Resettling Refugees in Rural and Regional Australia: Learning from Recent Policy and Program Initiatives



Conscious policy and program support for the resettlement of refugees in regional and rural areas is a relatively recent trend in Australia. Resettlement is a complex process that hinges on the establishment of viable communities. This review suggests that its outcomes, especially for refugee communities, are potentially mixed. However, an appropriately resourced, well managed and well planned refugee resettlement program can potentially provide beneficial outcomes for refugees and host communities. This article draws on existing empirical data and contributions made at a VicHealth Roundtable in late 2007 to thematically explore the challenges facing rural and regional resettlement programs. Given that settlement is a dynamic process and the approaches to rural and regional settlement are evolving, this article provides 12 propositions for a more effective and integrated approach to policy and practice.

The dominant trend in Australia's postwar immigration program has been for most migrants and refugees to resettle in major Australian cities. However, there have also been a number of attempts by Australian governments to encourage migrants and refugees to resettle in rural and regional areas. Perhaps more significantly, in a number of regional areas there has also been a history of informal migrant and refugee settlement, often in response to employment in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors.

The release of the 2003 Australian government's Report of the Review of Settlement Services for Migrants and Humanitarian Entrants (DIMIA 2003) provided renewed impetus for encouraging the resettlement of refugees in regional and rural Australia. In the 2004–05 Budget, the Commonwealth government committed $12.4 million to further increase humanitarian settlement in regional areas (DIMA 2005). The aim was to double the number of refugees settling in regional areas by 2005–06 (Taylor and Stanovic 2005). Alongside this there has been an increasing trend toward secondary migration of refugee families initially settled in metropolitan Melbourne. In some cases this has been supported through a formal program. Mostly it has been relatively informal, being motivated by a range of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors.

Most Australian research on the refugee experience has focussed on settlement patterns in the larger metropolitan communities of Melbourne and Sydney (Wang 2005; Waxman 1998; Julian 1996; McMichael and Manderson 2004; Majka 2001; Tiong et al. 2006; Waxman 2001). A number of case by case reviews of the rural and regional refugee resettlement experience in Australia have been conducted (Abu-Duhou 2006; Broadbent, Cacciattolo and Carpenter 2007; Julian 1996; Sampson 2001; Sinha and Dobric 2006; Warrnambool City Council 2005). However, to date there has not been an integrated overview of research on the collective experience of refugee resettlement in Australia's rural and regional areas1. This article is an attempt to address this gap and in particular to answer the following question: Does rural and regional resettlement of refugees offer tangible benefits for both the rural and regional community AND for the refugees involved?

The article begins by clarifying the meaning of refugee regional and rural resettlement and provides a brief overview of the current policy context of regional and rural resettlement in Australia. This is followed by a discussion of the evidence from the Victorian experience of refugee regional resettlement. The case studies reviewed are the settlements in Shepparton, Swan Hill, Gippsland (Poowong, Wonthaggi, and Warragul) and Warrnambool in the period 2003–2005. Given that settlement is a dynamic process and the approaches to rural and regional settlement are evolving, this article concludes with 12 propositions for a more effective and integrated approach to policy and practice. These are based on a review of the Victorian case studies and the views expressed at the VicHealth Roundtable on 29 November 2007.2 It is important to note that this review is a contribution to the discussion and cannot provide any conclusions about the outcomes of rural and regional resettlement at this stage.

What is Refugee Regional and Rural Resettlement?

Refugee resettlement describes the permanent settlement of a refugee in a third country when neither voluntary repatriation nor local integration in the country of first asylum is possible within an acceptable timeframe (Stevenson 2005; Troeller 1991). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines refugee resettlement in the following way:

Resettlement involves the selection and transfer of refugees from a State in which they have sought protection to a third State which has agreed to admit them – as refugees – with permanent residence status. The status provided should ensure protection against refoulement and provide a resettled refugee and his/her family or dependants with access to civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights similar to those enjoyed by nationals. It should also carry with it the opportunity to eventually become a naturalised citizen of the resettlement country (UNHCR 2004).

The key point to note in this definition is the emphasis on the humanitarian objectives of refugee resettlement, with the primary purpose of resettlement being as a tool both to protect and subsequently to support refugees (UNHCR 2007). It suggests that the obligations of countries receiving refugees extend beyond identification and assessment of applicants and their reception on arrival to include longer term settlement into the receiving community (UNHCR 2002). While there may be, and often are, important benefits for the host country these are understood as secondary considerations.

