The Role and Current Adaptive Social Work Practices for Different Immigrant Groups in Australia


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Misrepresentation of minority groups has historically led to marginalization, violent persecution and genocide. The dominant culture has a responsibility to give a voice to the oppressed allowing their voice to narrate their own story. The particular minority group in question here is that of the refugee and asylum seeker among which, even at this level, is a power disparity; where they refugee starts life in Australia with access to housing and financial assistance, the asylum seeker has no automatic access to this assistance (for the sake of simplicity the term ‘refugee’ will cover both of these groups). In Australia, the media and political focus on refugees is often negative blaming this group for various problems existing within Australian communities. Social work’s concern regarding social justice and advocating for the oppressed is challenged by this image of the refugee and asylum seeker. Those from non-English speaking countries seeking refuge in Australia are often accused of accepting Australia’s material help while rejecting its values and culture, compounding an already stressful life event and highlighting an area for intervention and advocacy. The social worker’s challenge in assisting this vulnerable group is broad as it involves working against the ‘dominant oppressive system’ to achieve basic human rights for the asylum seeker in a country where the government may not be willing to accept them.

The global number of forcibly displaced people currently stands at over 68.5 million and the trend has been steadily growing. As the issue of displacement is growing, the successful settlement of refugees in Australia is important not only for the refugee but for Australia as a whole. As social work is about promoting social justice for all, the social worker possesses an influential role in assisting the refugee and establishing their position within their newly adopted community.

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Refugee groups are a unique group with various complex relational aspects to contend with. Considering only the individual within the group is divisive and does not adequately consider the cultural and relational aspects the refugee families bring with them to their newly adopted countries. To promote social justice within the group the social worker must consider familial and cultural relationships, so as to understand what the needs are for the group as a whole. While refugees come from various different countries and backgrounds, they share a loss of autonomy, community, family connections and position within a familiar setting, this loss is compounded when the cultural norms of their country of origin are at odds with the new. Social work must find the balance between being a voice for each individual who arrives in Australia while avoiding the continuation of oppressive cultural norms that the refugee may bring with them.

Asim’s case study in SWM5102 led me to consider not simply social worker roles in assisting refugees to integrate successfully to Australia, but the different types of assistance various cultural backgrounds may require, and what are the current adaptive social work practices for different immigrant groups.

Five articles have been chosen that attempt to shine a light on the plight of refugees and integrational issues in their adopted country and highlight areas of intervention. These are largely qualitative studies that seek to uncover refugee experiences living and adapting to Australia, they will be presented in chronological order. There were various cultural restrictions facing the researchers when sourcing samples, often there were language barriers and cultural norms that needed to be allowed for so as to create trust between the researchers and the sample. The researchers in each case, in the interest of each group, sought guidance from the refugee groups themselves as to how to approach and open communication with refugees. While this perhaps does not provide samples that fully represent the group, it did create a trusting partnership from which information could be shared and served to highlight areas where intervention could assist.

The initial article that encouraged me to consider the acculturation issues facing refugee families beyond that of the problems reported in Australian media was Due and Riggs (2009) ‘Moving Beyond English as a Requirement to “Fit In”: Considering Refugee and Migrant Education in South Australia’ study which explored the primary school New Arrivals Program (NAP). It investigated the program’s impact on child refugees and the relationship between refugees and the school community. The study focused on two South Australian primary schools using NAP over an eight-week period (beyond running the NAP program, no information regarding how these schools were selected from among 16 possible was noted). While the study sought required permissions, it did not try to ensure it was understood by the vulnerable group it sought to ‘measure’, the only information provided was on a school handout sent home with students. This group was known to lack English language skills, not involving them in the process suggests that the researchers were more interested in the school system itself rather than the refugees, this could be interpreted as lacking conscientiousness.

The purposive sampling utilized was appropriate in this case as the researchers were seeking to investigate the impact as a starting point for further research rather than establish quantifiable, generalized results. Types, or lack, of interaction between all students and teachers and use of space around the school were noted. Teachers voluntarily completed a questionnaire regarding use of space, NAP, and school environment. The researchers found that acceptance of NAP students was related to English ability. NAP students lack confidence to join with non-NAP students in playground activities limiting informal language acquisition. It was noted that students were only permitted to interact in the playground within peer groups, actively preventing NAP siblings or acquaintances from mixing outside of their year groups which added to isolation of these students.

The study recommended whole community adaptation to assist successful integration for immigrants. Currently, the ability to speak English gives one group power over another, the responsibility to overcome this must not left at the primary school level. Integration and welcoming of refugee children require a whole community effort and cannot be isolated to individual events or left as an educational issue.

