torture and trauma are formally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (a diagnostic category of Western psychiatry). Access to specialised and culturally appropriate support to recover from these experiences, especially in the early stages of settlement, is a priority need of refugee young people.

Young refugees are likely to suffer from poor physical health, especially if they have spent time in refugee camps or similarly impoverished situations where they have been exposed to climate extremes, poor sanitation and inadequate nutrition. Poor physical health makes the challenges of settlement more difficult to cope with, and may lead to chronic health problems in the future.

There is widespread community concern about young people’s involvement with drugs, and this has often focused on certain subgroups of young people such as Vietnamese, Cambodian and Lao youth. Despite popular perceptions, the incidence of illegal drug use among young people from non-Anglo- Australian migrant communities appears on the whole to be lower than among Anglo-Australian youth (Cahill & Ewen 1987). However, there is evidence of higher incidence in some ethnic communities. Belonging to an ethnic subculture may be a protective factor, but if illicit drug use spreads, the incidence may rise alarmingly within the subgroup and be harder to address. Many of the young people interviewed for this study were clearly opposed to the use of alcohol and other drugs.

In Australia, I think that people like to drink. On Friday nights, I go to the city and I see many drunk young people. Maybe they like to do that, but I don’t like it (Bosnian refugee, aged 18).

The worst thing about Australia is when I see people my own age taking drugs, smoking and stuff (Bosnian refugee, aged 15).

Sexual health for young refugees is an overlooked need. The disruption and uncertainties in the lives of young refugees can cause confusion about sexual behaviour (Waszak & Tucker 1995). Young refugee women need information and support to address their sexual health needs, as often they have experienced or witnessed sexual violence. Early pregnancy, prenatal care, sexual violence, sexually transmitted diseases and female genital mutilation are pressing and controversial concerns, which cannot be addressed effectively without consideration of the young person’s family context. Families from different cultural backgrounds can have quite different standards for meeting the sexual health needs of their children. Sometimes, families have only poor knowledge about complex or controversial sexual matters or are unwilling to provide information to their children. For example, in a 1995 survey, about 60% of Laotian parents in Australia said that young people should not be told about intercourse, pregnancy and family planning (Ngaosyvathn 1993). Balancing the needs of families and young people involves tensions and dilemmas that require considerable professional skill and cultural sensitivity.

Justice and law

Unfortunately, I have met many police officers in Australia (Young Bosnian man, aged 17).

Key legal and justice issues affecting young refugees include: the increasing representation of some ethnic groups in the prison population and in the juvenile justice system; poor relationships with the police and discriminatory treatment; misleading media portrayals of gang involvement; and, finally, a low level of understanding of Australian law.

Contrary to common perceptions, young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds have generally been under-represented in the prison population and the juvenile justice system. Easteal’s important 1989 study of young Vietnamese people in Australia showed that this group had a significantly lower crime rate than their non-Vietnamese counterparts. Vietnamese youth had half the rate of proven offences for minors; half the rate of general offences for 18- to 24-year-olds; one-quarter of the drink driving offences, and one-tenth the level of drug offences. Overturning another common preconception, Easteal found that young people under the age of 18 entering Australia as humanitarian migrants unaccompanied by parents or close family, had a lower rate of offending than other Vietnamese young people.

More recent studies suggest that this situation is changing. Overall, young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are still underrepresented in the juvenile justice system, but certain ethnic groups are now over-represented, including some groups comprised largely of refugees. The number of young Indochinese offenders in juvenile detention centres in New South Wales almost doubled between 1991 and 1992 (Keys Young 1997). By 1993 about 12% of all young people remanded and 9% of those sentenced to a juvenile justice centre in New South Wales were Indochinese yet in the same year Indochinese young people comprised only 1.8% of the state’s population. Thus, in some states at least, young people from Vietnamese backgrounds are now over-represented in the juvenile justice system. They also tend to have longer detention periods than Australian-born offenders, which may be associated with the nature of offences they are likely to commit (Cain 1993). Indochinese young offenders have the highest level of drug offences of any group in custody.

