The Future for Refugees in Rural Australia


Chart by ASRC

Australians who support asylum seekers and refugees have been optimistic of improved policy since the Labor Party won the Federal election on May 24. As you can see by the above chart, there is daylight between the tough policies of the former government and the more compassionate policies of Labor and The Greens.

While we wait for clearer direction from the new government, Australians who care about refugees ramped up their efforts for Refugee Week (June 19-25). In Warwick, we held our first-ever Welcome Walk, when a group of 40 walked the footpaths of Warwick. The 3.5 kms route we took on Sunday was symbolic of the distance from the centre of Kabul in Afghanistan to Kabul Airport. As you’d know, there was a multi-national evacuation response when the Taliban stormed the capital last August.

For Australia’s part, some 4,000 Afghans with Australian visas made it on to evacuation flights and ended up here. But thousands more, who rushed the airport in panic and frustration, were left stranded. It’s been a similar scene in Ukraine, with some 8 million refugees streaming across borders into Poland and other neighbouring countries.

About 70% of refugees seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Nevertheless, there are 38,513 people (August 2021) seeking asylum in Australia, including 4,452 children. Many groups and individuals in Australia actively try to help those who have been granted refugee status. Government policies tend to favour resettlement of refugees in regional and rural areas. But welfare organisations have been critical of the lack of support for refugee resettlement in country Australia.

A study by the University of South Australia found that rural and regional schools can be under-resourced and ill-prepared to support refugees and their families. UniSA researcher Jennifer Brown said policy makers needed to better understand the nuances of regional and rural communities to help them welcome refugees. She said many rural schools felt under-supported and uncertain about how best to help.

“Appropriate resourcing for rural schools is a starting point, but training and opportunities for intercultural learning and engagement must also occur within communities if we are really to deliver change.”

As you can see from the chart above, there’s a wide gulf between the Liberal National Party’s policies on refugees and those of Labor and The Greens.

As an example, the Albanese government stood by a pre-election promise and brought the Nadesalingham family back to Biloela. The reason the Tamil family’s case has become so well known is that a grass-roots group much like ours helped get the story out and campaign for the family.

We are members of the Southern Downs Refugee and Migrant Network, a small group or ordinary people who want to encourage Australians to accept refugees.

Warwick is a country town of some 15,000 people and to date we have no refugees living here. SDRAMN is currently supporting a family in Kabul while they seek visas for neighbouring Iran. We are affiliated with Rural Australians for Refugees, a grass-roots organisation that aims to support settlement of refugees in regional and rural towns.

Toowoomba, Australia’s largest inland city, has been a strong advocate for inviting refugees into their community. Since the mid-1990s, South Sudanese refugees began arriving in Toowoomba, 127 kms west of Brisbane. By 2021, the South Sudanese population had grown to 2,300. Refugees from Darfur and the Congo began arriving in the city, followed by thousands from Chad, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and the Middle East. In an Amnesty International submission to the Federal Government in 2021, Toowoomba Mayor Paul Antonio said that since the city decided in 2013 to become a Refugee Welcome Zone, the numbers of refugees arriving in Toowoomba had grown to a maximum 1,100 per year.

While we wait for the new government to turn its attention to refugee policy, support groups will continue to do what they do best – raising awareness and raising funds.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre held its annual Telethon on Monday June 20 and raised $1.650 million to help support asylum seekers and other groups who support refugees.

The ASRC does a lot of unheralded work with asylum seekers, including, since March 2021, finding homes for 138 people in three States after they were released from detention.

While the ASRC has a large budget and generous donors, small grass-roots support groups and individuals can make a difference. Warwick resident Sally Edwards decided to raise funds to bring a Ukranian family to Brisbane, where other family members live. Within weeks she had raised $25,000, aided by local media coverage, a garage sale and donations.

While the spotlight of public attention has switched from Afghanistan to Ukraine, the world refugee problem is huge and complex. The UNHCR says there are “at least” 89.3 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes. Among them are nearly 27.1 million refugees, around half of whom are under the age of 18.

In Australia, our number one issue is what the previous government referred to as the “legacy case-load”. Approximately 30,000 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat between 13 August 2012 and 1 January 2014. (The legacy case-load also includes babies born in Australia to asylum seekers in this category). They arrived in Australia during the Labor government’s term of office and were barred from making an application for protection for up to four years following their arrival. The succeeding Coalition government introduced exceptional legislative restrictions on their eligibility for protection visas.

The murky history of the legacy cases starts with Julia Gillard’s Labor government, which commissioned a report in 2012 as to how to handle the growing influx of ‘boat people’. Measures taken by Gillard included resuming the controversial offshore processing policy.

Then came the Abbott Government and immigration minister Scott Morrison, who reintroduced Temporary Protection Visas. Morrison stated that the government would not give a permanent visa to anyone who had arrived by boat. In 2014, the Abbott government also denied access to publicly funded legal assistance to all who had arrived in Australia without a valid visa, further delaying processing of refugee claims.

The latest data from the Department of Home Affairs says that 93% of the 31,112 legacy cases have been ‘decided’. Of the 29,012 resolved cases, 5,191 were granted three-year Temporary Protection Visas (TPV) and 13,136 were given five-year Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEV). The department has 2,110 cases that have not been resolved and another 870 that were refused but are seeking merit reviews. People granted a TPV or SHEV can work, get Medicare and receive short-term counselling for torture and trauma. Children under 18 can attend school.

It is important to note that people with these types of visas must re-apply for them on a regular basis. The new government has not elaborated on its plan for permanent resettlement for all refugees

The extensive delays to processing claims has caused some asylum seekers to develop a clinical syndrome different from other trauma-related mental disorders. Psychiatrists have labelled this ‘protracted asylum seeker syndrome’ and pointed to the heightened risk of suicide among this group.

The important step for asylum seekers is to have their application for asylum heard. The sticking point is the Australian Government’s entrenched stance on “Illegal maritime arrivals”. Apart from re-defining the term to “irregular”, the Albanese Government needs to offer this group of people some certainty about their future in Australia. It’s just the decent thing to do.

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  1. Josephine Frankland

    Good on you Bob

  2. Thanks Josephine – the numbers are quite challenging.

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