When he announced that he was slashing Australia’s annual intake of African refugees, Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews cited their low level of education as a major stumbling block to successful integration into Australian society.
His solution was to throw an extra $200 million into existing refugee settlement services. A boon for service providers but African refugees are the losers in this simplistic approach. It only serves to maintain the programs that consistently fail them.
When young African refugees arrive in Australia they are immediately enrolled in the New Arrivals Program where they are given either a six or 12 months of intensive English language training. The aim of this scheme is for young migrants to achieve a level of English that is basic enough for them to participate and study in our schools. The students, armed with this bare level of English, are then parachuted into classrooms based on their age and without any curriculum preparation.
We wouldn’t expect an Australian-born child to succeed at school in China under such conditions. We wouldn’t place Australian-born children into Year 10 if they had never been to school before.
One does not need a crystal ball to realise the stress that these students inevitably face in the school yard. The New Arrivals Program is not designed to address these critical concerns.
Like most developed nations, the Australian education system places the burden on the student to learn. Hence the daily homework exercises, school assignments and projects.
These policies not only assume that newly arrived refugees have a safe and quiet area that is conducive to study, but that families all have labour-saving devices in homes that students don’t have to carry the shopping on public transport, carry the washing to laundromats and visit a series of public libraries in order to use the internet for one-hour bookings at a time.
The extra Federal Government money being promised needs to address these critical barriers. Educational facilities for adult and child refugees should make their libraries and computer rooms available in the evenings, weekends and in school holidays so refugee students can access facilities they desperately need.
The present pattern of reliance on at-home activities which need resources and conditions that extremely disadvantaged students lack is unrealistic, insensitive and goes against the much-touted Australian notion of a ‘fair go’.
African adults face similar educational dilemmas. They are placed into the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) which deems 510 hours a reasonable enough time for one to learn a new language from scratch.
The general consensus among service providers is that the prescribed time is not enough and that more hours (which inevitably means more money) are needed. While there is a genuine case to be made for this, it still shadows the real problems with Australia’s refugee settlement programs: their lack of accountability to their most vulnerable assets, the refugees themselves.
The AMEP has no academic curriculum, structure, exams and has used the same resources for the last two years. Students claim that they learn through newspaper clippings, and since the lessons are not contextualised, feel they don’t get the chance to practically apply what they learn.
According to Opposition Immigration Spokesperson, Tony Burke, 90 per cent of students exiting the AMEP lack functional English. Mainstream language courses would never be run to such an unworkable format, simply because mainstream students would never accept it. Refugees do not know what is standard in Australia and they have no voice.
These inflexible and poorly structured programs leave African refugees feeling isolated and limit their contributions to Australian society. The debate regarding the African refugee intake has unfairly focused on the behaviour of a small group of African youth, without critically examining the settlement programs these refugees are forced to rely on. This leaves African refugees easy targets for opportunistic politicians who claim they lack the will to integrate.
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