Annabel Brown at the Regional Refugee Settlement Forum

Program Director Annabel Brown’s closing remarks at the Regional Refugee Settlement Forum on October 12 2021.

Thanks Margaret. It is a great pleasure to be here. I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land I am on today. I am coming to you from close to the Birrarung or the Yarra River, in Melbourne, on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. I pay my respects to their elders past and present and to any First Nations people listening today.

I am humbled to have been asked to give some closing reflections and I will do my best to do justice to all of the thoughtful, insightful contributions I have heard throughout the day.

I will start by zooming out with some thoughts about the context we find ourselves in, and what is shaping our lives now. I will then reflect on what we have collectively learned about getting regional settlement right. And I will finish with ideas about the opportunities in front of us.

What’s our context?

The last two years have brought huge disruption to our lives, our societies and economies. The COVID-19 pandemic has been seismic in itself, but for many communities, it has come on top of, and alongside, ongoing crises related to: natural disasters; our changing climate; and civil and political unrest. In Australia, many of our communities were only just starting to recover from the Black Summer of 2019, when COVID hit.

This period of turmoil, and the health and economic shocks, have highlighted the vulnerabilities in our society and inequalities between countries and within them. In Australia we saw clearly the precarious position of people on temporary visas, and how insecure, casualised employment made it much harder to keep yourself and your family healthy and safe.

Also, depending on where we live or the industry we depend on, Australians had a very diverse range of experiences. Melbournians have the dubious honour of being the most locked down people in the world, at about 250 days and counting, while the majority of people living in Perth, my home city, have endured less than 20 days. Businesses and their employees in warehousing and distribution have never been busier, while their friends and family in tourism are struggling to stay afloat. In Queensland for example, employment for tourism and travel advisers fell by 65% in the regions of Mackay, Isaac, and Whitsunday.

Of course, COVID-19 has stemmed the flow of newcomers to Australia. We are forecast to experience a net outflow of migration in 2020-2021, for the first time since the end of World War II. Our humanitarian visa program was halted in March 2020, and although visas have been granted since then, physical resettlement has been almost impossible.

Although net overseas migration could take four years to return to pre-pandemic levels, there has been a net increase in migration into Australia’s regional areas since March 2020, driven by an increasing number of people leaving capital cities, and regional people staying in place. Although, it is worth noting that according to Regional Australia Institute analysis, in March 2021 there were 66,200 job vacancies across regional Australia, the largest number of vacancies since records began in May 2010. This movement of people and the possibilities of work opportunities help us turn our collective attention to what resources, infrastructure and support regional communities need to thrive. I don’t want to underplay those needs in the excitement of the opportunity.

Despite the challenges of the last couple of years, we have also been afforded some gifts. In some ways, despite our different experiences, we have all got to know each other a little better. We have been into each other’s living rooms and home offices via Zoom. We have met each other’s pets, and started many of our conversations and meetings asking about each other’s mental health and discussing how our children are coping with homeschooling. We have an even greater appreciation of our health workers, our teachers and our public servants.

Communities and neighbourhoods have connected and rallied around each other in the crisis. As we heard today, while waiting for new arrivals, the Growing Regions of Welcome (GROW) initiative in the Murray and Riverina regions of New South Wales, and Community Refugee Sponsorship Australia (CRSA) have focussed over the last eighteen months on building connections and understanding between people and families who were already living within the same community before the pandemic.

These greater connections, the diverse understanding and the empathy we have gained will stand us in good stead as we recover and build forward. And we will come out of this period stronger and more resilient if we confront and attend to the vulnerabilities and inequalities uncovered and exacerbated during COVID, rather than glossing over them. As Aleem Ali reminded us this morning, social cohesion is a key element of the resilience we need to face the shocks of the future.

What have we learned about settlement?

The overarching lesson is that a whole of community, whole of person approach works best for successful settlement, whether that be forever, or for a phase of our life’s journey. First and foremost, personal agency and informed choice are crucial for people to successfully find belonging, peace and hope.

There are many dimensions to successful settlement — from friendship to a livelihood and everything in between — and we are seeing greater value and understanding in the social and emotional dimensions of settlement, over and above the ‘three Es’ of Employment, Education and English.

We have also heard that ‘the right fit’ can be quite a unique mix of factors, including the natural environment, a feeling reminiscent of home, a sense of safety and employment opportunities attuned to skills and ambitions. Therefore, there is great importance in fully engaging our new Australians in a comprehensive pre-settlement decision-making process, as described by Emmaunel Musoni, and in building person-centred, strengths-based approaches to meeting the needs of new settlers, like we’ve seen in the ‘3 E’s to Freedom’ Program in Northern NSW run by Anglicare.

Secondly, a welcoming community who are ready and coordinated matters a lot when supporting refugees to settle in and thrive. Whether the energy and interest comes from a business or industry, a local council or a community organisation, working together on the welcome makes the magic happen.

Working together to assess the strengths and weaknesses in their community and what they need to do to be the most welcoming place they can be, working together on a clearly defined welcoming strategy and plan; and working together to implement that plan and give multifaceted support to the people and families coming to settle.

There are many examples of these approaches across Australia. One example that we heard from David Radford was the effective whole of community approach in Leeton which both: engaged the whole of the rural community, not just a few members; and supported humanitarian migrants in a way that did not single them out as a ‘special group’ but was inclusive of all migrants, local and indigenous groups in the rural community.

