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Changing the National Narrative About Refugees

The National Council of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia has welcomed the release of Foundations for Belonging 2021 Insights on newly arrived refugees: Women and Digital Inclusion released this month.

The report tracks the experience and contributions of newly arrived refugees in Australia.

Refugees have contributed in immeasurable terms to the social and cultural fabric of Australia for decades.

What this report reflects is the evolving policy, practice and evidence base for refugee settlement in Australia; and further emphasises the benefits of accepting refugees into our communities.

The comprehensive study, which adds to existing evidence by highlighting the crucial role of social connections and rights and responsibilities in settlement, integration and belonging, is very welcome, especially at a time when our borders are perceived to not be as welcoming as they once were.

The report’s focus on the strengths and contributions of refugees is timely.

Until recent years, Australia had an enviable history of welcoming refugees to the country. Millions of migrant nationals from Europe and Asia have all found new lives here and now call Australia home.

As a society, we need to stop differentiating between migrants and refugees and adopt the same attitude to refugees as we have in the past for migrants.

In recent weeks, when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban and Australia stepped in with a promise to repatriate 3000 to 5000 refugees, that warm welcome of old was in evidence once again.

Since the 1950s, new arrivals have demonstrated a proud record of contributing to the social, cultural and economic fabric of Australia, enriching us by the cuisines, cultures, and histories they share.

Being so far away from many other Western countries, where refugees and migrants make up a larger proportion of society, Australia is at times painted as being rather unwelcoming and isolating to new arrivals.

While this is sure to be the case in some instances, the report finds that it is the exception not the rule.

If we choose to think about refugees in the context of our own lives and culture, they remind us of many things. How lucky are we to live in a country without conflict; one where equality for women is a debate, not a matter of life and death? How lucky are we to be able to experience the larger world that exists outside our borders, filled with ancient and interesting cultures, through the cultural experiences of refugees in Australia?

If this new report demonstrates anything, it is that we have to change the narrative around refugees in Australia.

After a year of almost no refugees arriving in Australia due to COVID-19 and border closures, our economy has been negatively impacted by fewer refugee arrivals.

Seeing the impact that the lack of refugees can have on our economy – especially in our agricultural sector, where fresh fruit and vegetables are going to waste because we don’t have the workers to crop them – suggests it’s time to change our thinking.

From a government perspective, it is true to say that the policy settings, practice and evidence base for refugee settlement in Australia have evolved. This study adds to that evidence base.

By giving a voice to the many aspects of refugee integration into our communities, the report aims to shine a light on the strengths and aspirations of refugees and their complementary roles and contributions to society.

It is somewhat remarkable, given the often negative narrative we hear and read about refugees, that the report concludes there is a strong sense of welcome and belonging reported by newly arrived refugees in their everyday lives.

This gives us an insight into the minds of the silent majority in Australia.

It also echoes the sentiment found in the annual Mapping Social Cohesion research where about 80 per cent of Australians agree that migrants and refugees improve Australian society and bring new ideas and cultures.

Yet, despite this more positive view regarding refugees, a recent policy review found that, too often, the focus of debate on refugee settlement is on needs and barriers rather than the strengths and aspirations of refugees.

Nurturing and promoting a strong, changed narrative promulgating the contributions of refugees in public commentary and policy debates provides for a more positive environment for refugee integration and belonging in Australia.

A copy of the report Foundations for Belonging 2021 Insights on newly arrived refugees: Women and digital inclusion, September 2021 can be found here.

Opinion Piece by Lara Alexander, CEO St Vincent de Paul Society Tasmania, originally published in The Examiner, 22 September 2021

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