Despite this information, the overall picture of refugee crime is far from clear. Data on the ethnicity of young offenders is limited and in any case the relationship between marginalisation and over-representation in criminal statistics is complex. Over-representation may be indicative of either actual offending patterns or particular policing practices or perhaps a combination of these factors (Cunneen 1995).

Relationships between refugee young people and police are less than satisfactory for a number of reasons. In their country of origin, young people’s experience of police and the military tended to be as persecutors and torturers, not as protectors. Deliberate effort is therefore required to establish mutual trust and understanding between refugee young people and Australian police. This extra effort does not appear as yet to have been made. The Ethnic Communities Council of NSW, the Youth Justice Coalition, the federal Race Discrimination Commission and the NSW Ombudsman have all drawn attention to potential discriminatory policing practices in recent years. The Youth Justice Coalition found that young people from Asian backgrounds are twice as likely to be searched, four times more likely to be arrested, and three times more likely to be injured during their contact with police than people describing themselves as from an Australian background (Youth Justice Coalition 1994, in Hunt 1997).

It is usual in every country for the police to stop and check people. I think I have been stopped about 20 times. They stop me to check if I am doing something wrong. I have met many police officers in Australia (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 19, nine months in Australia).

The police don’t like to see young people on the street … straight away they get out of their cars and come up to you and start asking you questions to check and see if you have any drugs or weapons (Bosnian, male, aged 17).

The Australian Law Reform Commission and the NSW Ombudsman’s Office have expressed concerns about the extent to which media stereotypes of young people from ethnic minority groups influence the type of treatment they receive in the criminal justice system. A common perception perpetuated by the media is that refugees are involved in gangs, use drugs and generally threaten peace and order (PePua 1996). Considerable media attention has focused on young Vietnamese men, notably in the inner west of Sydney but also in a number of suburbs across Melbourne. Everyday youth behaviour is often falsely represented as gang activity and the media is often too quick to label conflict as ‘inter-ethnic violence’.

Developing an awareness of the law is an ongoing process, and there are limited opportunities for new arrivals to find out about laws that are especially relevant to them. Learning the ropes requires an advanced level of cultural literacy, knowledge of English and access to information.

I wish I could know more about the laws in Australia. I get tickets from the police a few times for doing things that I could do in my country, but I can’t do them here. Nobody asks me if I knew these things. Like drinking in a public place. Like having a bottle of beer in a car. Like not wearing a seat belt. We don’t have seatbelts in Europe. There are lots of things that I can’t do here, but I can’t remember all of them (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 19).

A relatively small number of young refugees get into trouble with the law. A broader concern relates to young people’s knowledge of their rights and responsibilities as citizens or residents, and their capacity to participate in political processes. Cahill and Ewen (1987) discovered that young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds were fairly ignorant about political processes in Australia. However, the take-up rates for citizenship are higher among young refugees than among other types of migrants to Australia. Our research is consistent with these findings. Many of the young people interviewed expressed enthusiasm and impatience to become eligible for citizenship. Others admired what they perceived as a focus on human rights in legislation and in policy and practice throughout Australia.

What I like is that women have rights in Australia. You can get police intervention here and I like that. I think Australian law is better than Croatian law, although I only know a little bit about the law here (Croatian migrant, aged 25).

Although seemingly aware of their rights, some felt less able to exercise them.

In Africa, men beat their wives. Dad used to beat my step-mum. And here, he beat her and she called the police. When Dad hits me, I don’t call the police. I threatened to call them, but I think it’s best just to leave (Eritrean refugee, female aged 18).

Finally, the comments of an Algerian refugee are telling. He advises his family to break Australian and international laws in order to secure their right to be free from persecution in Algeria.

I advise my brothers in Algeria to go to Bangkok to buy a passport and come here illegally. It is the only alternative. I tell them to do what I have done and speak the truth (Algerian young man, aged 24).

Housing needs and homelessness

Documentation of what happens to young refugees and their families after they leave the accommodation arranged by the Department of Immigration (see Chapter 5) is patchy. Previous reports suggest that young refugees may experience a high incidence of homelessness, yet remain relatively invisible to accommodation providers (PePua 1996; Frederico, Picton and Cooper 1996). Wallace (1990) suggests that ‘homelessness’ takes the form of gross over-crowding in suburban or inner-city houses.

