Rural Australians for refugees: an enduring model of support?
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Rural Australians for refugees: an enduring model of support?

Stories/371 , Issues/Refugees , Issues/Employment
Wonthaggi VIC 3995, Australia
9th Nov 2018
Rural Australians for refugees: an enduring model of support?
Is refugee settlement in rural areas a long term solution?

The number of people displaced across the globe far outpaces the rates refugees are being welcomed into other countries. According to the United Nations, 65 million people have been forced to leave their homes, the highest level of displacement on record. These displaced people are the human byproduct of political conflict and bureaucratic inaction that leaves millions without a place to call home, stable work, or safe path to migration. Of these 65 million displaced people, 25 million are refugees, many living in temporary camps around the world. The Australian government has been wary of what an influx of refugees will do to Australia - largely because there is no proven model for integrating refugees into Australian life.

One of the models that offers hope for sustainable migration is the relocation of refugees into rural communities. In Australia, 85% of foreign-born people live in urban areas, as opposed to 64% of Australian born people. The rural community model offers a potentially enduring model for supporting and welcoming refugees. Margaret Rasa, Vice President at Rural Australians for Refugees, says "there is a long tradition of welcome in rural Australia. No political attachments, just welcome. We can lend a hand to anyone."

Rural Australians for Refugees is a national organisation of 95 largely autonomous local groups. Each group sets its own mission across a spectrum of advocacy activities. There are a number of groups that organise protests of detention practices. Some focus on lobbying for policy change; whilst others focus on sponsorship and day to day support of refugees that have come to Australia.

Felicia Di Stefano lives in a small town near Wonthaggi and sponsored a widowed woman and her 17 year old son from Myanmar. The two are members of the Karen people fleeing ethnic and political conflict in Myanmar and were living in a refugee camp in Thailand.

Sponsoring a refugee family to come to Australia is a significant time and financial commitment. Typically, sponsors take on visa fees and airfare costs, and supply food, clothing, and housing until a family can support itself.

But despite these challenges, Felicia says she would "absolutely" do it again and describes "a wonderful experience - the community gave everything." She witnessed the outpouring of kindness from the community who donated clothes, food, and helped get the family settled. The local newspaper had written about the family's arrival, and Di Stefano describes townspeople stopping them in the streets to welcome the new family to the town.

"Settlement is easier in rural communities where there is more support available," says Rasa who sees country towns as places where people help each other and refugees receive support. "[Supporting refugees is] good for Australia. In particular, rural areas benefit from hosting, and refugees benefit from their support. We benefit from having exposure to different cultures, we fill jobs, [and] there is more money in towns," Rasa says.

Refugees in rural communities typically find work in the agriculture and meat industries. However, often people who initially settled in rural communities eventually move on to urban areas because job prospects are better. The mother and son from Myanmar moved to Melbourne after 4 years near Wonthaggi because job prospects for the son were better in the city - the young man went on to study hospitality and gain employment in Melbourne.

The challenge to the rural model will be to get people to stay in rural communities. Rasa says that local businesses will play a key role in retaining these workers. "Employers need to stay engaged," she says. These employers will need to support their employees to have career paths with upward mobility within companies in order for them to stay. Otherwise, the job markets in urban areas are more attractive to ambitious workers. And without the support network of rural communities, relocation to urban areas can be challenging.

Rural Australians for Refugees "stands on the shoulders of compassion and welcome." It's clear that rural communities are willing and able to support refugees and ease their transition to life in Australia, a sustainable model for supporting an increase in the number of refugees allowed into Australia.

As part of outreach from the national Rural Australians for Refugees organisation, Rasa recently ran a workshop for a class of year 10 students. One student summed up the relationship between Australians and the refugees making Australia home as mutually beneficial, "we need them but they also need us," he said.

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