A further useful distinction is between ‘regional resettlement’, meaning the direct movement of refugees ‘off the boat or plane’ to regional locations, and ‘regional relocation’ or ‘secondary migration’, understood as the voluntary movement of a person of refugee background from their first location to another location within Australia (Simich et al. 2001).

In the Australian context the terms ‘rural’ and ‘regional’ are defined in the following ways. Rural is defined as an area having a connection to and/or dependence on agriculture (Gray 2001). Regional is defined in its broadest sense as ‘non-metropolitan’; that is, all parts of the country outside of the major cities with a population of more than 100,000 (Withers 2003). Using this definition, ‘regional Australia’ comprises ‘all areas of Australia except Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, and the Gold Coast’ (Australian Policy Online, cited in Stevenson 2005:15).

Policy Context

According to the Commonwealth–Victoria Working Party on Migration there are four key reasons for increasing the rural and regional resettlement of refugee and humanitarian entrants: increasing concentration of immigrants in Sydney and Melbourne; increasing interest by state and local governments in attracting immigrants; concerns about out-migration and the size of the population in regional Australia and a growing interest in sharing the perceived benefits of immigration; and an increasing emphasis on the size and quality of the labour force as a prerequisite for economic development (CVWPM 2004).

Both the Commonwealth and state governments (and opposition parties) have encouraged regional settlement. The Report of the Review of Settlement Services for Migrants and Humanitarian Entrants stated: ‘where appropriate, unlinked refugees arriving in Australia be directed to parts of regional Australia in order to address the demand for less skilled labour in regional economies and to assist humanitarian entrants to achieve early employment’ (DIMIA 2003). This position was reaffirmed in January 2004 when the Commonwealth government announced that it would aim to further increase the number of migrants and humanitarian entrants in rural and regional areas (DIAC 2005). The Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) then began to encourage a small proportion of humanitarian entrants3– those without any strong ties to family or friends and who were already in the country – to settle in regional areas once their humanitarian needs were assessed (Vanstone 2004).4

In announcing plans to increase the number of migrants and humanitarian entrants in rural and regional areas, the aim was to see regional refugee resettlement as a win–win scenario, providing benefits for both the new arrivals and the host community (DIAC 2007c). This was informed by the view that regional locations provided the best employment opportunities for some refugees, particularly those with rural origins or with skill sets matching skill shortages in particular regional areas (DIAC 2007c).

Since 2004, the financial support and number of sites and programs in regional areas have all steadily increased. DIAC has encouraged regional settlement in a number of locations – Coffs Harbour, Wollongong, Goulburn, Wagga Wagga, Geelong, Shepparton, Logan/Beenleigh/Woodridge, Toowoomba, Townsville, Cairns, Gold Coast, Mandurah, Launceston, Tasmania's North-West Coast and Alice Springs (DIMA 2005). By the beginning of 2007, refugee regional resettlement initiatives had been implemented in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, Northern Territory and Western Australia. Particular initiatives included grants for humanitarian community services, needs-based planning frameworks and improved settlement information in rural and regional areas (DIMA 2005). While to date direct resettlement to regional and rural Victoria has been initiated primarily by government, there is also an emerging trend toward direct rural resettlement being supported by social justice and faith based groups.

Types of Resettlement in Victoria

The following section is based on secondary literature collected about the experience of refugees settling in Shepparton, Warrnambool, Swan Hill and Gippsland (Poowong, Wonthaggi and Warragul). Rural and regional resettlement of refugees in these areas is a relatively recent occurrence – with only 2% of new arrivals settling in rural and regional areas in 2003–04 and most of these settled in Geelong (DIMA 2005). Although, in 2006–07 the number of rural and regional resettlers did grow – of the 3,752 refugees who settled in Victoria around 9% or 337 people arrived in rural Victoria (DIAC 2007b; DIAC 2007c). Given that these settlements are still fairly recent, data detailing the outcomes is limited. This is important to remember when considering the following discussion.

In recent years there has also been increasing secondary migration of refugees to regional and rural Victoria. In some cases this has been through a formal initiative, that is, the resettlement is consciously planned and implemented. For example, people from the Horn of Africa, frustrated by their high unemployment, moved to Swan Hill in 2002 through a community partnership (Broadbent, Cacciattolo and Carpenter 2007). In Warrnambool, it was the local government that initiated the resettlement program of the Sudanese in response to declining services and population (Warrnambool City Council 2005; VSPC 2005).