I moved out because dad hit me. I have left home before. I lived with my friend for a while, But my dad said, ‘Come back. This, this and this’. And he was by himself. So I went back. But the same things kept happening (Eritrean refugee, female, aged 18).

Unpublished findings from the national census of homeless school students conducted by MacKenzie and Chamberlain in 1994 suggest that young people from refugee backgrounds are over-represented among homeless school students. The census found that 3.4% of a total of 11,000 homeless school students were from refugee backgrounds. Only 15 schools reported more than five homeless young refugees. However, about 70%, or 260 young homeless refugees in total, were attending 77 relatively high-need schools. Overall, the census achieved a 99% response rate, but it is probable that homelessness among refugees was under-reported, partly because schools are not necessarily aware of the refugee status (or otherwise) of their students.

A second study undertaken as part of this project attempted to estimate the extent of homelessness among young refugees by a survey of English Language Centres (ELCs) and Adult Migrant English Programs (AMEPs) throughout Australia. An operational definition of homelessness was developed that took into account the temporary nature of housing of young refugees and their families during settlement.2 The questionnaire asked teachers to make a judgement about the living and accommodation arrangements of refugee students and to provide demographic information on all students aged between 12 and 25 years. Seventy-two English Language Centres based in secondary schools, along with 90 Adult Migrant English Programs received the survey questionnaire. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of secondary schools but only half (50%) of the AMEPs responded.

Of the 1,269 refugee students attending English classes, 201 (16%) were found to be either already homeless or marginally housed. Those who were actively homeless at the time of the survey numbered 78 (6%). Just under half (33) of these young people were staying temporarily with friends or relatives as they were unable to live with their family, and of the remainder, most (34) had over-stayed in temporary accommodation with a smaller number (11) in longterm supported accommodation or private boarding houses. In addition, 123 young people were marginally housed, that is, living in unsafe, unhygienic or overcrowded housing without the conditions of a ‘home’. Many English Language Centres appeared to have difficulty identifying the accommodation arrangements of their students and consequently these figures under-estimate the extent of homelessness.

My grandmother kicked me out after two months because another family from Serbia came here. She gave me three days notice. I went to stay with a friend in his flat (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 23).

A third source of data on homelessness is information on clients of the Supported Accommodation and Assistance Program (SAAP) collected by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. It is difficult to identify refugees among SAAP clients, because no record is kept of visa classification. Young people from typical refugee-producing countries in SAAP services numbered about 80 to 100. The supports requested most commonly by this group were for assistance to obtain a government benefit or independent housing, advocacy, assistance with legal issues or court support, and information on health or medical services. This finding is consistent with the understanding that refugees have multiple and complex needs. People from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds were under-represented among service users requesting drug and alcohol support or rehabilitation.

Although no single source of data is definitive, taken together the incidence of homelessness among young refugees can be estimated to be significantly higher than for young people in general. The estimated number of homeless young refugees is at least 500 Australia-wide and more probably closer to 800.

An estimate of the level of risk can be made by comparing the extent of homelessness in the population of young refugees with that for the student population as a whole. The national census of homeless school students enumerated some 7,700 homeless students in a school population of about two million. If our estimates are correct, and there are between 500 and 800 homeless young refugees in a population of 16,000 to 20,000, the risk of homelessness is at least six to 10 times higher for young refugees.

The higher risk of homelessness among young refugees does not translate into proportionately greater use of services, indeed the reverse appears to be true. Although people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds constitute 13% of the total population, they constitute only 9% of SAAP clients, or 6% of young people using SAAP youth services (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 1997). Some authors have suggested that young refugees lack information about relevant housing services and, when they do learn to access these services, they find that the availability, location and form of emergency housing do not match their cultural preferences. This may partially explain the under-use of these services by refugees (Francis 1996).

Homelessness represents one extreme in a range of housing-related problems commonly encountered by young refugees and their families. These problems include lack of access to public housing, overcrowded accommodation and frequent moves, inappropriateness of mainstream accommodation options and racial discrimination from real estate agents.

I can’t study at my mum’s house. My little brother and sister make too much noise (Vietnamese family reunion entrant, living independently, female, aged 18).

