Community trust the vital ingredient in refugee resettlement

Community trust the vital ingredient of refugee resettlementIn the prelude to the annual country and western music festival, the Tamworth local council struck fateful tones of discord. After a decision in December to reject becoming a resettlement area under the Federal Government’s Humanitarian Refugee Resettlement Program (HRRP), and provocative comments by the local Mayor regarding criminal activities of the existing Sudanese population in Tamworth, the township quickly became the centre of a racist firestorm. A closer reading of events revealed that much of this criticism was unfounded and misplaced.

The broader concerns of the council, in tune with community sentiment, were that the existing government HRRP was ill-equipped to deliver full services to newly arrived refugee families, threatening the longer -term success of the pilot scheme. In eventually accepting the resettlement plan last month, the Tamworth council demanded a more comprehensive community role in supporting the resettlement program to avoid a shortfall in services.

Although outgoing Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Amanda Vanstone applauded Tamworth’s about face and the 'big heart' of rural Australia, it was clear that refugee resettlement is not singularly grounded in the root of compassion. Indeed, this debate touched on a number of prevailing concerns, particularly how best asylum seekers can adapt, engage and contribute in a new society facing deficient services and divided opinions.

The Tamworth incident was played out at a time of glaring media profile for the Sudanese community in Australia. The recent cases of convicted rapist Hakeem Hakeem, and of Taban Gany, sentenced for drink driving causing serious injury, have subjected the wider Sudanese population to columns of outrage in the press and to simmering distrust from within sections of the public.

Moreover, these cases have demonstrated how within a refugee framework, issues of law and order are easily muddied by suspicion of cultural difference. Several prominent members of the Sudanese community in Australia have publicly condemned these crimes and aired their concerns at criminal and anti-social behaviour particularly among the younger Sudanese community. But they have also noted that emotional trauma and the transition from a world of conflict affect their current lives. This should be the starting point for addressing problems in the community. It is unfortunate that sections of the media have used this anguished burden to frame all Sudanese within a portrait of lawlessness.

Recent overtures by the Department of Immigration towards reducing the intake of Sudanese refugees and effectively looking elsewhere would be a regrettable failure of the humanitarian resettlement program. The Australian government provides sanctuary to refugees based on an international protection framework. This is based on needs, not on fit. In affording protection for Sudanese refugees, Australia must contend with exceptional cases, periods of adjustment and inevitably, incidents of failure.

Community trust the vital ingredient of refugee resettlementImmigration under any circumstances is as newly appointed immigration Minister Kevin Andrews has stated, a 'process, not an event'. Although a careful assessment of asylum seeker cases in countries of first flight is warranted, as much as health screening and document checks are an integral part of the resettlement process, it is naive to suggest, as a number of media commentators have, that all weaknesses in our refugee program lie in the selection process. Gaps and deficiencies in the on-shore component of the resettlement program are equally pertinent,

Recent findings by the Inter-Departmental Committee on Humanitarian Settlement prepared for the NSW and Federal Governments, have questioned the capacity of the Immigration Department’s, Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy (IHSS) to meet fully the needs of new arrivals. It underlines the lack of appropriately targeted services to African humanitarian entrants, and the increased demand on State services when the Commonwealth fails to meet their settlement needs.

The Sudanese community in Australia is keenly aware of the difficulties associated with the resettlement process and has recognised and condemned more public failings under the eyes of the law. However, much of the recent media coverage of these complex issues has been grossly inflammatory, condemning the entire resident Sudanese population as having failed an arbitrary ‘assimilation’ test. Improved services for newly arrived and longer-term asylum seekers would greatly strengthen Australia’s Humanitarian Settlement Strategy for vulnerable people who arrive here. Building tolerance and trust in the Australian community is equally important. It is a challenge for a ‘multicultural’ Australia.



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