Many people settled in Australia’s capital cities say they would have preferred to resettle in regional towns had they known what opportunities were available to them outside of metropolitan centres. As the lifestyle and employment opportunities become more widely known, many migrants living in big cities are raising their hands to move to regional communities.
Some migrants move to regional areas in search of jobs and cheaper housing. Many migrants’ moving to rural Australia in particular also have great ambitions of farming. It is a large part of why big cities are not their ultimate settlement location; farming is a permanent activity they will continue to practice as long as they have the opportunity.
Notwithstanding the importance of employment, affordable housing and availability of land for farming, for many migrants, the decision to stay on and live in a regional community ultimately depends on whether the community is a welcoming community that is ready to embrace the new migrants. A welcoming community is a source of safety for new migrants and can help greatly with migrant attraction and retention. Thus, encouraging more small towns to become welcoming communities is also integral to sustainable regional settlement.
Key Learnings for Successful Regional Settlement:
- Intercultural Approach: An intercultural expert advises the project team to ensure that local communities are engaged and supportive of the project and that families are embraced into the community, building local relationships and support networks.
- Management: The steering committee perform all the planning in advance of the arrival of new settlers to the region. The committee was composed of staff from all three levels of government, with three more subcommittees established to look after education, employment and health.
- Working Group: a working group involves a cross-sector of the community that advises the project team. Representatives include employment agencies, key community groups, health professionals, real estate agents and educators.
- Project Manager: A Project Manager overseeing the project is crucial to achieving project goals and momentum. The Project Manager builds up relationships in the community, specifically with employers and community groups, and assists the families with job applications, housing and community supports.
- Family Liaison: A Family Liaison Officer would understand the experience of relocating from a Capital City, provides ongoing communication with the migrants. This is important for managing the expectation of families, resolving issues, and bridging language barriers.
- Collaboration: Settlement services, employment agencies and employers may all usefully be collaborated.
- Community Connections: Numerous structures have been put in place to support families to connect meaningfully with the community, for example, support from local churches and mentors for business start-ups. The community connections would also engage the new residents in all local community events, festivals and functions, to develop social network connections and exemplify cultural diversity.
- Welcome Weekends: The migrant families visit the region to get an understanding of the area, and meet the community, employers, and real estate agents. The visits also include homestays with local families, helping establish the first connections between migrants and the local community.
- Buddy Program: A Buddy program was established to match new families with a local family – the local family assists with the move, invites the new family to events, helps them build relationships in the community, and regularly catch-up. This program takes a long-term approach to support for families relocating.
- Driving lessons: It was very important for the new arrivals to learn to drive as the area was not considered “public transport friendly”. This training also opened job opportunities in the driving industry.
- Engagement: New residents embraced the expectations of the host community by joining volunteering and support groups, like the fire brigade unit.
- English Language and Tutoring Cafe: It is critical to establish a Language Cafe that is open to anyone in the community wishing to practice English conversation in a relaxed and informal setting. It is held once a month and rotated across businesses. A Tutoring Cafe is also useful. It assists primary school students of new families with homework through a structured and fun environment after school. The students are tutored by secondary students with a trained facilitator coordinating.
- Employment: Employment is based on skills and qualifications. Taking an individualised approach, each family member discusses their long-term work preferences with the project team. The aim is for one person in each family to have a job before relocation. It is understood that some local employers would be understandably hesitant about employing new arrivals because of the training that would be needed to get the new settlers to the employers’ desired skill level. On the other hand, in some regions, local farmers provided agricultural work for families when they arrived. This work is mostly casual, but the locals continued to offer jobs to the migrants whenever further work was required.
- Future-focus: The new settlement families applied for relatives to join them directly from overseas. The relatives have the same background in Agriculture, so the regional township presents a more attractive lifestyle for them than metropolitan centres.
- Health: Local GPs worked together to overcome issues around the lack of information on the health needs of refugees (such as the lack of medical records). Communication issues also had to be overcome as refugees were not familiar with the local medical system. Interpreters helped greatly in this regard, as did the training of refugees in first aid and basic public health education (such as nutrition, hygiene, dental health).
- Housing: The project team meet with local real estate agents to provide background information on families. Buddies attend meetings with the families and real estate agents. In other places, it was experienced that finding affordable accommodation was difficult because the families were not yet in Australia, and real estate agents were reluctant to give houses to new arrivals as they had no rental history. One consideration is the work of Habitat for Humanity NSW, along with community members – helped renovate dilpiladated houses for rental. The price of rent of these houses is minimal, which is also an attractive factor for the new settlers. Another aspect to consider is culture. Those involved in the project sought to avoid cultural assumptions more tailored to the Australian way of life and instead tried to respect other cultures’ preferences, such as cluster housing as opposed to solitary housing.