In other cases, secondary migration has been less formal as refugees move in response to employment opportunities – such settlement is harder to capture through statistics. For example, large numbers of Iraqi refugees moved to Shepparton in response to perceived employment opportunities, mostly seasonal fruit picking. Similarly, the settlement of the Bosnian and Nepalese refugees in Gippsland was initially facilitated through sponsorship by family (in the case of the Bosnians) or the Returned Servicemen's League (in the case of the Nepalese) for employment in the Tabro meat factory, but later became more formal with backing from the Department for Victorian Communities (Sinha and Dobric 2006).

Currently, there are small but significant settlements of people from refugee backgrounds in Wonthaggi, Swan Hill, Shepparton, Mildura, the Latrobe Valley, Castlemaine, Colac, Ballarat and Warrnambool, who were previously settled in Melbourne. The following section will explore the outcomes of some of these settlements.

Economic Participation

In Australia, successful economic adjustment is central to refugee resettlement policy (Waxman 2001). The assumption is that economic participation leads to self reliance. Economic participation has a number of benefits, including: a reduction in the dependency ratio, income support payments and reliance on community services; the provision of long term earnings and expenditure; an increased potential to reduce skills gaps; improved community health; and greater community capital (Kyle et al. 2004). Financial stability or finding a good job are also self-reported goals of resettlement for refugee and humanitarian entrants (Dunlop 2005; Valtonen 1999). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that it was the key motivator for the government and/or local community partnership facilitating the relocation of refugee and humanitarian entrants to the rural or regional area and the main reason that refugee and humanitarian entrants relocated.

The employment outcomes for rural and regional resettlers were explored through the case studies. In Swan Hill, employment options for the Horn of Africa relocatees were not consistent with their qualification and aspirations. In Warrnambool, although the majority of the 68 people who relocated remained in employment, there were some members of the refugee community who could not find permanent work. Developing employment pathways beyond entry-level work was also a challenge (Broadbent, Cacciattolo and Carpenter 2007). These case studies suggest that employment opportunities did not materialise as was anticipated.

Underemployment is a common problem for refugees settling in Australia. Studies of refugees resettling in developed countries find that refugees are often relegated to working casual hours (Waxman 2001; Beiser, Johnson and Turner 1993; Krahn et al. 2000). This review found that underemployment is also an issue for refugee and humanitarian entrants settling in rural and regional areas. Work in rural and regional areas can often be seasonal. The Iraqi refugees in Shepparton found that fruit picking was only available for around two months a year and many of the refugees found it hard to find additional employment due to limited English and little recognition of prior skills and experience (Broadbent, Cacciattolo and Carpenter 2007). This threatens the long term sustainability of communities.

An additional barrier to economic participation was also encountered when attempting to utilise job service providers in the rural and regional area to access employment. In the case of the Iraqi refugees in Shepparton, job placement agencies were inexperienced in catering for their employment demands and integration between relocation policies, human services, education systems and social support was lacking. Moreover, no agency was responsible for facilitating the recognition of formal qualifications and employment skills (Broadbent, Cacciattolo and Carpenter 2007). Similarly, in the three settlement locations of Gippsland (Poowong, Wonthaggi and Warragul) there were limited support services for the Sudanese (Sinha and Dobric 2006). Of those that did exist, there was a lack of understanding of the needs of those who are recently arrived of refugee backgrounds which led to a lack of culturally responsive services. Few of the agencies had experience working with people from refugee backgrounds (Sinha and Dobric 2006). Hence, in rural and regional areas there can also be institutional barriers to relocatees finding adequate employment.

Social Networks

Social networks are regarded as essential to establishing sustainable settlements. They allow for rapid adaptation to local labor markets and provide economic and cultural support in situations of unstable employment (Benson 1990). This research found that for some relocatees connecting with the local community was difficult. The Iraqis in Shepparton reported that they found it difficult to build social networks into the broader community (Broadbent, Cacciattolo and Carpenter 2007). This was made even more difficult for the women who reported that they were concerned about being treated differently because of their clothing (Nsubuga-Kyobe 2004). In Swan Hill, the men moved ahead of women to test the program which meant that the important role women often take early on – establishing wider social networks – was absent (Broadbent, Cacciattolo and Carpenter 2007). In Gippsland (Poowong, Warragul), the absence of a previous/existing or established community of the same cultural background of the relocatees led to isolation for the incoming group (Sinha and Dobric 2006).

