Councils welcome Syrian refugees

refugee welcome zone

In the wake of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s announcement that Australia will take 12,000 extra refugees from war-torn Syria, a number of Australia’s local government authorities have expressed interest in receiving them into their communities.

East Fremantle Mayor Jim O’Neil and Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt have called on the Federal Government to consider using Leeuwin Barracks, located in East Fremantle, to house refugees from Syria. The barracks previously housed 370 refugees from Kosovo in 1999.

“Fremantle recently became a Refugee Welcome Zone,” Mr Pettitt said. “With Premier Barnett saying that WA would be willing to take 1,000 refugees from Syria, I know the people of Fremantle would like to assist by making refugees welcome in our community.”

“This is a global refugee crisis,” said Mr O’Neill. “We can’t stand by while this situation gets worse. No single country can solve the crisis, but as one of the world’s richest countries, Australia should do it part and East Fremantle is proud to make a stand for this.”

Adelaide Hills has made a similar request, with Mayor Bill Spragg supporting a recent call from South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill calling for the reopening of the Inverbrackie detention centre in Woodside as emergency refugee housing. The facility has 80 houses and a medical centre and was closed this year after the previous Commonwealth Government spent more than $10 million upgrading it.

“The facility was originally a migrant hostel, so Adelaide Hills has a long tradition in housing newcomers to Australia,” said Mr Spragg. “It should be re-opened to help accommodate this new influx or refugees.”

Mr Spragg has previously criticised the Commonwealth’s plans to sell Inverbrackie and turn it into a retirement village, saying that an influx of aged residents would put pressure on local services. It is in the safe Liberal-held Federal seat of Mayo, formerly held by long serving Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

Adelaide Hills Council is also a Refugee Welcome Zone, an initiative of the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), the peak body for Australia’s many refugee groups. In 2013 the RCOA published a report listing 87 councils in Australia that had signed up to the program, which it initiated in 2002. The number has since grown to 125 – nearly one quarter of Australia’s LGAs.

They include the City of Sydney, the City and Melbourne and the Brisbane City Council, Australia’s largest LGA. The ACT Government has also joined the program. The experiences of many councils with the program are published in the RCOA report.

“We initiated the Refugee Welcome Zones to give some structure to community support for refugees,” the RCOA’s Tim O’Connor told Government News. ”Refugees bring many benefits to local communities. By joining our Refugee Welcome Zone program a local council shows that it is welcoming refugees into the community, upholding their human right and enhancing cultural and religious diversity in the community.”

Mr O’Connor said that councils could join the program by passing a motion in support. The RCOA then helps them with practical advice, drawing on the experience of other councils in the program. “Sometimes the motions do not get passed the first time,” said O’Connor. “But after we point out the success stories and explain the concept, the council inevitably comes on board.”

Refugees often disappear into the ethnic melting pot in Australia’s large cities. But they are very noticeable in smaller communities. A report earlier this year from research group AMES and economics consultancy Deloitte Access Economics called ‘Small Towns, Big Returns’ looked at the economic impact of the resettlement of Karen refugees from Burma in the small western Victorian town of Nhill.

Since 2010, approximately 160 Karen refugees have resettled in Nhill, the centre of Hindmarsh Shire. They now comprise about 10 per cent of the town’s population. Over 70 are in full time employment, with the report estimating of $41.5 million economic impact (net present value) on the shire’s economy. Over 50 of them work at the Luv-a-Duck facility outside of town, which breeds ducks and processes and sells packaged duck-based products to Australian and export markets.

“The social impact of the Karen settlement is extraordinary,” the report quotes Hindmarsh Shire Council CEO Tony Doyle as saying. “Nhill, a very conservative community, has embraced and opened their minds and hearts to the Karen. This has made Nhill a better place to live.”


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