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Settlement Council of Australia Speech by Adrian Edwards

Speeches and statements

Settlement Council of Australia Speech by Adrian Edwards

30 August 2022
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I wish to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on, the Ngunnawal people. I wish to acknowledge and respect their continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of this city and this region. I would also like to acknowledge and welcome other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who may be attending today’s event. 

When I was asked by the Settlement Council of Australia to speak here this evening, it was a few hours after I’d learned that an old friend, the war photographer Tim Page, had passed away. Tim made his name during the war in Vietnam, and the news of his death came to me from a mutual friend - one of his students, photographer Barat Ali Batoor. Barat is a refugee from Afghanistan who came here to Australia by boat. I was reminded that around the world, most refugees do not arrive in an orderly fashion via resettlement channels but cross land or sea borders under very different circumstances and are driven by fear and desperation. So while we often think in Australia’s case of its humanitarian programmes and the projected places to be available there, it’s also worth reminding ourselves of the wider global asylum context. In the minute or so that I’ve been speaking, three people will have fled across international borders somewhere in the world becoming refugees. And 30 others will have been forced to flee within their own countries. Indeed resettlement is something that remarkably few refugees will ever experience. 

This said, and for a world in which forced displacement is rising with each passing year, resettlement and settlement have seldom been more important than they are today. And I emphasize this because the work that, collectively, each of us does is about ensuring that in a world that produces refugees, refugees have an answer and a solution. At its most fundamental resettlement is the protection and restoration of rights.  And all of you know this well, and for many of you, it has been your life’s work - our getting this right matters: to individual refugees; it matters to the communities here in Australia that they are joining; it matters to overburdened host countries on the front-lines of the world’s biggest refugee situations for whom resettlement is tangible solidarity and help; and it matters to the global refugee system as it is part of ensuring that this system delivers and does so powerfully. 

Allow me to say a few words about the current resettlement context. Globally, and including with the recent crises in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Ukraine, there are around 100 million people who are forcibly displaced. Many are people displaced internally, but out of the 21.3 million of these who count as refugees against UNHCR’s mandate, UNHCR estimates that 2 million will be in need of resettlement in 2023. As you can see, there is a huge gap. Globally, just 39,266 refugees were able to depart for resettlement in 2021. That’s a mere fraction of the number who need resettlement. Here in Australia, at the end of June 2022, we had received 4,451 refugees so far this calendar year [excluding Afghans under 449 visas]. 

UNHCR works closely with Australia on its resettlement programme at the ‘front-end’ in terms of identifying and referring refugees, and we, and many of you, have warmly welcomed the recent commitments that [Immigration] Minister Giles has made to ensure that vulnerability and a non-discriminatory approach are the guiding principles. This approach and the close working relationship helps because it allows us together to uphold humanitarian principles while also maximizing the effectiveness of the refugee protection that Australia has committed to providing through resettlement 

But the journey for a refugee coming to Australia through resettlement starts long before they arrive here, and here is where I come to the question of what happens pre-departure and how we can best set refugees up to be in the best position to settle. Well, the reality is that many of you are probably in the best position to answer this question. Your teams’ daily encounters with the newly arrived would make them very alert to gaps in understanding, unmanaged expectations, and the challenges their clients face on arrival and throughout their settlement journey. 

However, an important starting point for thinking about that question, and one that UNHCR does know, is for us to picture those displacement contexts and imagine a refugee’s life in it.  From the precarious urban existence in an economically challenged country like Lebanon to camp-based life in the huge Cox’s Bazaar or Kakuma camps, most refugees are eking out a life of sorts, with limited assistance, little individual agency, and where access to key fundamental rights is under constant challenge. Most refugees do not live in stable environments and life for most is dominated by day-to-day survival and subsistence or living in uncertain and chaotic circumstances. And a reminder that it is here that 99 plus per cent of refugees will end up staying.   

As you would all know too well, the factors that lead refugees to flee, the length and circumstances of their displacement - who they were, are, and aspire to be - are highly individualised. We meet resilience and strength, grief and suffering, yearning for the past and energy for a new future in equal measure, within and amongst refugee communities and families. So, the key question for us is how do we meet the refugees where they are at and how do we build a system of support, including possibly prior to departure, that responds to them.

Concretely, the best place we can start is to optimize the resettlement process itself and for that, timeliness is key. Outside the fast-track measure of emergency resettlement, and in the case of Australia, when it comes to UNHCR referred cases it is now typically taking anywhere from 100 days to 2000 days for a refugee identified for resettlement by UNHCR to actually depart. Working with Australia to shorten this is the first priority because although time in pre-departure might seem like an opportunity to begin the orientation process, for anyone who has fled their country but needs resettling, each day that passes has its own toll in terms of anguish, uncertainty and delayed access to the restoring of the protections and rights that lies at the heart of what resettlement is all about. 