Other Issues

The key challenges facing the relocation of refugees and humanitarian entrants to rural and regional areas are by and large related to the lack of economic opportunities and established social networks in the host communities. However, there have also been a number of additional challenges encountered variably throughout the rural and regional resettlements: lack of community and local government investment in the resettlement; a lack of suitable housing; and limited public transport. In Swan Hill, a lack of community and local government ownership meant limited support for the incoming relocatees which added an additional hurdle to the relocation (Broadbent, Cacciattolo and Carpenter 2007). In Gippsland, there was limited suitable long term housing, over-crowding in private rental leases and real estate agents were unwilling to assist families to access local private rental market (Sinha and Dobric 2006). Finally, infrequent public transport in rural and regional areas led to isolation (Sinha and Dobric 2006).

Promising Rural and Regional Resettlement Practices

While the problems encountered by those relocating to rural and regional Victoria have certainly created barriers to settlement, they have not threatened the viability of some of these communities. Broadbent, Cacciattolo and Carpenter (2007) noted that the Shepparton community made concerted efforts to address the issues facing its refugee population and they appeared to be setting down long term roots. In 2004, DIAC estimated there were some 700 to 800 Iraqis in the Shepparton area (Taylor 2005). Moreover, the settlement of the Congolese in Shepparton was generally regarded as a success (Piper 2006). The 10 Congolese families settled in the community were openly welcomed (Piper 2006). In fact, Shepparton is now amongst the top 10 Local Government Areas (LGAs) for settlement in Victoria.

Despite the problems encountered in Warrnambool, the resettlement is regarded as an example of successful refugee regional relocation. In 2004 the initiative won the National Award for Excellence at the National Local Government Awards (Warrnambool City Council 2005). Broadbent, Cacciattolo and Carpenter (2007) suggest that the refugee community is sustainable. Their research found that during the two years of the study 68 people moved to Warrnambool and were employed in five different places. By the end of 2005, 55 refugees still lived and worked in Warrnambool. Extended members of these families subsequently moved to Warrnambool, either relocating from Melbourne or resettling directly to Warrnambool as a result of family sponsorship (Broadbent, Cacciattolo and Carpenter 2007).

Reflections from the Roundtable

What have we learnt from a review of rural and regional resettlement in Victoria so far? The lessons to be drawn from these initial case studies need to be tentative, noting that all of these initiatives are still in their early stages and settlement is a dynamic process. Resettlement is by definition a process of transition whereby the settlers progress through a number of stages. This process can take many years, depending on the pre-arrival and resettlement circumstances. Based on the Victorian experience outlined above and the VicHealth Roundtable, this article outlines 12 propositions for improving Victorian and Australian policy directions and priorities.

1. Regional refugee resettlement initiatives have the potential to provide benefits to refugee communities and host communities if care is taken to ensure a well-planned, well-integrated and well-resourced approach.

Evidence from the case studies supports the view that refugee resettlement has the potential to make a positive contribution to the economic growth and sustainability of rural and regional communities. A range of rural and regional communities and economies have benefited from the employment of refugees. Moreover, refugees have been shown to be among the most hard-working and economically constructive sections of society, often being prepared to do work that others are not prepared to take on, such as in abattoirs, poultry plants and fruit picking. However, the outcomes for refugees appear to be more mixed. More research is needed to track longer term impacts, especially for particular sub-groups. The experience of Horn of Africa refugees in Warrnambool and the Congolese in Shepparton appears to have been primarily positive. The experience in the three Gippsland sites reviewed in this report and Swan Hill has been less successful, measured in terms of employment and accommodation outcomes. However, it is important to note that the Gippsland sites were not part of a formal resettlement program.

Roundtable participants raised particular concerns about the cost/benefit balance for refugee young people and their families. It was noted that movement to a rural location in adolescence may be particularly disruptive, given that this is a vulnerable stage of development and a time when peer group relations and achieving a sense of belonging may present complex challenges. Refugee young people may also ultimately become part of the now well-documented drift of young people from rural and regional areas to metropolitan areas to secure employment and to participate in further education. This is an outcome which may be particularly problematic for rural refugee families who may already have experienced disruption to family relationships and are less likely to have other family connections in their local area. This suggests the importance of ensuring that planning for refugee resettlement is considered in the context of broader regional development and population planning.

Resettlement in rural and regional areas may also be particularly stressful for women, given their greater reliance on family and friendship networks in their roles as primary caregivers of children. Women may also be less likely to be engaged in paid work and to benefit from the social contact this provides. This suggests that it is important to concentrate the settlement of viable communities in particular locations.

