A tendency to attribute low levels of education and sophistication to refugees means that Australia is failing to make the most of its new arrivals, according to a Flinders University academic.
Sociologist Associate Professor Jane Haggis says that the term “refugee” often projects a “Third World” stereotype of poverty and illiteracy onto people who are cosmopolitan, middle-class and capable.
Speaking to Charles Darwin University’s Northern Institute All in the same boat symposium on asylum seekers in Darwin on Friday, Associate Professor Haggis said the mismatch between the reality and perceptions of refugee capacity can lead to lost opportunities for the nation, for individuals and communities.
Drawing on research from an ARC Discovery Grant project From Stranger to Citizen, Associate Professor Haggis and co-researcher Associate Professor Susanne Schech found that refugees frequently expressed an ongoing degree of shock from their reception.
She said it is a particular problem for Middle Eastern arrivals: anticipating a humanitarian, welcoming attitude, they instead found hostility and suspicion, and were treated as anomalies, especially if they were strict Muslims.
“While the regimes in Iran and Iraq may not have been liberal-democratic, these people came from highly technocratic, highly educated, affluent societies which drew on ancient cultures, and did not see themselves as lacking,” she said.
“The refugees need to be recognised as what and who they are, which is in their minds pretty much the same as you or me.”
Provision of very basic housing and second-hand clothing often leaves refugees in a dilemma, Associate Professor Haggis said: “They arrive with nothing and so are very grateful, but they also see it as shaming and a reflection of their misrecognition.”
Associate Professor Haggis said the objectives of settlement need a new emphasis on the potential social and economic contribution of asylum seekers and refugees to the nation.
“What settlement processes need to focus on is providing education and other forms of support in a way that recognises their existing education, skills and capacities. By assisting in areas such as English language skills and qualification recognition we can rapidly re-establish people as highly functioning individuals,” she said.
“We need to shift our view of refugees from a problem to an opportunity.”
Also speaking at the symposium was Flinders University’s Emeritus Professor Riaz Hassan, who presented his research on the incidence and motivation of suicide bombings, numbers of which have increased in South Asia in recent years.
Professor Hassan said that his research shows that the causes of suicide terrorism lie not in individual psychopathology but in broader social conditions, with a genesis in intractable, asymmetrical conflicts.
“Understanding and knowledge of these conditions is vital for developing appropriate public polices and responses to protect the public from this heinous form of violence,” Professor Hassan said.