Barriers to formal and informal supports for refugee families in Australia


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Content type
Short article

April 2017

This article was written by Vicky Saunders, Steven Roche, Morag McArthur, and Erin Barry; Institute of Child Protection Studies, Australian Catholic University

Refugee families often experience a range of challenges prior to and during their resettlement in Australia. These challenges may be underpinned by the experience of traumatic, violent or life-threatening situations prior to or during their resettlement journey. Upon resettlement, families find themselves in a new culture with unfamiliar social systems and changing family roles and dynamics, which may lead to parenting difficulties and family conflict (Saunders & McArthur, 2012). Alongside trauma and mental health issues, concerns may include language barriers, access to employment, meeting medical and health needs, and accessing education and housing.

A study conducted in 2013-14 by the Institute of Child Protection Studies and the Australian Centre for Child Protection aimed to provide in-depth and contextualised data about how services may better support refugee parents to care for their children. Funded by the Department of Social Services, the study used a mixed-methods approach. This included 50 semi-structured interviews with 25 families from a refugee background who had resided in Australia for between one and ten years, and were living in South Australia or the ACT. Additionally, a national online survey was conducted with 98 service providers working with refugee families. These included specialist services funded under the Settlement Grants, Humanitarian Settlement Services and Complex Case Support program; as well as mainstream services funded by the DSS Communities for Children initiative.

The study found that while most families are resilient, and feel positive and grateful to be living in Australia, they also experience challenges relating to the amount, type and quality of informal and formal parenting support they receive. Informal supports include extended family, neighbours and strong social networks; while formal supports include mainstream services and specialist migrant and refugee services.

Families discussed barriers to building social networks, including incidents of racial discrimination, and young people spoke about difficulties with peers and teachers at school. Some children and young people also identified that parents need to adopt new parenting practices, if their behaviours are not in line with mainstream community practices. Female participants found that cultural and religious values limited their capacity to access informal social supports within their community, to learn English and gain employment.

Most families reported using multiple formal services when they first arrived, which decreased over time. Some parents who had been in Australia for longer periods still felt socially isolated, and continued to rely on the relationships they had built with the specialist migrant and refugee services they were linked with upon arrival, even where they were no longer officially eligible to use these services. These services were familiar to families and often employed people from local communities, who they were comfortable seeking assistance from. Interview findings with families suggested that mainstream services often did not refer on or assist refugee families to access other services, which was problematic if families were not also well-engaged with a specialist service. Parents identified that barriers to formal services included a lack of knowledge about what services are available, particularly for parenting support and family assistance; and language difficulties, particularly when interpreters are not available. Some felt stressed and confused by the unfamiliarity of complex service systems.

This study highlighted how critical both informal and formal supports are to refugee families resettling in Australia. It found that strong extended social networks reduce social isolation and allow families to share resources, such as knowledge and practical support, with the quality of the connection being more important than the size of the social network. Collective approaches to parenting and family life were helpful for families entering into existing ethnic communities, and for those with extended family already in Australia. Families also rely on formal services for income support, legal assistance, health and medical services, housing, and education for both children and parents.

Access the full report on the Institute of Child Protection Studies website: Refugee Communities Intercultural Dialogue: Building relationships, building communities

Further reading and resources


Saunders, V., & McArthur, M. (2012). A Scoping Study: Research with Refugee Parents and their Children. Canberra: Institute of Child Protection Studies.

Saunders, V., Roche, S., McArthur, M., Arney, F., Ziaian, T. (2015). Refugee Communities Intercultural Dialogue: Building Relationships, Building Communities. Canberra: Institute of Child Protection Studies, Australian Catholic University.