The (bureaucratic) refugee story

In the last few days the media madness around asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat has hit an all time high. In my opinion, the acceptance of the Houston Report recommendations is one of the most despicable, inhumane things we could possible do as a prosperous country.

I attended a talk today however, about the other, less feared, side of the coin – which is the intake of refugees through Australia’s humanitarian stream. The talk was delivered by Miriam Pellicano who has worked extensively in the refugee community sector and introduced us to the banal sounding “bureaucratic journey of the refugee”.

She started off with a story that most of you probably read about in the media – the tragic death of a young boy within 24 hours of him and his family arriving in Australia.

In 2005, the refugee family came to Australia after fleeing Burundi and spending years in a refugee camp in Kenya where the youngest son Richard was receiving medical treatment. Finally, the family received their refugee visa through the UNHCR to come to Australia. They were put on a plane and arrived at the airport where they were picked up by a private company who was looking after settlement services. Historically, settlement services have been run by the community and not for profit sector in Australia – but recently there has been a trend of private companies winning the tender (which is problematic for reasons I’ll discuss later).

This particular company that had won the tender in 2005 sent a caseworker to pick Richard and his family up from the airport and drop them off in Fairfield. The managing company was aware that Richard had a medical condition and that the family had instructions as to his care. The caseworker however didn’t ask for the records or put them in touch with doctors, and the family had no way of offering this information as they spoke no English at all. The caseworker showed the family where the telephone was and told them to dial triple zero if there was a problem.

Richard’s family had never seen a phone before and did not know what ‘triple zero’ meant.

At 4 AM that morning, Richard began having convulsions. Neither parent could speak English, use the phone, or knew the systems to get medical aid in Australia. Richard’s father ran down the street and began yelling and screaming until a neighboring Sudanese family came out and accompanied him back to Richard, understanding that something must be seriously wrong.

Richard had already died.

A 7:30 Report with Nick Grimm clearly articulates the tragedy:

NICK GRIMM: The casework had told the family to dial 000 if there was an emergency. Problem was not only didn’t they speak English, but they didn’t know how to use a phone.

PROTIAS NTIRANYI (TRANSLATION): The telephone was no good. A telephone that can call one person. Even if I could call the case worker and he could help me, I couldn’t communicate with him.

NICK GRIMM: With his son’s condition rapidly worsening and driven desperate by his failure to obtain assistance, Protias Ntiranyi ran into the street crying for help. Neighbour, Sudanese-born Paul Mochang, could readily see something was very wrong, even though he couldn’t understand a word.

PAUL MOCHANG, NEIGHBOUR: What is I know is he needed help. But I didn’t know what happened. He go with me upstairs and he opened the baby. When I saw the baby I immediately know that maybe he’s sick because this is my first time to see a person die.

NICK GRIMM: This is just the latest controversy to hit the Department of Immigration. Just as in the Vivian Solon and Cornelia Rau cases, the death of Richard Ntiranyi highlights the terrible consequences for those individuals who fall between the cracks in the system. Refugee workers say the current system of handling new arrivals a is fundamentally flawed.

SISTER LIBBY ROGERSON, PARRAMATTA DIOCESE: I am haunted all day today by the thought of that man roaming around the street in the dark, calling out in his language for his dying son and nobody being able to understand him. I mean, something has to change. This is a terrible, terrible tragedy and we have to get the basics of settlement clear and worked out and supportive of people. Otherwise there’s no point in us bringing them in here.


Within 24 hours of arriving in Australia afamily lost their youngest child. According to Ms Pellicano, these incidences aren’t infrequent and are often covered up.

The process of refugee resettlement in Australia is convoluted, full of bureaucratic red tape and underfunded. It can be split into three stages – pre arrival, on arrival and post arrival.


There are two ways you can arrive in Australia and be processed – onshore or offshore. Onshore processing is for asylum seekers who arrive in Australian territory and are processed within a center by the Department of Immigration. Offshore proessing is when you are in another territory and you are lucky enough to have access to a UNHCR office or refugee camp. You wait there and get assessed. If you are afforded refugee status you wait until you get resettled into a third, safe country.

Unfortunately the UNHCR can only process 1 refugee resettlement claim for every 10 that need processing – barely 1% of refugees in total manage to get through the resettlement process to a safe, third country. This is referred to as “warehousing” – people who have had their refugee status for 15 or 20 years and are still waiting in a refugee camp. The way the UNHCR picks who gets processed first does not comply with our understanding of a “queue” that is thrown around by the media. The UNHCR will deem an area a “hot spot” if there is conflict, natural disasters, civil unrest etc. in the area and ask governments to pull out the refugees in that area as a matter of priority and resettle them. Refugees get forgotten and languish for years when the refugee camp they’re in is no longer in an area classified as a “hot spot” and so they face indefinite displacement.

So, IF, you are lucky enough to be assessed by the UNHCR, deemed a refugee AND accepted by a third country you then get a week of pre-departure preparation by a company called AUSCO that the government hires out. A week of pre-departure prep when you’re illiterate or pre-literature, have never been in a formal education system and have been waiting in an isolated refugee camp for years is probably not going to be the easiest or most accessible way for you to be introduced to your new life.

On arrival – Bizarrely, there is an incredibly competitive process to get the tender to resettle refugees who eventually end up in Australia. Historically, this role was filled by the community and not for profit sector but increasingly the Government has picked private companies to meet and settle refugees. The problem with this is that a role that demands expertise in trauma, resettlement, communication and case work because a job about KPIs, tight time frames and profit motives.

Post arrival – once the refugees have been picked up from the airport and placed in an apartment or some sort of housing facility, their longer term support comes from two sources – the Humanitarian  Settlement Strategy (HSS) and the Settlement Grant Program (SGP). They operate consecutively. HSS is a consortium of organizations which provide a family with services for 6-12 months during which time the family is expected to learn how to negotiate with centrelink, book themselves into TAFE, find a job etc. (irrespective of whether they are pre-literate, illiterate, have ever used a computer etc.) Many people remain stuck at this stage for far longer than the 12 months because they simply do not have the support to cope with the adjustments.

The problem though, is that the next step of the post arrival process (SGP) is where most of the community and not for profit organisations are based who have the time to provide the real services. But refugees cannot access these services until they’ve completed stage one.

They have to exit HSS to access SGP.

The Settlement Grants Program is comprised of lots of NGOs – migrant resource centers, religious groups, language skill sharing etc. It could be a very effective support base for refugees. However, SGP is entirely reliant on a very aggressive tendering process. Every August staff members are pulled out of their jobs to write these outrageously long and complicated funding applications that have very strict requirements set by the government.

Every community group, every not for profit, every migrant group has to shut down at least part of their services for a month every year to try and get as much funding as they can. This annual model means that projects don’t have the sustainability or longevity to make real difference and the people who work in the sector face the constant threat of having their funding cut. It also means that everyone is competing against each other. Even though all the different groups and services are working for the betterment of the same group of people – they end up working in cylos with no communication for fear that one group will steal more of the tiny slice of money they are all sharing.

Bureaucratic red tape, inadequate funding and a bizarre shift towards privatization results in tragedies like Richard’s – where the most vulnerable slip through the cracks. It is so important that amid this fear-mongering campaign against “boat people”, we try to keep the pressure on our government to take a sustainable, compassionate and holistic approach to providing adequate services and support to refugees in Australia.

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