Regional community disappointed by government's rejection as resettlement location

Leaders in the NSW regional town of Armidale say the government has missed an opportunity for the development of their community after its application to be a refugee resettlement location was rejected.

Syrian doctor Ricardo Al Khouri says living in Armidale feels just like home.

He moved to the regional community in northern New South Wales with his wife and two children 10 years ago.

"Armidale is maybe the best town I have lived in Australia,” said the local GP.

“I would never imagine myself living in a big city, no way. I was born in Homs which is a city but in my time it wasn't crowded."

When the government announced it was taking in 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees in 2015, he thought it was the perfect opportunity to welcome those from his old hometown to his new one.

"Everything you need is around and people are very friendly.  People are very open-minded to foreigners I think it is a very important point. When you come and you have an accent it is very obvious that you are a stranger and you need people to be patient with you."

Syrian doctor Ricardo Al Khouri enjoys living in Armidale with his family.
Syrian doctor Ricardo Al Khouri enjoys living in Armidale with his family.

It is a view shared by many in Armidale including former Mayor Herman Beyersdorf.

He raised the issue with the Armidale Council who unanimously supported a decision to apply for the town to be a refugee resettlement location.

Mr Beyersdorf said the community was well-equipped to take in refugees especially when it comes to education and settlement services.

"We have a world-class university, a TAFE, a regional hospital, we have quite a few schools - primary and secondary, and one of the schools actually has English lessons for primary and secondary children which is being used by migrants and refugees.”

He added there were also services such as the Northern Settlement Services and Sanctuary which have successfully looked after refugees in the past.

Yet the Department of Social Services rejected the Council's application to be a resettlement location saying it is unsuitable.

"I was told Armidale was not currently on the list for Commonwealth resettlement which is a pity and there was no explanation as to why we're not, despite what we considered to be our suitability,” Mr Beyersdorf said.

“Later in the same letter it says that the government is committed to the humanitarian migrant intake for regional and rural areas. Well that just seems to be a contradiction."

The Department said a large proportion of the entrants are settling close to a relative or personal connection within Australia.

Others are located where there are specific settlement services, employment opportunities, and the potential for harmonious settlement of specific groups.

But the community has an ally in the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.

"In the New England area we are very proud of the fact we've got no problems, of course we will open our arms to refugees, course we will. And I'm only too happy about them going to places such as Armidale and I'll do everything in my power to make sure they are welcome there," said Mr Joyce, the Member for New England.

Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce has been supportive of Armidale as a place to welcome refugees.
Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce has been supportive of Armidale as a place to welcome refugees.

It's not the first time Armidale has opened its arms to refugees.

In 2003, the town took in African refugees from South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia and many still live there.

Armidale Business Chamber CEO Tracy Pendergast said there are many jobs available for incoming refugees from unskilled work at the local tomato farm to skilled work at the University of New England.

She emphasised there is also an untapped potential for refugees to explore entrepreneurial endeavours.

"We have a lot of self-employment and a lot of ways of encouraging people to start their own business and I think that is something that would have been of benefit to the incoming refugees," Ms Pendergast said.