Refugees settling in despite funding cuts


Multiculturalism: Toowoomba’s Mayayali Association (Kerala province south India) participates in the city’s annual Carnival of Flowers parade. Photo by Bob Wilson.

While refugees and migrants have been welcomed into Australia’s rural communities, successive Budget cuts have made life difficult for refugee support services. Although not attracting too many headlines, a $50 million cut in the 2018-19 Budget, and another $77.9 million over four years in the 2019-20 Budget, means that organisations trying to help refugees with the transition to a new country, a new culture and a new language are left scrambling.

The Refugee Council of Australia pointed out that the Budget found $62 million extra for Operation Sovereign Borders, while spending $50 million less on refugee support services.

“The Government has savagely cut its allocation for financial support for people seeking asylum by more than 60% in just two years, from $139.8 million in 2017-18 to $52.6 million in 2019-20”.

The 2018 cuts were particularly bad for organisations like Toowoomba Refugee and Migrants Services (TRAMS), because the government also stopped funding translation services, which means TRAMS and other networks throughout Australia have to fund their own.

Over the past 15 years, more than 4,000 families have settled in Toowoomba,130 kms west of Brisbane. They came from conflict-torn homelands of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan.

TRAMS director Kate Venables told regional ABC that Federal funding was cut from $390,000 to $240,000 in late 2018, taking the organisation by surprise.

“Part of that funding now goes towards an interpreting service that was previously government funded. So really our funding was reduced to $160,000, a massive reduction for us.”

About 400 TRAMS clients are Yazadi, a persecuted religious minority from Iraq. The Yazadi follow their own religion and speak the little-known dialect of Kurdish-Kurmanji.

According to the 2016 Census, 3,657 people living in Toowoomba spoke a language other than English at home. They included Mandarin (934), Arabic (879), Tagalog (482), Dinka (474) and Afrikaans (444). Tagalog is the language of Filipino natives while Dinka is spoken by South Sudanese ethnic groups.  Most of the Yazadi refugees arrived after the Census was taken.

Toowoomba’s population has more than doubled from 73,390 in 1986 to 160,799 in 2016. In a provincial city settled mainly by people of Anglo-Saxon or German descent, that is considerable growth and diversity of population. The city also has significant communities of migrants from India and the Philippines.

When we visited last September for the Carnival of Flowers, I was taken with the way the traditional street parade had become a celebration of multiculturalism and diversity. If you want to know how multicultural Toowoomba has become, the weekend we were there, more than 2,000 South Sudanese people attended a funeral for a local Anglican priest. Some of these people came from out of town, but such was the show of support they had to hire a high school hall for the service.

According to a survey of 155 newly arrived adult refugees and 59 children from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan who settled in suburban Brisbane, Logan and Toowoomba, those who settled in Toowoomba had the easiest time integrating and feeling a part of their local communities.

The survey by Professor Jock Collins, Professor of Social Economics, UTS Business School, University of Technology Sydney and Professor Carol Read, Professor, Western Sydney University, was funded by the Australian Research Council. The findings are the first to emerge from a three-year study of settlement outcomes of recently arrived refugees in NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

Nearly all refugees surveyed in Brisbane and Logan are Christians – a consequence of the Turnbull government favouring mainly Christian refugees from Syria and Iraq. As well as settling Yazidi refugees, Toowoomba also welcomed a smaller number of Muslim refugees from Afghanistan.

I recall checking out an Afghan takeaway and grocery shop in Toowoomba’s Margaret Street. We chatted to the young man behind the counter who said that while he liked Toowoomba well enough, he found it very quiet after the constant hubbub of Kabul (population 4.65 million).

One key issue related to immigrant and refugee settlement in regional and rural Australia relates to the warmth of the welcome. Collins and Read said 68% of the refugees in Queensland overall – and 81% in Toowoomba reported that it was “very easy” or “easy” to make friends in Australia. About 60% found it “very easy” or “easy” to talk to their Australian neighbours.

“When we revisit these families in 2019 and 2020, we expect the numbers will even be higher,” the survey authors said.

Syrian refugee Yousef Roumieh, a bi-cultural support worker with TRAMS, helps Yazadi refugees with day-to-day tasks, such as booking appointments and reading mail and text messages.

He learned to speak Kurdish-Kurmanji during a five-year stay in an Iraqi refugee camp.

“There is not enough funding to pay for the supports, this is a big problem,” Mr Roumieh, formerly a pharmacist from Damascus, told the ABC.

The Department of Social Services made it clear the onus was (now) on refugee support services to provide their own interpreting services. The department said the previous arrangement was ‘contrary to the intent of the Free Interpreting Service program’.

You may recall the Australian Story episode Field of Dreams in 2016, which told of the positive outcomes flowing from settling African refugees in the New South Wales border town of Mingaloo. It’s not difficult to find similar stories, particularly in rural Victoria and NSW. The Economist published a story in January about the 400 Yazadi refugees resettled in the NSW regional town of Wagga Wagga.  The primary school in the town had to hire interpreters to communicate with families (a fifth of its students are refugees) and the local college is busy with parents learning English and new trades. As the article observed “Few locals seem fussed about the changes and to those fresh from war zones, ‘Wagga’ is an idyll.”

Many grassroots organisations and charities have weighed in to help refugees make the transition to new towns in Australia. Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR) said resettlements had occurred in Hamilton, Swan Reach, Kerang, Nhill, Bendigo, Castlemaine, Shepparton, Albury/Wodonga, Wagga, Griffith, Leeton, Armidale, Mingoola and Townsville – “to name a few”.

In the tiny Victorian town of Nhill (pop 2,184), 160 refugees from Myanmar helped boost the town’s economy by taking jobs with a local poultry farm.

Funding for refugee support services is often derived from a variety of sources. The Nhill initiative was co-funded by the Federal government, Hindmarsh Shire and the poultry farm, Luv-a-Duck.

A report published by Deloitte Access Economics and settlement agency AMES Australia said the initiative has added more than $40 million and 70 jobs to the local economy between 2010 and 2015.

At its annual conference in December, the Labor Party made a commitment to increase community-sponsored refugee programmes up to 5,000 places per year, and boost funding for regional processing and resettlement. The unequivocal promise of support is in stark contrast to the $50 million cut to refugee services by the Coalition. Coincidentally, this is the exact sum set aside for the redevelopment of the site at Botany Bay where the British explorer and his crew first set foot on Australian soil in 1770.

That’s what elections are all about, really; you vote for the party that spends (or doesn’t spend) money on things you care about.

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Errata: Last week I somewhat underestimated the cost of a political bill board, which an informed reader told me was $10,000 a month.

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