Many Canberrans might not be aware that refugees and asylum seekers live in our city. Yet many do; adults and children who have sought safety in Australia from persecution, torture, and war-related trauma.
People with asylum-seeker or refugee backgrounds bring incredible strengths and cultural richness to our community. Among them are some of the health and aged care workers and cleaners who have fulfilled such an important role during the pandemic, carrying our community during the peak of the shutdown.
However, they also carry within them the scars of fleeing state-sanctioned terror. In Canberra, there are Rohingya people from Myanmar (Burma) who have experienced persecution that came to a peak in 2017 but had existed since 1984. Unrecognised as citizens in their own country, suffering hostility, torture, and the loss of loved ones, many had long and dangerous journeys through Asia to reach our shores. Others come from Afghanistan, El Salvador, Indonesia, Jamaica, Malaysia, Syria, and Sri Lanka, and all have their own harrowing stories to tell.
People seeking asylum face complex challenges rebuilding their lives due to the trauma, violence, and dislocation they have experienced. Frequently, their separation from loved ones is an aggravating factor. They need to learn to navigate a new culture and many don't speak English.
Too many live with a sense of uncertainty due to protracted administrative processing times. There are people who lodged an application for protection three years ago and are still waiting for an interview.
Since the advent of COVID-19, these challenges have been compounded by the unreliability of employment, making daily survival a struggle. Many who have lost, or are at risk of losing, their work are not eligible for income support.
Recent research undertaken by the Refugee Council of Australia has predicted that 19,000 refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia will lose their jobs in this pandemic and up to 14,000 may become homeless. In the ACT, the territory government has provided some modest programs which have been helpful, but the position of many remains precarious.
Children seeking asylum or of refugee background are also exposed to the sufferings of their parents or carers. Some experience long separations from, or the death of, their parents. Housing changes are disruptive to schooling as families seek permanent and sustainable housing.
In Canberra there are some great initiatives and support structures in schools, such as the year 11/12 Bridging program in Dickson College which gives them the space and time to study a bit slower. However, unless the school has access to interpreters there can be little or no parental engagement, which can hinder successful settlement.
Many asylum seekers or people with refugee backgrounds in Canberra who are separated from family, are also responsible for remittances to keep family members alive. Losing work due to COVID-19 has meant a great deal of anxiety or distress for those who had been supporting their children or elderly parents in a refugee camp.
Globally, such remittances have been estimated to be several times greater than support provided by governments, and they are vital for peoples' survival.
Despite these significant challenges, there are stories of hope and inspiration. One teenage asylum seeker arrived by boat and has been in the ACT community for eight years. From a single parent family, she has excelled in her studies and is heading for a highly successful year 11 and 12 and beyond.
Another arrived by boat as an accompanied minor at the age of 15 and, now aged 21, supports more than 40 family members in a refugee camp in Bangladesh while about to finish his BA at the ANU.
Australia has a long and proud history of benefiting culturally and economically from humanitarian migrants, and those living amongst us today all have the real potential to contribute to our economic recovery from the current pandemic-induced recession if we give them the chance.
However, at the federal level, our government perversely refuses to provide the certainty and support that created the environment for successful integration of refugees in the past.
Many on temporary visas still have no clear pathway to permanent residency, while continually needing to renew their visas just to stay here. Meanwhile the processing of applications for people who have been in the community for years continues at a glacial pace, despite considerable reduction in new asylum applications and virtual cessation of normal economic migration, due to the pandemic.
The pandemic has been a great disruptor, but it provides an opportunity to build back better when it inevitably ends. It makes no sense to leave behind people who we know have potential and a strong desire to be part of our society. We should provide clear pathways to permanence for them now.
- Sophie Singh is a member of the Canberra Refugee Action Campaign and a former public servant.