It would appear, however, that regardless of whether governments continue to invest in formal initiatives to support rural settlement of refugees, this is a trend which may well continue via informal secondary migration.

2. Refugee resettlement and relocation policies and strategies need to be based on a holistic approach that recognises and supports both humanitarian and regional development objectives.

The experience of regional refugee resettlement in Australia highlights the importance of a holistic approach that meets the needs of refugee and host communities. Recent Australian experience has certainly shown that the availability of employment opportunities alone is not a sufficient basis for successful regional settlement outcomes.

The settlements of the South Sudanese in Gippsland and the Iraqis in Shepparton show that when refugees relocate in an ad hoc manner to fill labour shortages in local industries they face a number of barriers to sustainable resettlement, including lack of planning, limited support services, unprepared service providers and inadequate resources.

Instead, resettlement must be viewed as both a project for local economic and social sustainability and a humanitarian project that meets the economic, social and cultural needs of the refugee community. Recent Australian experience suggests that not all regional areas have the structures, community support or linkages to provide adequately for refugee needs.

There are a number of risks associated with failing to appropriately manage refugee regional settlement in rural areas. These may include:

  • • unacceptably high rates of secondary migration threatening the viability of regional sites and compounding the impacts of prior disruption experienced by refugee families;
  • • increasing stress on refugee families and its attendant health and social and economic consequences;
  • • the development of a ‘refugee underclass’ in rural towns, with this group being locked into situations of chronic low skilled and insecure employment and unemployment; and
  • • community tension and disharmony.

The full positive potential of refugee regional resettlement is only likely to be fulfilled if careful attention is paid to the development and implementation of an integrated and carefully considered package of supportive policy initiatives.

Consistent with the understanding of refugee resettlement as a humanitarian venture, there was a view expressed at the Roundtable that the rights of refugees to make informed choices about their place of settlement and to retain their right to choose where they want to live should be clearly stated in any future policy development in this area.

3. In future planning, the challenge will be to consider the implications of varying pathways to refugee settlement in regional areas, including direct resettlement and both formal and informal secondary migration (often referred to as relocation).

Current Australian government policy and planning responses have tended to focus on supporting direct resettlement to regional and rural areas. While direct resettlement is easier to control and plan for, the full picture is becoming more complex with an increasing trend towards secondary migration of refugees from metropolitan to regional and rural areas. This trend is being driven by a range of factors, including:

  • • regional and rural communities seeking to address skill shortages and population decline (eg, Warrnambool, Colac);
  • • refugee communities concerned about limited employment opportunities in metropolitan areas (eg, Swan Hill);
  • • refugee community perceptions that rural and regional communities offer a better way of life, one more compatible with that in countries of origin; and
  • • refugee community concerns about metropolitan lifestyles and environments, including concerns about exclusion, discrimination, crime, safety and drug abuse.

Feedback from Roundtable participants suggests that this is a trend that can often be problematic for settlers and local communities as rural and regional communities may be ill-prepared to welcome and support newcomers. At the same time, existing planning and funding mechanisms (particularly annual needs based planning approaches) do not allow for a timely response. Settlers undertaking secondary migration do so at a time when they are generally no longer eligible for settlement support through the Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy (IHSS) (ie, after they have been in Australia for longer than six months). Despite this, their settlement needs still may be high or there may be new settlement needs associated with secondary migration.

Secondary data, the Roundtable and anecdotal evidence suggests that many secondary migrants are men who move to rural areas in advance of their families because of the risks associated with moving the whole family before employment and housing is secured. This can compound the disruption to family relationships already experienced by many refugee families. These problems were avoided to a large extent in Warrnambool where funding was made available through a philanthropic source for families to relocate. This is a model which may be worth considering for its transferability to other rural communities.

Informal secondary migration can lead to the formation of small and highly dispersed communities where it is hard to benefit from the economies of scale that accrue in larger settlements. There are also risks associated with informal secondary migration to rural areas with limited sustainability in human and economic terms.

At the same time, the Warrnambool experience suggests that when consciously planned and supported, secondary migration (or relocation) can provide a means of building capacity for both direct settlement and further secondary migration that minimises potential negative impacts on refugee communities. This is because refugees who are relatively well progressed in their settlement and who have made a fully informed decision to relocate to a rural area, serve as an anchor community. These settlers may be in a better position to play this role than settlers direct from overseas.

4. Refugee resettlement and relocation policies and strategies should be informed by a commitment to the long term sustainability of refugee communities.

There is broad national consensus that planning, funding and service delivery models to support refugee resettlement should be informed by a long term commitment to creating sustainable refugee communities.

