You may know that Sunday 15 June to Saturday 21 June 2014 is Refugee Week. Held annually in Australia to coincide with World Refugee Day on the 20th June, Refugee Week is Australia’s peak annual activity to raise awareness about issues affecting refugees and celebrate the positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society.
The Refugee Council of Australia (RCA) has chosen ‘Restoring Hope’ as the theme for this year’s Refugee Week to remind us that ‘while a refugee’s journey begins with danger, it also begins with hope. Refugees flee their homelands not only because they fear persecution, but also because they have hope: they hope to find freedom from persecution, and safety and security for themselves and their families; they hope to be given a chance to start a new life and recover from past trauma’.
The RCA also makes the point that the theme calls attention to the role of countries that offer protection to refugees and provide them with an opportunity to rebuild their lives and restore hope for a future free from fear, persecution, violence and insecurity. Despite fluctuating (and recently, increasingly harsh) policies of deterrence towards asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat, our government also offers permanent settlement to between 13,000 and 14,000 refugees annually through the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) resettlement program. While permanent settlement offers opportunities for a new life, it is also accompanied by significant challenges. Refugees settling in Australia come from diverse backgrounds but face a common need to deal with experiences of loss, family disruption, long periods in refugee camps or seeking asylum and the trauma that forced them to flee their homes. Following resettlement, they must negotiate a new language and culture, unfamiliar health, education and welfare systems and are also likely to experience social isolation, poverty and discrimination. Over 40% of people settling in Australia from refugee backgrounds are under the age of 18 and some of these face additional obstacles associated with disrupted – or even non-existent – formal education, prior to arrival.
We know that despite these challenges, most refugee settlers go on to become successful and productive members of Australian society. We also know that providing appropriate support, particularly in the early stages of settlement, can be crucial to enable this to happen. I, along with others in the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program are engaged in a number of projects where we work in partnership with others across the University and with community organisations to investigate and promote conditions that support refugee-background children and families to overcome barriers to social inclusion, participation and wellbeing.
Completed projects include evaluations we have conducted of programs such as Ucan2 – which assists young people transitioning from language schools and centres into mainstream education settings – and the Foundation House School Support Program – which supports schools to provide an inclusive environment for refugee-background children and families. We have also explored barriers for refugee-background parents in accessing Maternal and Child Health Services and investigated ways to support driver education for refugees settling in regional Victoria.
Current projects include an exploration of the experiences of refugee-background parents and young children who attend supported playgroups run by Save the Children Australia, and a new project focused on sports participation as a means to promoting social inclusion and wellbeing for refugee-background children. We are also about to begin a project looking at ways the University of Melbourne can provide enhanced opportunities and support to tertiary students from refugee-backgrounds.
Underpinning all of these projects is the understanding that improving support for those new to Australia can make all the difference when it comes to them being able to create the new life that they hope for. Some of the remarkable stories of Australians from diverse backgrounds who first came here as refugees with hope for a better future have been collected by Melbourne University’s Researchers for Asylum seekers. You can read some of those stories celebrating their lives and contributions here.
Written by Dr Karen Block
Research Fellow, Jack Brockhoff Child Health & Wellbeing Program
The University of Melbourne
World Refugee Day http://stories.unhcr.org/?_ga=1.91771994.1973195338.1402975368
Restoring Hope http://www.refugeeweek.org.au/
Resettlement program http://www.unhcr.org/pages/4a16b1676.html
School Support Program http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13603116.2014.899636#.U6DBJChhsTB
Maternal and Child Health http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6963/12/117
Driver education https://www104.griffith.edu.au/index.php/inclusion/article/view/440
Refugee-background parents and young children http://www.socialequity.unimelb.edu.au/the-lived-experience-of-refugee-background-children-in-australia/