We also heard about great examples of corporate partnerships, including for instance in agricultural production in Mount Gambier, and also connections with First Nations communities, including in Armidale and Orange in NSW, for instance.

The last lesson is the importance of the facilitation and brokering of government partners. Personal agency and a strong collaborative community approach are supported significantly by infrastructure, services and good governance. As highlighted by the good work of Welcoming Cities, there is a definitive role for local councils, and there are many examples of them taking up that role, from Toowoomba Queensland, to Wagga Wagga and Leeton in New South Wales and Narracorte in South Australia. Peter Shergold and his team at Multicultural NSW continue to coordinate the State Government’s response to refugee settlement, including GROW, a place-based initiative to resettling refugees in Regional New South Wales. And as Commonwealth Coordinator General Allison Larkins shared this morning, her team has an important coordinating role, and is actively brokering connections between social enterprises, employers, philanthropists, experts, government counterparts to support refugees who, although keen to work, face the greatest barriers to economic participation.

What are the opportunities?

Despite our borders being shut, the reasons for people in our region to flee to the safety and security of Australia have only increased over the last two years – including the worsening crises in Afghanistan and Myanmar. Climate change and the COVID 19 pandemic are exacerbating an already precarious situation for many people on the move.

COVID has not made us more insular though. We are still great believers in immigration and multiculturalism, with 71% of people surveyed by the Scanlon Foundation agree that ‘accepting immigrants from many different countries makes Australia stronger,’ and 84% of people agreeing that ‘multiculturalism has been good for Australia’, both up from 2019. It was fascinating and heartening to hear the results of research about community attitudes in Armidale since the settlement of the Yazidi refugees there, from the University of New England and Settlement Services Australia.

I see three top opportunities emerging from our current context and what we’ve learned.

First, we can welcome our newest newcomers from Afghanistan. At the beginning of this year, even before the Taliban seized power in August, there were already 2.8 million Afghans displaced as refugees and asylum seekers around the world. This includes people with temporary protection in Indonesia and Australia. There are fears that up to 500,000 more could flee before the end of 2021.

Australia, with our long and deep links to Afghanistan, and our historical success in settlement, can respond generously. We can ensure pathways to safety for as many Afghan people as possible by: making places available in addition to our humanitarian program; giving people who are already here, and in our close neighbours like Indonesia, a permanent home; opening more complementary pathways through family reunification, education, employment and community sponsorship; and by supporting Afghanistan’s neighbours — Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan — to continue to assist people fleeing.

Australia can also ramp up its leadership in the region by actively pursuing responses to the conflict and displacement crisis in Myanmar and Afghanistan, and steering the intergovernmental forum, the Bali Process, to respond effectively to the forced migration challenges of our region. As a community, we can build on everything we’ve learnt, to do a great job at welcoming and successfully settling our newest Australians.

Second, we can capitalise on the growing value and prevalence of people and place-focussed policy and programming. Our collective experience of crisis during the pandemic has also brought with it a realisation that we can move pretty quickly on policy and programming when we need to. And we’ve also flexed our collaboration muscles across government, business and civil society.

As many of our speakers have reminded us, there is a tremendous diversity amongst refugees coming to Australia and the places they will eventually settle and that is now understood more than ever before. Thankfully, we are seeing a newfound appreciation of people- and place-focussed approaches, whereby services and supports are tailored to and wrapped around people and places, according to their needs.

We have seen these developments in our settlement and migration service system, including at all three levels of government.

As we heard from Coordinator General Allison Larkins, her team is looking closely and carefully at the diversity of the people that are settling as well as the diversity of the places they are settling in. They are trying to tailor, for instance, language services so they are more responsive to the needs of new Australians at different stages of their settlement journey. Also, the Community Sponsorship model being trialed by many groups across Australia like Alison’s group in the Huon Valley, is inherently place-based and can be the beginning of tailoring settlement to place, and as Alison pointed out it gives opportunity to tailor to the needs of the individual too.

We have also seen a similar reorientation of employment services with the Commonwealth New Employment Services Model aiming to be more responsive to jobseekers and employers, and the advent, expansion and extension of the Local Jobs Program. State Governments, such as Victoria, are designing and investing in employment services that are more attuned to the needs of different people and places.

There is a significant opportunity to capitalise on this direction in policy and programming and work together on the governance, partnership and coordination approaches and tools needed to make it sing, many of which we’ve heard about today.

Reorientation of large service systems is hard work and there is a fair amount of trial, error and course correction involved. But, it’s also vitally important. That’s where all of us can help, as community groups and organisations, service providers, academics… learning about what’s working and what’s not, feeding up the lessons and experiences from the ground, asking for the flexibility we need. And of course, opportunities like this Forum, to share experiences and learn from each other are incredibly important.

And finally, we can embrace the voice of lived experience.

The greatest opportunity, the greatest hope, lies with the newcomers that come to call Australia home. The people bringing their talents, ideas, skills and resilience to our communities and towns, who, with the right support, can contribute so much. It has been wonderful to hear from Emmanuel, Kwame, Sorgul, Zia and others with lived experience of being refugees today and I am glad to say there now are more and more refugee led organisations and networks to engage.

Embracing the ideas of our newcomers about our collective future, involving them centrally in the decisions that impact their lives, and giving them the space and support to help shape our society, is no doubt the greatest opportunity ahead.

Thank you.

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