Access to public housing is particularly limited. Antonios (1994) expressed concerns about the lack of priority for public housing given to refugee and humanitarian settlers under the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement, especially in the face of clear evidence of their high needs. Refugees are usually ineligible for priority housing, because their experiences of trauma have not occurred in Australia. Possibly due to the long waiting periods or because of lack of information about alternative methods for accessing services, less than 10% of refugees access public housing in the first 18 months of settlement. The majority of refugees – the largest proportion of any visa category – rent on the private market (Campbell 1997).

We pay rent for our house. We found out about this house in the newspaper. We have submitted papers to the Housing Commission, but we have to wait, I don’t know, maybe five years before we can get a house from the Housing Commission (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 19).

Renting on the private market has its own set of problems. Refugee families have larger households than the Australian average, but have fewer bedrooms per person than other migrants. They also move house more often than other migrants, especially during the first six months of settlement (Campbell 1997). This may be because the size and layout of Australian houses is not suitable for very large families, who may also have strong religious or cultural beliefs about how space should be configured. Moving is not easy, even for those in the community who are well-resourced. For the initial move from arrival accommodation, household goods must be acquired and establishment costs met. The money required for bond and rent in advance is substantial. Although some assistance is available for humanitarian entrants, many refugees appear to be unaware of this support. Further, refugee families often do not have their own transport, so arranging times to inspect potential properties can be very difficult, and getting there a time-consuming matter. The lack of rental references in Australia may also result in refugees being accorded a low priority by real estate agents, who may assume that refugee families are high-risk tenants. Francis argues that this assumption is generally false and that there is a very low rate of default on rental payments (1996, p.53).

Table 6: Evidence of young refugee homelessness




1998 Survey of English Language Centres (ELCs)

12-18 yr olds

200 homeless young refugees in 37 ELCs (85% response rate)

200 in ELCs

1996-7 SAAP data

15-24 yr olds

Unemployed and at school

6% of young people using SAAP youth services

9% of all SAAP service users

80 in SAAP services at any point in time

1994 National census of homeless school students

260 in 77 high need schools

Estimated 800 in all schools

Elsa’s story

Elsa's partner, who had convention refugee status, found work straight away. It was a ‘bad job’ because the hours were long and it was exhausting work. Ultimately, this job prevented him from learning English. The money from Centrelink ‘was not enough for him’, and he wanted to ring his partner who had resettled in a different country, and sponsor her to Australia. He saved the money he required to sponsor his partner, but lost his job. Now they are both starting again, neither has money because it was all spent on financing their reunion. As a sponsored arrival, she is not eligible for the full range of social support services available to refugee entrants who have similar needs and a similar story; and he, with no English, no job and little knowledge of existing services, feels understandably stressed. For this young couple the price of being together is exceedingly high.

Income needs

The young people interviewed appeared very grateful for the income support they received in Australia, whether for themselves or for their families. Most were reliant on this support for their day-to-day living. They tended to compare their financial situation in Australia to the situation they faced in their home countries.

In my country, if you don’t work, you have nothing, you might die. You might have to destroy a shop just to eat. Here, you have ‘dole’. They care about you (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 23).

Despite widespread relief and gratitude, many young refugees were anxious about managing their poverty in Australia. Newly arrived immigrants do adjust their expectations according to the norms of their new country.

I have money from Centrelink, but it is nothing. Half of my money goes on the flat and energy. I have been here 10 months and I don’t even have a bed. I sleep on the floor. It’s wrong (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 23).

Sharing with others in order to save expenses is common.

I stay with my friend because I think I can save some money. I’d love to be myself, but without money, I can’t do it (Eritrean refugee, female, aged 18).

Some young people were quite innovative in organising efficient use of resources to assist their friends and family.

I have no money because I go to school and learn English. My flat mate is working. He knows nothing about English but he has money. So we are a combination. I go with him to talk to a girl or something and he buys me a drink (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 23).

Cultural norms about sharing resources and access to social support networks can reinforce strategies for coping with poverty.

My friend is paying for everything. He knows I will pay him back when I get the money. In Africa, these things don’t matter. Everything is shared. We don’t say, this is mine, this is yours (Eritrean refugee, female, 18 years).