5. Effective processes for consulting and engaging with refugee communities are essential.

Effective engagement of refugee communities in planning and implementing regional refugee settlement programs is a critical success factor. Consultation with refugee communities about their genuine desire to settle in or relocate to regional areas is a threshold human rights issue. Strong refugee leadership can also help to ease communication and resolve any conflicts which may arise.

Supporting the development of refugee communities in rural areas is also important for providing social support for newcomers, which, as indicated earlier, is critical for mental health and wellbeing. Investment to support the development of refugee communities reaps rewards in the longer term since it is likely to make regional communities more attractive to subsequent arrivals and to ease their settlement. Viable refugee communities also enhance the prospects of rural towns benefiting from the unique economic and cultural contributions of newcomers.

Effective and genuine consultation depends on refugee communities having the information, capacity, resources and skills to effectively negotiate with relevant government and non-government agencies as well as with the host community.

It is important to note the contribution that metropolitan based community leaders have often made to the development and implementation of refugee relocation initiatives. Viable metropolitan based refugee communities are also an important resource for regional settlement because they allow rural settlers to visit Melbourne to participate in faith based and cultural events that may not be available to them locally.

There are currently initiatives such as the Refugee Brokerage Program (a program of the Department of Planning and Community Development) and the Community Guides Program (developed by the Adult Multicultural Education Services) which aim to strengthen the capacity of refugee communities to engage with service providers and contribute to key policy and program decisions. However, such programs are still in their infancy and receive modest investments.

6. A supportive host community is an essential component of successful refugee regional resettlement programs.

There are a number of examples of good host environments for refugee resettlement. The key attributes are: availability of secure and affordable housing; access to employment opportunities; presence of appropriate cultural and religious support; commitment of community participation; sufficient capacity (ie, existence of requisite infrastructure to resettle sufficient numbers of refugees to make the locale viable in both human and economic terms); partnership potential (ie, existence of non-government organisations, local service agencies and civic or religious organisations to serve as partners in supporting newly arrived refugees); and attitude and environment.

The experiences of Swan Hill and Warrnambool highlight that a good host community must be ready to provide the support needed to generate a harmonious amalgamation of diverse cultures. These are communities that in the face of difference realise the importance of acceptance, tolerance and partnerships and ones where lasting powerful impressions of ‘home’ are forged. Host communities that are trusting, stable and aware of the difficulties that forced migration brings are those that are best suited for relocation initiatives. Community spirit is important and the host must be prepared to deal with new settlers who are at a particular stage of their adjustment. In this respect, faith based networks and structures can be important supports within the host community, as was the case in Shepparton with the Congolese families.

A number of Roundtable participants identified the importance of engaging existing migrant and refugee communities and local Indigenous communities in efforts to build a supportive host community.

A supportive host community can be assured in part through careful selection of sites for regional settlement and relocation. However, a commitment to investing time and resources in building host community capacity was a success factor identified in the case studies in this report.

7. Services to support regional refugee resettlement need to be adequately resourced and well integrated.

Although some rural and regional areas have significant experience, expertise and infrastructure to support refugee resettlement, in general the fact that this expertise has been concentrated in metropolitan areas has been a significant barrier to the success of regional refugee resettlement programs.

Local settlement planning committees play a key role in facilitating a coordinated response to settlement. There is a consensus that case management services for individuals and families are essential and that overall settlement planning and development must be coordinated. This needs to be supported by a range of services including employment services, police, housing support services, health and community services and education providers.

The successful case studies reviewed for the purposes of this article either had the support of personnel experienced in refugee resettlement or, as was the case in Warrnambool, actively sought this. There is a need to identify sources of this support. One possible solution would be to respond via consultancy services either based in Melbourne or from an established and experienced rural site.5 The importance of capacity building strategies being driven by rural and regional communities themselves (rather than through a ‘top-down’ approach) was emphasised by Roundtable participants.

While it is possible to meet many of the needs of new settlers by providing training and support to existing service providers, some needs may require a specialist response. The provision of adult English as a Second Language programs is an example of this. Such services may be difficult and costly to provide to small settlements, suggesting the need to explore alternative models for meeting these needs.

8. Given the importance of local level planning and coordination to the success of refugee regional resettlement/relocation initiatives, there is a need to investigate appropriate arrangements for supporting this, with particular consideration being given to the role of local government as a lead coordinating agency.

