Beyond politics: Creating hope and opportunity for refugees and asylum seekers

Dr Florence McCarthy, School of Education, University of Western Sydney

Over the past decade the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers by boat has been at the centre of a contentious debate that threatens to tarnish Australia’s long-standing reputation as a generous provider of support for oppressed people arriving on our shores. Since the Second World War over 700,000 refugees have settled here and have made enormous contributions to Australian society.   

Australia is one of nineteen countries that participate in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) resettlement program. In 2008, roughly 13,500 refugees were accepted into Australia as part of the UNHCR Onshore and Offshore programs, with refugee and other humanitarian entrants representing only 7.4 percent of all settler arrivals during that year.

In 2009, Australia’s migrant arrivals numbered 168,700. Compared with this, the Refugee and Humanitarian program represented only 6.6 percent of the overall migration program – close to its lowest level in 35 years.

These figures are fairly moderate, and yet they allow Australia to claim to have one of the highest per capita rates of refugee reception in the world. That Australia is leading the way as a humanitarian nation that is addressing the needs of the world’s displaced people should be a source of pride for Australians. The capacity of our nation to provide a home for people in need should be considered an opportunity, not a hindrance.

Many of Australia’s currently-arriving refugees have suffered the effects of war and violence. This violence has driven them from their homes and has caused many to risk their lives, and often leave their families behind for the chance to find a safe and secure new home. These people are survivors, who are immensely grateful to be given the chance to live free, happy and productive lives in Australia – provided that they are given the opportunity. Education is central to this opportunity, which means that children and young people need effective support as they make a transition into Australian schools.

Across the states and territories, the Commonwealth New Arrivals Program (NAP) provides a common funding base for the initial education of these young people. However, the 50-year-old NAP was designed to meet the needs of Australia’s migrant population of 15 years ago who were often literate in a first language, had prior experience in schools and some education, and were often of similar cultural backgrounds to local Australians.

The on-arrival support services are both basic and temporary, as it was assumed that the majority of migrants would rapidly adjust to life in Australia. These services include an orientation to the country; initial food and household supplies; information regarding available services; assistance with immediate emergencies; accommodation services; case coordination; and short term counselling, and are only available for the first six months in Australia.

By comparison, today’s refugees, who come from such diverse cultural backgrounds and whose lives have become fragmented by war, have much more complicated and ongoing needs, which are not catered for by the NAP. The needs of today’s refugees are going largely unmet.

Each year in NSW between 1,100 and 1,500 newly arrived humanitarian students enrol in public schools. In 2009, there were a total of approximately 12,000 humanitarian entrants in public schools.

Under the current system, these young people from refugee backgrounds – who may have been born in or spent considerable time in refugee camps, and may have limited, interrupted, or even no education – are trying to achieve an effective transition into Australian schools. 

Unfortunately the NAP imposes substantial limits on the capacity of the school systems to provide adequately for the personal and academic needs of refugees. Most new arrivals are only eligible for one year of support in an Intensive English Centre. This is insufficient to meet the needs of refugees who come from conflict zones where educational opportunities are often limited or non-existent. There is also a lack of broadly conceived programs that prepare beginning teachers for the challenge of responding to students with refugee backgrounds.

Some universities are instituting changes to ensure that new teachers will have the experience of working with and developing relationships with young people from refugee backgrounds. However, across the board, more consistent efforts need to be made to ensure that all teachers achieve the flexibility, sensitivity and understanding required to meet the educational challenges of this increasingly diversified student population.

For their settlement in Australia to be successful, refugee students require access to support services that focus on their refugee backgrounds and individual needs. In addition to teaching them English, refugee students need in-school support that goes beyond the classroom and ensures their social integration and personal well-being.

Current levels of funding are not adequate to meet the long-term, complex educational needs of most students with refugee backgrounds. Without an overhaul of the NAP and its funding arrangements, there is a strong possibility that students with refugee experience will fall through the cracks in Australia, as a result of insufficient and inconsistent support.

If students from refugee backgrounds are unable to access the standard pathways that lead to successful employment and secure lives, the danger is that many will instead become dependent on institutional welfare supports. Considering the promise that students with refugee backgrounds offer to Australia, this outcome is both tragic and avoidable.


10 August 2012

Contact: Danielle Roddick, Senior Media Officer