Australia more than ready for more refugees, support agencies say

A refugee carries a child as they arrive at the exhibition centre in Erfurt, Germany. Source: EPA/MARTIN SCHUTT

“Providing that they’re the political will of the government and the funding, they’ve got capacity.”

When the Australian government announced it would take an additional 12,000 refugees from the Syrian crisis, refugee support services say they were overwhelmed with offers to help.

“Thousands of phone calls of people wanting to offer rooms and jobs and clothes and cars and all those sort of things,” Tim O’Connor, Acting CEO of the Refugee Council of Australian said.

O’Connor said there’s still excess capacity in settlement support networks across Australia, with slack left in the system from when the Abbott government cut the Gillard government’s intake from 20,000 to 13,750.

The government agreed to increase the quota, as well processing an additional one-off intake of 12,000 Iraqi and Syrian refugees, almost a third of whom arrived in the past 12 months.

“The strong impression that we’re getting from our members is that we’ll be able to settle those additional arrivals,” Mr O'Connor told SBS.

Ian Wishart, CEO of Plan International, said he'd been hearing the same thing.

“Providing that they’re the political will of the government and the funding, they’ve got capacity,” he said.

Syrian refugee child walks at a refugee camp in Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border. 28 million children around the globe are refugees (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel).
Syrian refugee child walks at a refugee camp in Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border.

Catherine Scarth, CEO of refugee settlement agency AMES Australia, told SBS the system had shown its ability to respond to increased demand for settlement services before.

“We do have the capacity to ramp up and accept more arrivals,” she said.

Refugee settlement agencies provide a whole host of integration and settlement services, but Scarth said upon arrival, the two most common issues were affordable accommodation and employment.  

“But everybody’s different; everybody has different strengths and barriers, different needs,” she said, “we see a lot of people who come with health and mental health issues, and so they need to be addressed fairly quickly.”

Integration with communities is also important for new arrivals.

“We try to help that along by helping to connect people with school groups and sports clubs and arts communities,” she said.


Scarth said refugees can also experience varying degrees of culture shock. Syrian refugees from larger cities were likely to quickly feel comfortable in Australia.

“Some of them are middle aged professionals who’ve lived in cities; they’re familiar with living in an urban environment,” she said, “if you get someone who’s come from a remote part of Afghanistan, it can be different.”

Refugees may have never seen common infrastructure such as trains and traffic lights, or never had a healthcare system or independent police force to interact with.

“Contrary to the manner in which the Government currently treats people seeking asylum, Australia has one of the most successful refugee resettlement programs in the world,” Tim O’Connor said, and AMES agrees. 

“Australia and Canada are probably regarded as having the best refugee arrangements in terms of settlements,” Scarth said.

Canada has overseen a significant increase in its refugee intake with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pledge to settle more than 30,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict.

But the rapid surge in refugees hasn’t been without its issues.

A Canadian Senate Committee has warned that English and French language programs are not meeting demand; mental health issues may not be being addressed; and cost of living financing may need adjustments.

Australia will see an increase in refugee arrivals in coming years, though not as dramatic as the Canadian program. 

The government has pledged to increase the annual refugee intake from 13,750 to 19,000 over the next two years. The majority of the one-off intake of 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees are also slated to arrive over that period. 

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