Effective collaboration and communication between policy-makers, funders, service providers, local government, refugee communities and the host community is an essential foundation for successful, long term refugee settlement outcomes. This requires an integrated approach to regional settlement policy, planning and service delivery with clearly defined and agreed roles for Commonwealth, state and local governments as well as for community and private sector agencies.

The common thread among successful refugee regional settlement programs in Australia is the establishment and effective operation of a broadly based local refugee settlement planning committee with working groups focusing on particular issues. In the Australian context there is certainly clear evidence of the importance of ensuring strong local government involvement and support for regional resettlement initiatives. There was also a strong view expressed at the Roundtable of the importance of refugee resettlement being driven at the local level. However, there are mixed views about the extent to which local governments can, in all instances, fill the role of lead, coordinating agency.

9. Consideration should be given to developing closer linkages between skilled migration and refugee resettlement programs, in particular to investigating the possibility of a common planning framework to support programs targeted at refugees and migrants settling in rural and regional areas.

At present the Victorian government is supporting settlement of skilled migrants direct to regional areas. There is a formal policy and program infrastructure to support this, especially in the area of employment. At present this program is distinct from refugee resettlement/relocation. Migrants are selected on the basis of their employment and language skills and therefore some of their needs are distinct from the needs of refugees. However, there are also some similarities and hence some potential to benefit from a common infrastructure. This is particularly the case in the area of employment. Many people from refugee backgrounds have high level education and skills. Their challenge is to identify ways of adapting these to a new workforce environment. One of the barriers to successful settlement in regional areas identified in the evaluations reviewed for this study was the lack of clear pathways out of entry-level employment. This is a concern both for new settlers and for economic development in regional communities.

Many participants in the Roundtable had experience of supporting both skilled migration and refugee resettlement and were of the view that skilled migration programs would be strengthened by some of the approaches to settlement developed in the area of refugee resettlement. At the same time, the need to recognise and respond to the different needs of people from refugee backgrounds was emphasised.

10. A well-planned, integrated and long term approach to the funding of refugee resettlement programs and services is essential.

One of the challenges to refugee resettlement is to develop forward-looking funding arrangements in the environment of refugee resettlement that is fluid and unpredictable. The case studies reviewed in this article that tended to be the most successful were those that had an appropriate level of funding and resourcing to support:

  • • case management support for individual new arrivals;
  • • resourcing and coordination at the local level; and
  • • capacity building in the host and refugee communities.

In addition, there is a need to explore programmatic and funding arrangements within specific policy portfolios for the provision of specialist services in rural and regional areas (eg, the provision of specialist school education services, adult English language programs).

A number of issues emerged during the Roundtable in relation to funding:

  • • Relevant funding programs (eg, DIAC settlement grants program) are planned on an annual cycle. This means there is often a lag between people from refugee backgrounds beginning to settle in rural communities and funding being provided.
  • • In the regional pilots conducted to date, DIAC has led resettlement coordination from within its own staff resources. There is not currently a formal program through which this support is provided.
  • • IHSS and other DIAC support have been made available to facilitate direct settlement to the regions. However, to date there has been no formal funding support available to resource planned or informal relocation (or secondary migration). Projects of direct settlement in Shepparton, Ballarat and resettlement to Warrnambool provide good models and replication should be considered in other larger settlement locations. In this way, regional areas will be able to respond to those who are formally or informally resettling as well as to Special Humanitarian Program entrants who are being sponsored by families.
  • • There is a need for greater flexibility in the grant system and consideration of a loading for establishment/rurality/minimum funding in recognition of the core organisational infrastructure to support regional settlement.
  • • The Australian government has responsibility for the selection of migrants and refugees and for their reception and early settlement. However, the success of regional resettlement programs depends on the engagement of all levels of government, particularly in the areas of diversity management, employment and regional development. Issues such as cost sharing and responsibility between state and the Commonwealth are areas that require attention.

11. There is a need to identify mechanisms and processes for ensuring a whole-of-government approach to planning for refugee resettlement in Victoria.

Planning for refugee resettlement in regional areas takes place in the context of a broader policy and program environment to support refugee resettlement, cultural diversity, housing, education, health, employment and regional and economic development. Commanding and coordinating the resources required for effective planning in these areas are tasks that cross boundaries that traditionally exist between government departments and therefore require a whole-of-government approach. A further complexity is that policies in many of these areas are concerns for both Commonwealth and state governments.

