Pushed to the margins: building pathways towards greater social inclusion for refugee women in Australia

By Violet Roumeliotis, CEO of Settlement Services International

Violet Roumeliotis

The forced migration of people fleeing persecution is one of the major challenges in the world today. Australia has contributed to addressing this challenge by accepting more than 700,000 refugees for resettlement (Hugo, Njuki & Vas Dev, 2012) over the past 60 years. There is compelling longitudinal evidence of the contribution that humanitarian settlers make to Australia in terms of benefits to our population, participation in the labour force and productivity. (Hugo, Njuki & Vas Dev, 2012)

Australia is also only one of three countries worldwide that grants protection to vulnerable refugee women under the Women at Risk visa category. Women granted protection in this category have, amongst other things, demonstrated that they are in danger of victimisation, harassment and serious abuse. Many of them have experienced torture and trauma, war and conflict, and gender-related violence. These experiences may have occurred in their country of origin, country of first asylum or transit countries and have often occurred in contexts where women’s human rights are ignored or severely threatened.

Since 1989, Australia has become home to almost 12, 000 women from these highly vulnerable situations. (DIAC , 2012) But this is likely to be an under-estimation of the true extent of vulnerable refugee women across Australia. Recent research conducted by The Centre for Refugee Research, UNSW (Pittaway & Pittaway, 2011) and SSI (the largest provider of settlement services in NSW) indicates that many women who are granted protection in Australia under other humanitarian visa categories often report life experiences that meet many of the criteria used to determine the Women at Risk category.

The prime purpose of Australia’s refugee intake has always been, and must always be, humanitarian in nature. Clearly, people forced to migrate are less able, initially at least, to adjust socially and economically to a new life in Australia. Refugee women face many of the challenges faced by other women experiencing multiple disadvantage: living in rental accommodation, heading single parent families. (Australian Social Inclusion Board,2010) In addition, these women can experience significant stressors in adjusting to radically altered roles such as being the head of a household which is experiencing multiple disadvantage. Like other people experiencing multiple disadvantage, they need targeted support in areas such as housing, employment and education to make a transition towards greater social inclusion. In the case of refugee women, particularly single women whose life circumstances place them at higher risk, there are questions as to whether the supports currently available are sufficiently targeted to meet their needs.

Some of the answers to these questions include developing a more consistent national approach to the settlement needs of refugee women. In the short term, this could take the form of more intensive assessment for all women entering the settlement support system to more accurately gauge the vulnerabilities and risks of their life circumstances which might impact on their settlement journey in Australia. The assessment could also identify the strengths and opportunities of these women. This could underpin a more targeted case management approach to the needs and strengths of these vulnerable women, linking them earlier to the pathways and services they need.

As with other women experiencing multiple disadvantage, these women encounter multiple barriers when accessing support as they often struggle to meet existing referral criteria for the services that they need. In the longer term, we need more flexibility in the key mainstream services that support vulnerable refugee women to ensure a more consistent and client-centred approach.

Refugee women, in particular those who come under the Women at Risk visa category, can experience stigma and discrimination from within their ethnic communities. It is appropriate that they are offered settlement options away from major cities, where they might be at greater risk of being exposed to this form of discrimination.However, they also need to be supported in their choices to relocate if their initial settlement location is not suitable or further compounds their social exclusion.

Immigrants and refugees are an intricate and essential chapter in the evolving story of Australia. Vulnerable refugee women and their families are part of this evolving story and can help to remind us of the resilience of these women in the face of extreme adversity. In the words of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers in 2012 we need to be hard-headed and not hard-hearted in our discussions to improve the pathways toward greater social inclusion for refugee women in Australia.


This paper was developed with input from Yamamah Agha, Nasiba Akram and Bintu Kamara who have a depth of experience in working with refugee women and Tadgh McMahon who works in research and policy at SSI.


Hugo, G Njuki, P & Vas Dev, S (2012). Social Inclusion and multiculturalism: the impact of internnational migration. In A Greater Australia: Population, policies and governance. CEDA: Melbourne [ Available at ceda.com.au/media/204245/populationreport2012final.pdf ]

DIAC (2012). Australia’s offshore Humanitarian Program : 2011-12. DIAC: Canberra [ Available at http://www.immi.gov.au/media/publications/statistics/immigration-update/australia_offshore_humanitarian_prog_2011-12.pdf]

Pittaway, E & Pittaway, E. (2011). Refugee Women at Risk in Australia: An evaluation of service provision for refugee women settled under the Humanitarian Settlement Services Scheme. SSI/The Centre for Refugee Research, UNSW: Sydney.

Australian Social Inclusion Board. (2010). Social Inclusion in Australia: How Australia is faring. Australian Government: Canberra. [ Available at http://www.socialinclusion.gov.au/resources/how-australia-is-faring]

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