However, the poverty-related frustrations that many of the young people felt were exacerbated by difficulties in making sense of the Australian income support system. Problems with Centrelink and general confusion about entitlements were common.

I don’t have Austudy yet. I think it will all be fixed soon, but I don’t know how much money I will get (Eritrean refugee, female, 18 years).

I don’t understand anything about Centrelink. It’s so complicated and it seems to change every day (Bosnian refugee, aged 22).

Centrelink causes me problems, because I want to study (Croatian migrant, aged 25).

Income support arrangements in Australia (administered by Centrelink) provide an opportunity for young refugees to adjust to a new life. Such supports are a temporary measure, valid until such time as the young person can establish financial independence. The risks of premature financial independence, however, are illustrated in the story of one young woman who recently migrated to Australia.

Young people from refugee backgrounds who entered Australia under the Family Stream of the Migration Program are reliant on their sponsors for financial support. They are not eligible for income support in the first two years of residency, although in exceptional circumstances may be given Special Benefit. Young refugees living in Australia under a temporary protection visa remain ineligible for income support benefits, and rely on voluntary and community organisations for financial support. These issues are addressed more fully in Chapter 5.

Psycho-social needs

There are several important sources of psycho-social support for young refugees to help them manage conflicting cultural allegiances, develop literacy in both (or several) cultures and overcome feelings of marginalisation, loneliness, hopelessness or low self-esteem. Support comes from family and friends, ethno-cultural community groups and, usually in the last instance, from social service agencies. The absence or failure of any of these supports can seriously lessen the young person’s capacity to become independent and their opportunities for developing cultural literacy.
Young refugees and their families

Even an absent family has a profound effect on a refugee young person (Refugee Resettlement Working Group 1994, p.74).

Young people need to make family connections. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Young people who have been separated from their families are in a situation of double jeopardy: they are bereft of potentially important sources of support and worried about the welfare of family members left behind.

I don’t have anyone here. That’s the thing I don’t like about Australia. That’s my problem. I am lonely (Croatian, female, aged 25).

The worst thing about being in Australia is being alone and living alone (Algerian refugee, male, aged 24).

Even when young refugees do have family in Australia, they and their families will remain anxious about relatives and friends left behind. Letters and telephone calls to remaining relatives are central to enable continuity of identity and relationships. However, the costs of international telephone calls can be prohibitive, and suitable phone facilities are not always found in supported accommodation. Further, not all refugee young people have the skills and confidence to use telephone handsets or public telephones, and limited literacy in the first language can make letter writing difficult.

Young people without family or with only a few family members in Australia may feel the weight of expectation to become educated, establish themselves in a good job, supplement family income (often by sending money overseas) and sponsor remaining relatives for resettlement in the new country.

It is my responsibility to get a good education so I can try to help my father in the future. At the moment, I can’t help him (Sudanese humanitarian entrant, aged 22).

Sponsoring relatives to Australia is fraught with difficulties. Firstly, many refugee people define family differently to Anglo-Australians. They may, for example, have formed deeply meaningful relationships with parent surrogates upon separation from their parents or they may wish to sponsor distant, yet important family members not eligible under migration policy.

In the event that a young refugee does become reunited with a parent in Australia, life does not necessarily improve straight away. The arrival of a parent may lead to power conflicts between the newly arrived parents and the relatively established young person. Reunion with a parent can in effect mean a second separation, this time from parent surrogates and alternative homes. This can create significant psychological distress.

For young refugees joining established family members in Australia, the situation is not necessarily any easier. Some carers may see their obligation to the extended family cease once a child or young person is brought to Australia. Families may have a limited capacity to support the young people they sponsor. Alternatively there may be a breakdown in family relationships resulting in the young person being asked to leave. This is not necessarily a sign of dysfunctional family behaviour but may sometimes simply reflect different cultural practices. For example, a shame-based rather than guilt-based culture is more likely to use excommunication as a strategy for ensuring cultural maintenance and as a response to breaches of community trust. This strategy can strengthen the capacity of members of an ethnic community to support each other, but Anglo-Australians tend to find the use of shame strategies harsh in comparison to the more familiar strategy of encouraging personal guilt.