There was a strong view expressed by Roundtable participants that there were many complex policy issues that require more systematic response and that these need to be considered in planning and implementing refugee and migrant settlement in rural and regional areas. For example, housing, a significant problem emerging in the evaluations reviewed for this article, is an area in which there are broader policy challenges, such as problems with public housing infrastructure and the poor distribution of public housing in rural Victoria. Similarly, it was noted that refugee regional settlement needed to be developed in concert with policies to achieve sustained regional economic and social development.

This report has been primarily concerned with refugee resettlement in regional areas. However, as indicated earlier, this is a trend that has taken place alongside increasingly dispersed settlement of migrants and refugees in metropolitan areas. In particular, there has been increased settlement in newly developing outer suburban areas. Like rural and regional areas, many of these communities will be welcoming new arrivals from refugee and migrant backgrounds in significant numbers for the first time.

Victoria has a good track record in management of diversity and in ensuring equality of access and opportunity for newcomers. However, these efforts have tended to be focused in metropolitan areas where migrants and refugees have traditionally settled. The contemporary challenge will be to determine ways of extending support for this in a more sustained way to other areas of Victoria, and in particular to rural and regional areas.

Victoria has developed sound leadership in responding to these trends, the most notable example being the Department of Human Service's Refugee Health and Wellbeing Action Plan. There are also a number of programs specifically designed to support refugee resettlement that have particular relevance to settlement in rural and regional areas. Examples include the Department of Planning and Community Development's Refugee Brokerage Program and the Department of Human Service's Refugee Health Nurses Program (DHS 2005). The challenge will be to build on these developments and engage a broader range of government departments to ensure an effective whole-of-government approach that is responsive to changing demographic trends. The research and consultation conducted for this article suggest that in Victoria it would be constructive to engage in this process the Department of Planning and Community Development (in particular those areas concerned with multicultural affairs, community strengthening, employment and regional development), the Department of Premier and Cabinet, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Education and Early Child Development.

12. Finally, there is a need to establish and support processes for monitoring the impacts of refugee regional resettlement/relocation for both refugee and regional communities.

Conscious policy and program support for the resettlement of refugees in regional and rural areas is a relatively recent trend in Australia. The research documented in this report suggests that its outcomes, especially for refugee communities, are potentially mixed. This is particularly the case for refugee young people and their families and possibly for women. It will be important to establish appropriate means to monitor and evaluate impacts over time, both to identify and address negative impacts at an early stage, and to ensure that ongoing developments are based on learning from established sites.


This review of the Victorian experience and the views expressed at the VicHealth Roundtable suggest that regional refugee resettlement initiatives have the potential to provide benefits to refugee communities and host communities if care is taken to ensure a well-planned, well-integrated and well-resourced approach. However, as evidenced in this article, creating viable communities in rural and regional areas is a complex process. Given that the views of all stakeholders are critical in the selection of sites, effective processes for consulting and engaging with refugee communities are essential along with a supportive host community. Services to support regional refugee resettlement are also crucial and need to be adequately resourced and well integrated. Finally, to ensure outcomes meet expectations, impacts need to be monitored.

From the perspective of policy and coordination, this review found that there is a need to identify mechanisms and processes for ensuring a whole-of-government approach to planning for refugee resettlement in Victoria. As part of this approach, appropriate arrangements for supporting local government as a lead coordinating agency must be investigated. Consideration should also be given to developing closer linkages between skilled migration and refugee resettlement programs, in particular to investigating the possibility of a common planning framework. The challenge will be to consider the implications of varying pathways to refugee settlement in regional areas, including direct resettlement and both formal and informal secondary migration (often referred to as relocation). Future government programs must be developed carefully, with the long term sustainability of refugee communities in mind.


  • 1

    Since the writing of the paper, DIAC released a review of regional settlement in Australia focusing on Launceston, Toowoomba, Wagga Wagga, Warrnambool and Shepparton (Shepley 2008).

  • 2

    The VicHealth Roundtable involved some 45 participants from refugee communities, regional councils of Warrnambool, Swan Hill and Ballarat, service providers, state and federal government, academics and non-government organisations. For a comprehensive list see

  • 3

    It is important to note that those arriving on Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) visas are choosing to move to rural and regional areas as they have been sponsored by a proposer.

  • 4

    In 2004–05, 70% of humanitarian entrants assisted by DIAC had a link in Australia (DIAC 2007).

  • 5

    It is worth noting that a number of Melbourne based service providers are providing contracted services (eg, Australian Multicultural Educational Services (AMES), Victorian Foundation for the Survivors of Torture and Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP)) and providing consultation to regional services (eg, Refugee Minor Program and Centre for Ethnicity and Health).