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African Refugees in Australia Face Tough Road


A new study has highlighted the enormous problems facing African refugees in Australia. The trauma and uncertainty many have experienced in their home countries and in transit camps have simply not prepared them for living in a culturally diverse society such as Australia. There are the usual problems newcomers anywhere face, language, and social isolation. But racism, for the blacks, has been identified as a major problem.

Godfrey, a refugee from Sudan, enjoys time with his young son in their small suburban apartment. His new life in Australia has so far been a disappointment.

Godfrey, who would only give his first name, spent years in refugee camps in Uganda before arriving in Sydney at the start of May. He feels isolated.

"Really, I don't cope with life yet, because most of the time I spend my time in the house with the kids and so lonely," he said. "There's nothing for me to do. In Africa I did a lot of things but right now I'm just in the house with the kids."

Q: "Was this the sort of life that you were expecting coming from Africa to Sydney?"

A: "I know life outside there is not life like Africa. I have to adjust myself and then do it."

Q: "How long do you think it will be before you feel comfortable, productive and happy in Australia?"

A: "Well, if I get something to do. If I improve my education also that will improve my living standard."

Australia grants visas to around 13,000 refugees every year under official humanitarian programs. The vast majority, about 70 percent, come from Africa.

A recent study by the University of Western Sydney says that large numbers of African migrants are having resettlement problems in Australia because of traumas in their past, and the alien culture they now live in.

Research has shown that many African refugees spent more than a decade living in camps after escaping war and famine before moving to Australia.

The report says some African refugees are making the adjustment, but it says Africans tend to take longer to resettle than refugees from such countries as Iraq or Afghanistan. Racism can make them feel unwanted and afraid.

A couple from Zimbabwe, who like most refugees were reluctant to give their names, have found life difficult since they arrived in Sydney two years ago. The man, in particular, talks of being shunned.

"You get into a train or a bus. You take a seat, no-one wants to sit next to you. Some people prefer to stand. They don't sit next to you. It happens a lot. Sometimes, like, people you'll see that they are talking about you, they are laughing about you. Although you do not hear what they are saying, but you see that they are laughing at you," he said.

"The standard of living is very good. It's a high standard of living, but it has been a bit hard because you really have to work hard. You have no time with the kids especially, you're always at work. That's how you survive, especially the first two years," she said. "We thought it would be a bit easier."

The government says it appreciates that life is not always easy for new migrants. However, it says millions of dollars are spent on resettlement programs, including language courses and adult education. Migrants are assigned case workers, who help with them to learn about how their new society works.

Racial discrimination comes from the likes of the conservative One Nation party, which wants the government to stop resettling African refugees. The party's Bob Vinnicombe believes that black Africans have no place in Australia.

"They are too different to us. The culture they come from is too different to ours. We don't know their background. They could have diseases. They could have T.B., they could have AIDS. They could have criminal records. They come from war-torn countries," Vinnicombe said.

Asked where people like these should go, Vinnicombe says countries where the people are similar to them - other black African countries, for instance.

It seems that most Australians do not share these views. Liz Horsman of Sydney expresses the often-heard view that multiculturalism is having a healthy influence on society here.

"It's the way the world's going," she explained. "I think we need to embrace it in a really positive way because it's the future of the world, and if we can make something positive, then that means we don't have conflict, and we can either go a negative path or a positive path."

Community worker Joffrey Mangwi Mugi says adjusting to a new life is tough, for a variety of reasons.

"We have issues of employment, generational problems, cross-cultural problems and many other problems that are raised by the communities," said Mugi. "These problems are coming because they sometimes fail to settle easily. They don't know how the systems work. Like, the transport system, the banking, the housing and all these kind of things."

Modern-day Australia has been shaped by half a century of mass migration. Groups that were subjected to discrimination in the past, such as the Greeks and the Italians, have now become valued and accepted. It may take time, but migrants from Africa are hoping they, too, will eventually achieve the same sense of belonging.

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