The idea that integration requires a community approach was further highlighted through Hebbani, Obijiofor and Bristed’s (2012) research which focused on challenges of acculturation faced by former Sudanese refugees. Participants (28 adult females, 11 adult males), from south-east Queensland, were selected through contacts with leaders of the local Sudanese community using a snowball sampling process. Following advice from community leaders focus groups were divided into two female groups and one male group in the participant’s native language using interpreters. Qualitative data was collated from the use of open-ended and follow up questions. The main areas highlighted were the relationship between English language skills and the acculturation process, negative perceptions of the Sudanese, discrimination and racism and misrepresentation of the group as a whole.

Moving from a patriarchal, collectivist culture to the individualistic culture of Australia creates a cultural clash especially felt by refugee parents. A negative view toward the refugee was felt across the groups with many questioning the point they are permitted to be Australian and stop being a refugee, especially as the participants had largely accepted Australia. Lack of English-speaking skills as an obstruction to integration and acculturation were highlighted in this study too. Often the children’s English ability would be better than the parents, creating a challenging role reversal where the parents had to rely on their children to navigate daily Australian life. Parents were concerned about the public perception of African refugees and the largely negative view presented by the media. In areas where there have been problems with the police the parents have been proactive in patrolling with the police and attempting to create a better relationship.

Fozdar and Hartley (2013) further investigated how integrated refugees felt through measuring levels of civic and ethno belonging among Australia’s refugee population. Civic belonging relates to the physical aspect of living in Australia including access to services and rights as other Australians, whereas ethno belonging relates to feeling that you belong to a shared culture, language and traditions. One on one interviews were carried out by a bilingual interviewer with 77 (36 male and 41 female) refugees ranging from youth to elderly who had been in Western Australia for 1 – 4 years. There was no data provided as to how they collected the sample.

Fozdar and Hartley (2013) found that the refugees were more likely to communicate ‘a sense of civic belonging rather than ethno belonging’ but indicate a hope that they could achieve ethno belonging in the future signifying that refugees desire a wider sense of belonging in Australia. The government offers English lessons and gives the refugees access to services and rights as citizens, but the refugees desire to feel as though they belong in the ethno sense, this requires the cooperation of the greater community and culture to embrace the refugee, otherwise the refugee would be required to make all of the compromise. The study again pointed to a need for a whole community approach to encourage refugees to feel settled and Australian.

The intergenerational acculturation gap was further explored by Renzaho, Dhingra and Georgeou (2017). The focus of this study was to better understand migrant youth and how they handle acculturation stress within the family unit and what could be done to enable a positive transition when after they move to Australia. Purposeful sampling was employed to select participants based on location and country of origin. Focus groups, run by a facilitator, interpreter and a note taker, were utilized to gather qualitative data from a total of 164 people who were grouped into youth (18-24yrs) and the parents of 13–17-year-old’s (it was acknowledged that the majority of this sample were of the parent group, but the actual divide was not stated). A $25 supermarket voucher for participation was provided to the volunteers which may have induced some to take part.

The two main areas highlighted wee ‘loss of family capital and intergenerational conflicts’. The children did not want to spend time with their families, this compounded the conflict felt by all family members as they negotiate between the culture of origin and the new. Parents feel the loss of control through the autonomy provided to their children under the Australian system, children then reject their parents culture leaving both in a vulnerable position. This is compounded when the parents lack English skills leaving them reliant on the children to negotiate life in Australia. This study also pointed toward the need for a whole community effort in assisting refugees to settle into life in Australia.

The final study included is that of Wilkinson, Santoro and Major’s (2017) study into the relationship between refugee youth and educational success. The study used a limited, purposefully selected sample but it served to highlight further areas to consider in order smoothing the transition of refugee to a citizen who feels a full sense of belonging in Australia, and some of its findings were supported by the previous studies. While eight refugee students were selected who had been identified as achieving academic success, the results discussed only three of the students. Consent and assent was sought from both the students and their guardians, then the students were provided with a disposable camera so as to take photographs of people, places and activities they valued, contributed to success and made them feel positive about themselves. These photographs were then used by the interviewer to allow the students to build a narrative from their voice. Interviews were carried out twice over a year and included people the students had highlighted as important. The limited, selective sample size does not provide generalizable findings, however, it highlights possible areas that may contribute positively toward acculturation and further highlights the need for a whole community approach to the integration and acculturation of refugees. While their study focused on academic success, it emphasized the importance of positive external groups, associations and activities when considering refugee acculturation and integration.

More needs to be done to understand the whole family relationship and association with adaptation and integration. Ignoring cultural sensibilities, background and familial associations is to the detriment of the refugee.

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