UNHCR provides counseling in the context of its own resettlement interviews, but in truth, case officers rarely have much time or the key information to do this effectively. We provide a preliminary response only in addressing concerns and queries. Keep in mind that our colleagues may be working with 5, 10 even 20 different resettlement countries’ programs. The focus at this stage is to make a case for the refugee to ensure they are accepted and to gain their informed consent to be referred for resettlement -a process where voluntariness is key. Many factors are considered by the refugees at this point – the prospects of leaving family behind, perhaps giving up the dream of returning home, weighed up against hopes for their children, of better health, and opportunities for work and study.  UNHCR field colleagues would probably admit that their focus in resettlement at this ‘front-end’ is the removal from harm and endless limbo – the prospect of a solution that is positive and durable. There is from us, much trust in the process, in handing over the baton of protection to country experts such as you for providing the enabling accompaniment toward settlement, the restoration of rights and the gradual reclaiming of personal agency. 

UNHCR does, however, document extensively the refugees’ needs for resettlement in its Resettlement Registration Form, including observations on needs, family circumstances, and physical and psychological vulnerabilities.  Strengthening how and when this information is made accessible to you - those supporting the settlement journey on arrival - while protecting the confidentiality of that information is an opportunity that needs work. In certain circumstances, where matching with the settlement location occurs in advance, there may be scope for some pre-departure contact that has been piloted elsewhere and is a feature of community sponsorship models. Something as simple as a quick video call – where technology permits – can ease anxiety and could help you plan better for that initial period after arrival.

Today, most resettlement countries – including Australia with its Ausco cultural orientation program delivered by our IOM colleagues - offer pre-departure orientation. UNHCR sees great value in these and in ensuring that they are of high quality. Many refugees are anxious and often, in the context of knowing they may soon have to depart, have little time, capacity or the monetary resources for enrolling in and travel to and from complex learning programs. So programs need to be simple and accessible. We know that enabling refugees to ask questions and clarify misunderstandings pre-departure helps reduce anxiety.  They can bring the unknown unknowns into view and even build some excitement as they share the experience with others embarking on the same journey.

With Australia, as with all resettlement countries, targeting these programs with the right information and appropriate delivery matters. And this is a matter of constant feedback, evolution and improvement.  For example, Canada has evolved its pre-departure orientation to better target children and youth - The Canadian Orientation Abroad (COA) Youth Programme offers the possibility for individual email communication with a youth adviser in Canada and an innovative partnership with YMCAs in Canada that enables young refugees to make connections before they arrive. Although evaluations of the effects of pre-departure orientations remain limited, and the extent to which resettled refugees are able to learn and retain information prior to departure can be debated, research suggests that these programs do provide an opportunity to ease refugees' transition from their ‘old’ to their ‘new’ lives.

Is there scope to do more before departure?  Language classes are often mentioned in the context of pre-departure orientation. Language proficiency is a big help but we also see a number of practical limitations – technology, the exhaustion and focus of day to day survival, stress and trauma - that reduce the effectiveness of this option, probably for most. Initiatives in this respect are still very much welcomed for those that have the desire and capacity to engage, and not just for those refugees being resettled but for the majority that remain. For example, Coursera for Refugees, an open university platform, has served over 118,000 refugees in more than 119 countries around the world. Duolingo has also partnered in efforts to provide language learning and testing for refugees through targeted programs.

Fundamentally, what we can collectively do to position refugees to settle well either before or post arrival in Australia, is to adopt a person-centred approach. I know that this is something that the SCOA membership actively advocates for, and it is also central to UNHCR’s approach. UNHCR has had a longstanding commitment to ensuring that people are at the centre of all that we do. This requires that we apply an age, gender, and diversity (AGD) approach to all aspects of our work. In doing this, we aim to ensure that refugees, asylum seekers and stateless people can enjoy their rights on an equal footing and participate meaningfully in the decisions that affect their lives, families, and communities. Of course, this is not always easy. Resources are finite and certainly in displacement, most often in developing countries, the scope to respond is much more limited.  Once again, it is a question of meeting individual refugees where they are at.

Ultimately that means the job really falls to you and your teams. How we might optimise our responses, including information sharing, would benefit from a fresh look. Without a doubt, there are ways that we can refine our roles in the end-to-end process of supporting resettlement.

In closing, can I say that Australia’s mature and well-regarded settlement services are a precious asset. I have seen in action your responsiveness, innovation, and ability to constantly evolve your programming to the needs, and it is truly impressive. It is critical for the individual refugees and others that it serves, but it is also critical to public confidence in Australia and in ensuring an ongoing openness to protect refugees.  We are proud to partner with you in this important work.