In addition to such intercultural value tensions, intergenerational conflicts can also affect young refugees whether or not they arrived in Australia with their families. Parents and caregivers sometimes interpret English language acquisition as abandonment of traditional culture and values. Refugee young people often struggle to find a balance of allegiance to the traditions and heritage of their culture of origin and those of the new host culture. The risk is that if they do not conform to cultural traditions, then they may become culturally alienated at a time in life when family and community supports are particularly valuable.

My mum only has us, and we only have her (Bosnian, male, aged 17).

Some refugee young people can resent their cultural obligation to follow a family or traditional custom that is unacceptable in Western society. Sometimes apparently simple issues such as wearing a certain style of clothing, participating in swimming events at school, attending camps or otherwise participating in ‘normal school life’ can prove difficult. Young people may in principle have the right to make informed decisions about what they would like to do; however, the risk of excommunication from the family and ethnic community is part of the information that must be taken into account before a decision is reached. These kinds of issues can be very stressful and their resolution requires well-developed inter-cultural life skills.

Parental insecurities about the ‘Westernisation’ of their children are similarly understandable. Parents fear losing their children as well as their history and traditions. Aspects of the home culture can be exaggerated (and become more rigid) in the desperation to preserve and entrench formerly taken-for-granted cultural practices. Parental distress has been shown to be a significant factor affecting the psychological wellbeing of refugee young people (Mghir et al. 1995).

Parents may rely on their children to act as interpreters or cultural mediators, thus reversing roles and more traditional power structures within families. Parents can find this experience frustrating and humiliating, and it can be confusing for young people too.

The only thing I hate about Australia is that I have to be responsible for social security liaison, housing commission liaison, bills for telephone, everything. I fill out all the forms on behalf of my family, because I speak the best English (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 19).

Status dislocation for parents and caregivers may pose further problems for refugee young people. Adults, who remain unemployed or are unable to find work commensurate with their level of skill and education can become angry or depressed. They can inadvertently place excessive demands on the young people in the family to make up for loss of status.

My father expects me to finish high school and go on to further study (Bosnian refugee, aged 18).

I had a very comfortable and easy life in Iraq. Here, everything is changed and we have to start again from the beginning, from zero (Iraqi refugee, aged 20).

Intensive support is required for young people who are not coping with their families. Further, many refugee families and their communities need assistance to know how to help their apparently deviant young people and to recognise that their own preferred strategies for dealing with problems may not be understood sympathetically by other ethnic groups. Such support must be offered with considerable sensitivity. There is little concept of preventive parenting in some ethnic subcultures. Accordingly, when this results in family breakup or the young person fleeing from home, the crisis situation is usually traumatic in nature and very difficult to resolve (Cahill & Ewen 1987, p.30)

Despite all the problems of immigrant adjustment, migrant families are generally characterised by stability and solidarity, and young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds tend to have considerable empathy for their parents’ situation and aspirations (Cahill & Ewen 1987, p.26). Young people who settle in Australia without immediate family or significant adults are likely to be particularly disadvantaged as they attempt to grapple with the challenges presented by growing up in an alien culture.

Ethno-cultural community groups

Many Australians might take for granted a sense of community and the need for group affiliation. Most people benefit immeasurably from the support of family and friends with whom they feel comfortable.

The worst thing is when you don’t have any friends. Noone to share with, no-one to talk to. When you have to keep everything to yourself and you don’t know what to do (Eritrean refugee, female, 18 years).

Refugee young people from small, newly arrived ethnic communities may have limited access to such support, even though they may have family members with them. Small ethnic communities find it hard to compete for services with those who are better established and have more resources (Jupp, McRobbie & York 1991). Refugees often prefer to use services provided by workers who speak their language and share their culture. However, even if workers of the same cultural background can be found, they tend to be generalist workers and consequently difficulties arise when specialist services are required. The mainstream and ethno-specific service sectors must cooperate closely, in recognition of their complementarity.

Connection to religious communities can be particularly important for young people who are without ethno-specific support. Refugees may feel more comfortable getting help from churches than from mainstream social support services, because of a cultural precedent. For example, Coventry (1998, p.48) notes that members of the former Yugoslav community in Melbourne believed that ‘churches helped the most when they first arrived in Australia’.