- Land: Farmers have provided and prepared land for the migrant families who desperately wanted to have gardens. Farming is the major reason why new settlment and migrant families want to live in regional Australia in the long term. In some communities, Community members have offered land for the families to grow crops on to support their farming pursuits. This has been important for the families to create a sense of belonging and reconnection to the land.
- Liability and sustainability: After getting jobs, and being trained, the migrants and refugees are stable, reliable for work and they have stayed for long.
- Local Government: Council organised an official welcome of the cohort of skilled migrants and settlers into their communities. Councils were instrumental in creating an environment of welcome and acceptance between the local community and the settlement families.
- Risk assessment: Thought went into what may go wrong in the resettlement process and how to mitigate against things going wrong in the first place.
- Services: Migration agents and case managers have provided ongoing support to new families in the region and have assisted in proposals for additional family members to come directly to the region.
- Terminology: The use of “New Residents” rather than the term migrants was seen to make a big difference for community integration.
- Transport: Refugees were not familiar with the local transport options. The solution was for caseworkers to introduce them to the public transport system, volunteers to drive refugees between locations, and to connect refugees with local driving schools.
- Vocational Education Pathway Support: Local vocational training providers have been engaged to give one-on-one skills assessments, training, and pathway advice to ensure each person is supported to gain meaningful and long-term employment.
- Volunteers: Community members volunteered to renovate houses, assist migrant families with knowledge of local amenities, teach migrant families what crops to grow in winter and summer periods. Local volunteers were instrumental in assisting the refugees on daily activities, often without limit. This is one of the key elements for successful regional settlement. Volunteers help “New Residents” settle, obtain a sense of belonging and safety, and help them orient toward successful integration.
Familiarity: The settlement families visit the proposed settlement region or town to get an understanding and appreciation for the area. This initial visit helped establish the first connections between migrants and the local community. Prospective employers would also organise a presentation to the local community members on the profiles of new arrivals (settlers) and their cultural expectations.
GAPS in Successful Regional Settlement
- Agricultural workers: There can be gaps in the agricultural sector, and the families often do not have the prior learning or mechanical knowledge and physical aibility to take on the manual labour required to fill gaps in the workforce.
- Communication: There was a lack of constant communication to manage expectations. For example, new refugees were told to pay three weeks rent upon arrival, and not before they arrived in the settlement community.
- Employment: Job providers did not adjust their procedures of employment to consider the arriving cohort of refugees from overseas. Even with local skill shortages, some employers were unwilling to offer jobs to the refugees, in part because of the perceived training or assistance that would be required.
- Housing: Limited rental housing presents challenges and the project team uses their networks to reach out to the private market. There was particular difficulty in finding 4-5 bedroom houses suitable for large families.
- Housing: Securing housing for new arrivals was an issue, as real estate agents were reluctant to offer houses to people with no rental history.
- Language: Some of the “New Residents” have a low level of English proficiency, which can be a barrier to certain employment and social connections.
- Perception: Some misconceptions in the local community that some of the refugees, like Hazaras from Afghanistan, were Al-Qaeda or Taliban (This is not true, all migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are comprehensively screened with respect to their background and antecedents.)
- Skills and resources: Lack of land ownership, mechanised agriculture skills and equipment limit the opportunities for migrant families to pursue large-scale farming endeavours.
- Timeframes: The process to find employment and housing at a time that suits the families has been challenging, as many have children in school they need to consider. The project team needs to balance family and community expectations continually.
- Workplace: Employers recruited translators during induction training to translate material into the migrant’s language, and made time for employees to attend English classes
From the Australian experience of regional migration outlined here, it is evident that there are at least three major players involved in ensuring settlement success. One is government – be it a federally-facilitated settlement of migrants to regional areas directly from overseas or local council settlement facilitation (of either direct or secondary migrants). Another is business – often a key driver for migrant attraction and retention through employment. Then there are the volunteers and organisations that support new arrivals to become settled and participate in local events and activities.
Underlying these elements of successful regional settlement is a sense of community; of people – existing and new residents – coming together to support one another to address a particular challenge (employment, livelihood, wellbeing) in a particular place to benefit all those who work to make it a success.