Like many others, the Community Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (CRSI) is looking forward to happier times in the year ahead, and there is cause for cautious optimism. We have the full attention of federal policy makers, who are listening to our recommendations as they review Australia’s current refugee settlement policies and we have also wasted no time in putting the concept of refugee sponsorship into practice in Australia through a pilot program that we launched in 2020. In the midst of the pandemic, through the ‘Group Mentorship Program’ we led a collaborative effort that recruited, trained and matched groups of inspiring Australian volunteers across the country with newly arrived refugee families. These refugee families are now receiving a wide range of additional practical local support and social connection from the mentor groups to help them find their feet in their new homes, helping us to prove that community sponsorship of refugees can work well in Australia.
Read on below for more details, but if you don’t have time, please consider taking a moment to register your interest in being involved in refugee sponsorship in the future if you’ve not done so already. There are two options:
- For individuals – register an Expression of Interest in supporting refugee newcomers; and/or
- For community groups, organisations or companies – endorse our ‘Civil Society Pledge’
We will contact registered individuals and organisations to discuss how to become more involved as soon as new opportunities to sponsor refugees to Australia become available.
Policy reform is on the cards for 2021
While 2020 saw Australia’s migration program put ‘on hold’ and the federal budget made cuts to the refugee program, there is hope that Australia’s humanitarian migration program will resume as the pandemic eases and that a new community refugee sponsorship program may feature in the next era of refugee resettlement in Australia. As we speak, the federal government is putting the finishing touches on its review of Australia’s private refugee sponsorship program – the Community Support Program (CSP) – and we are confident that as a result of our research and advocacy (and that of many other like-minded organisations and individuals) federal policymakers now understand not only why the current program has missed the mark in engaging the broader Australian community but also the wide range of benefits that will flow to refugees and the Australian community if a more affordable and accessible sponsorship program is made available.
Alex Hawke MP was appointed as the new Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs in December 2020. We are looking forward to engaging with Mr. Hawke, his fellow MPs and the Department of Home Affairs as the government considers the role that a new community refugee sponsorship scheme might play in Australia’s post-COVID migration program. As a proponent of a cohesive multicultural Australia and as the self-described ‘child of a migrant family that arrived in Australia seeking the safety, freedom and opportunities this country affords’, we are hopeful that Mr Hawke, along with his colleagues, will see the benefits of introducing a new refugee sponsorship program when the pandemic allows Australia’s migration program to resume.
We’ve put our ideas into action through a pilot program in 2020
We made great inroads in 2020 by putting into action many aspects of a future refugee sponsorship scheme through the ‘Group Mentorship Program’ that we launched in the midst of the pandemic. This one-off pilot program sought to demonstrate the willingness and capacity of ordinary Australians to support the local settlement of refugees. It has also provided CRSI and our collaborating partners with an opportunity to learn more about what is needed for a successful refugee sponsorship program to operate in Australia by putting the concept into practice.
We set out to recruit, vett and train 12 mentor groups to provide six months of holistic ‘mentoring’ to a recently-arrived refugee household in need of additional support, and what a response we had! When we reached out to our supporter group (ie all of you!) we heard from hundreds of individuals and groups all over the country keen to help. We are now working with 21 trained mentor groups, consisting of more than 170 individuals around Australia, who are volunteering their time to support the settlement and integration of refugee newcomers. Mentor groups are based in regional and metropolitan areas across Queensland, NSW, Victoria, the ACT and Tasmania. Mentors have come from all walks of life and occupational backgrounds, including a great number of current or retired teachers, health-care workers and social services professionals, bringing a wealth of professional expertise and social capital to support refugees. Each mentor group comprises at least five individual volunteers, able to contribute time each week to supporting a refugee household, with many of these individuals willing to commit up to 10 hours of their time per week. These 170+ people have readily demonstrated the widespread interest of Australian community members in providing practical support to newly arrived refugees.
CRSI has vetted and trained these mentor groups and then worked with other organisations to progressively pair these groups with refugee households who have recently arrived in Australia, or moving from one Australian locality to another and in need of extra support. Refugee mentees come from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, nationalities and language groups including a number of ‘women at risk’ and their children. They have unique stories, talents and ambitions and are all keen to establish their homes, families and careers in Australia including in fields such as software engineering, food production, healthcare and small business. Many of them have been referred to the program through settlement organisations, including those delivering the Humanitarian Settlement Program.
As of this week, 12 of these mentor groups have begun actively supporting refugees across a range of areas including finding work, securing housing, attending school and university, and making the most of local services and opportunities. While we have yet to formally evaluate the program, initial anecdotal evidence has highlighted the powerful and positive impact that a holistic, community-led approach to supporting refugees can have on social cohesion and the integration of refugee newcomers.
One of our mentor group members wrote to me recently saying:
“Whenever I’m speaking about the [pilot] program with anyone vaguely supportive of refugees, it resonates, it captures their imagination immediately and they are positive. The youth group at our Church has offered to help fundraise and people I’ve never met before offer to help. There’s something about it, people feel they can do something ‘real’/tangible. The refugee issue is often so removed from many people’s reality and people often feel powerless, then along comes a program where they can ‘do something’!”
One of our refugee mentees, who is working full-time while his wife cares for their young children, shared the following:
“The mentor group has been very helpful towards me and my wife. They have started teaching my wife English regularly once a week and have also helped us set up a small home-made food business on the weekends. This is helping us build our community connections and my wife’s confidence and independence. We go out to parks together and meet up regularly over a meal. They are like my friends now, who I can ask for anything. I know I have someone to ask for help and support when I need it. I think we will stay connected well beyond the end of the program.”
The USA may join the growing number of countries with refugee sponsorship programs
Internationally, momentum continues to grow as more and more countries introduce new community sponsorship programs or pilots. The ever-growing list now includes Belgium, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Germany, the United Kingdom and, of course, Canada. Last year the New Zealand government announced plans to extend its initial pilot sponsorship program for a further three years. The USA also loos likely to join this growing list of countries under the Biden administration, with President-elect Joe Biden signalling plans to introduce new avenues for community sponsorship of refugees while also lifting refugee admissions to 125,000 places per annum.
Nicole Watkins and Shabnam Safa join CRSI
Thanks to the generous support of the Sidney Myer Fund, we were able to add two new members to the CRSI team in late 2020 – Nicole Watkins (Community Development Manager) and Shabnam Safa (Community Development Officer). Nicole and Shabnam will be working to help individuals and community groups around the country engage with this work and ready to become refugee sponsors. Nicole and Shabnam’s profiles can be found on our website.
We hope to be able to share further positive news with you soon and encourage you all in the meantime to consider whether you might be willing to become a refugee sponsor in the future, and connect with others in your community who might like to join you.
If you’ve not yet already done so, please join the many hundreds of other individual Australians who have let us know of their interest in becoming involved by completing this ‘Expression of Interest’ form. If you’re actively involved in a community organisation that might like to play a part (eg a religious group, school, club, business or other community group) please consider having that organisation pledge its support through our ‘Civil Society Pledge’, which has been endorsed by over 100 organisations across the country. We will contact registered individuals and organisations to discuss how to become more involved as soon as new opportunities to sponsor refugees to Australia become available.
Best wishes to you all for a healthy, happy and harmonious year ahead.
Lisa Button and the CRSI team
Photo Copyright UNHCR/Annie Sakaab