The support of and sense of belonging to ethnic or cultural groups is likely to be a key factor in a young person’s adjustment and transition to independence, both within and outside the family context. Yet not all new arrivals enjoy this support even where they share an ethnic background with relatively large migrant communities in Australia. Of particular concern is the likelihood that government policy is working to divide rather than unite particular ethnic communities in response to new refugee arrivals. Amnesty International Australia, along with other human rights advocates, has argued that the current linkage of decision-making on allocation of visa grants under the offshore and onshore components of the Humanitarian Program should be broken, in part, because of the hostility it provokes against asylum seekers (onshore applicants). As a result of this policy, and the rhetoric through which it is commonly presented, asylum seekers are positioned as unworthy ‘queue jumpers’ taking places that would otherwise be filled by ‘genuine refugees’ who apply through the ‘proper’ channels overseas. As pointed out by the Catholic Commission for Justice, Development and Peace, this policy has tended to play on tensions within settler groups from refugeeproducing countries whose own relatives may be applying for permanent residency under the family reunion provision of the offshore Special Humanitarian program.3

Social service agencies

Services are organised in a way that makes sense for a stable society but not for newcomers, whose needs tend to be interdependent and overlapping (Report of the Canadian Task Force on Mental Health Issues Affecting Immigrants and Refugees 1988, p.51).

Historically, refugee people have tended to underutilise existing social services or else drop out of these services prematurely (Hepperlin 1991, p.130). Seeto (1991) reported that fewer than 20% of mainstream services surveyed in south-east Queensland had provided services to more than five young people from non- English speaking backgrounds. (More than three-quarters of services surveyed had inadequate or no data on the ethnicity of service users.) Further, Hughes and Gatbonton (1994) reported that 30% of services surveyed had no contact with any young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in the previous three months.

Refugee young people are generally unaware of the supports that are available to them. This low level of awareness tends to be more pronounced where familial or ethnic community connections and networks are underdeveloped. Underutilisation may also be indicative of the cultural inappropriateness of services or service delivery. A further difficulty is that not all people from refugee backgrounds who need services are eligible to apply. In general terms, eligibility for mainstream social services is dependent on having permanent residence status. Groups of young refugees likely to be particularly disadvantaged by existing eligibility criteria include asylum seekers, temporary protection visa holders, and entrants under the Family Stream of the Migration Program whose sponsorship relationships have broken down. The nature of this disadvantage is explained more fully in Chapter 5.


This chapter has brought together existing research and insights derived from interviews and consultation to present an overview of the needs of young refugees. It describes the difficulties for young refugees inherent in managing the processes of settlement and identity achievement simultaneously, particularly in a societal context in which the positive messages of multiculturalism are constantly undermined by racist attitudes and practices. The needs of young refugees are diverse, complex and significant, and they tend to compound each other. Young refugees are likely to suffer considerable socioeconomic disadvantage in the short term, and there is a particularly high risk of homelessness among refugee young people, this being some six to 10 times greater than for school students generally. At the same time, the resilience of young refugees and their commitment to Australia and making the best of their new lives must be emphasised. Apart from the personal and cultural resilience which young people bring to bear, family and ethno-cultural communities can be extremely important sources of support. Family is identified as central to young refugees as they adjust to their new lives, generally as a source of strength but also of potential conflict. Culturally sensitive support is critical in instances where family relations begin to break down. Young people who do not have family will be particularly reliant on government supports. The next chapter reviews the capacity of existing federal government programs and services to meet the needs of young refugees.

1 Amnesty International Australia argues: ‘The fact that “boat people” pay people smugglers, is a reflection of their circumstances, not their financial status. Indeed, money has absolutely no bearing on the presence or otherwise of a wellfounded fear of persecution. One does not have to be poor (or uneducated, or down-trodden) to be a refugee.’ See Amnesty International Australia, Factsheet 12 – People Smuggling – the untold story, viewed July 2001,

2 Refer to Appendix 3 for this definition, and to Appendix 8 for a copy of the survey questionnaire.

3 See Amnesty International Australia 2001,Factsheet 01, Question and Answer, viewed July 2001, Several other fact sheets assessing Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees can be found on the Amnesty web site at:

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