By Andrew Reid
There is a concern that COVID-19 may exacerbate inequality towards vulnerable groups, including migrants and refugees. Here, I highlight a few from past experiences between 2006 – 2011 as a Non-Government Organisation (NGO) project and casework officer. My role included assisting and supporting Australian permanent residents within the first five years of arrival. This group included humanitarian entrants, family stream migrants with low English proficiency; and other selected visa subclasses. This group was located in Outer and Inner Western Sydney, under the Settlement Grants Program (SPG), now known as Settlement Engagement and Transition Support (SETS), funded by the Federal Department of Home Affairs.
Information and service access issues
SETS workers from 78 providers across Australia, funded under SETS – Client Services for the period 1 January 2019 to 30 June 2022, during this COVID-19 period, will necessarily be delivering services ‘from home.’ As a consequence, the SETS target group, including 20,102 humanitarian entrants that are settled in all states/territories between 1 January 2019 to 31 December 2019 (see figure 1 below), are likely to receive less face-to-face casework, interaction, and access to services at a time of even greater need to address their current settlement issues and concerns.
Figure 1: Permanent Settlers (All Streams) in all States/Territories with a Date of Settlement* between 01 January 2019 and 31 December 2019
There are a number of translation and interpreting services in Australia,
such as the Federal Government Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS) operating 24/7 and the NSW Multicultural Health Communication Service, that cover a very large number of languages. The Federal Government on 11/3/2020 announced a $30 million public information campaign. However, with increased demand many new migrants and refugees may find it more difficult than usual to get the necessary information, assistance, and support when needed. There are more than 21% of the population who speak languages other than English at home, and 6% that either speak little English or none at all. It is likely that there will be longer wait times from increasing demand in this COVID-19 period for such essential services.
A significant number of new migrants and humanitarian entrants that have resettled in Australia, particularly in the past 5 years, struggle with accessing information and services on their own. COVID-19 has forced a large number of Australians to ‘self-isolate’ or ‘stay at home.’ This has made it much harder for this population group. One contributing factor to this is the considerably diverse educational backgrounds of recently arrived humanitarian migrants. Some have relatively few years of education. Research, in 2017, found that 15% had no formal education and a further 18% had six or fewer years of schooling). Another contributing factor is digital exclusion. Research in 2019 has shown recently-arrived Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) migrants who had arrived under the humanitarian immigration program recorded a lower level of digital inclusion than the national average, primarily due to very low levels of affordability.
Older people in this population group are particularly at risk of not understanding and adhering to the required course of action needed to keep people safe and reduce the spread of COVID-19. As Associate Professor Robyn Woodward-Kron, at Melbourne University, explains, “some of the older migrants in Australia have had very little schooling, so they need reliable information that they can understand.”
It is particularly important that there is a ‘coordinated and creative’ approach involving a diverse range of stakeholders including community leaders, different multicultural organisations and community groups to develop the required information and disseminate it in appropriate and effective ways.
Increased Survivor’s Guilt
Research in 2019 found humanitarian migrant populations remain at high risk for mental illness over the first 3 years of resettlement in Australia. One contributing factor to this is survivor’s guilt. This is a sense of deep guilt a person may experience because they have survived a life-threatening situation (i.e., wars, natural disasters, and other traumas), when others have not. COVID-19 may be likely to increase survivor’s guilt among newly arrived migrants and refugees to Australia. This could be exacerbated by numerous domestic and overseas news reports of the alarming speed and spread of COVID-19 across the globe as well as fears of the unknown and for the welfare of friends and family left behind in home countries and refugee camps. Survivor’s guilt is a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Thus COVID-19 could potentially raise the positive screening of PTSD above the 52.4%, shown in a 2019 study, among the humanitarian migrant populations in Australia.
Stigma is already identified as one of the critical barriers to help-seeking for mental health or other health advice, particularly amongst refugee men in Australia. History and international experiences suggest COVID-19, like other pandemics (i.e., Spanish Flu and Ebola), could very well increase this stigma in the recently-arrived CALD migrant population who entered the country under the humanitarian program. This could mean less COVID-19 testing, social rejection, denial of services, and reduced treatment opportunities for Australian new migrants and refugees. Moreover, it can also lead to elevated depressive symptoms, stress, and substance use within this population group. Therefore, COVID-19 can effectively cause further stigma, which can result in mental and physical harm. This could include increasing the present prevalence estimates for depression and anxiety above the current 20% for migrants and 40% for refugees.
A final note, although COVID-19 is having significant impacts on the Australian community, newly arrived migrants and humanitarian entrants are at risk of experiencing increasing challenges as a result of this pandemic.