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Housing new migrants

By Jieh-Yung Lo - posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009

At a time of unprecedented discussion about the cost and availability of suitable housing in many parts of Australia, it is important to remember that new migrants and refugee communities are among the most disadvantaged when it comes to accessing safe and affordable accommodation to meet their basic needs.

Consultations with various organisations have identified a marked upsurge in the number of concerns being expressed about insufficient and unsuitable housing available for low-income and socially disadvantaged communities such as refugees and humanitarian entrants. Some of the concerns mirror those of the broader population. Furthermore, the difficulties confronted by the unique socio-economic status of these communities are compounded by barriers in the form of racial and religious discrimination, exploitation and intimidation.

Particularly pressing among these communities is a shortage of suitable dwellings for larger households such as families with four or more children. The consequences of this shortage are profound and being felt right now. As well as forcing families into living conditions with inadequate space and amenities for the number of occupants, school children are finding their capacity to learn and develop severely curtained.


Refugee families, especially those from the Horn of Africa and Sudan, are usually larger than the average Australian family, and they often have extended family members living under the same roof. With an already limited number of houses accessible to refugee families of any type, it is even more difficult these larger families. This is especially the case because most new housing stock being constructed is designed for small family units consisting of parents and one or two children.

An “at risk factor” policy should be reviewed for disadvantaged communities in urgent need of housing. The New South Wales Government currently employs an “at risk factor” policy, where approved applicants can become eligible for higher priority on the housing waiting list once they have demonstrated an “at risk” status through relevant documents.

One example is women entering the country as refugees on the subclass 204 visa. These women are eligible for consideration for priority housing in a special “refugee women at risk” category after they have presented stamped proof of their 204 visa in their passports. A greater investment should also be made available to facilitate an increase in the quantity and improvement in the quality of transitional housing available for specific use by newly arrived migrants and refugees in line with current and future immigration and humanitarian intakes.

The limited number of available public and social housing for large families means many refugees and new arrivals are forced to compete for homes in the private rental market, in spite of their inherent economic disadvantage and limited knowledge of the vagaries of the private marketplace. This vulnerability is manifested in a number of ways, including exploitation in the form of higher than normal rental costs, and instances of implicit and explicit discrimination.

While the impacts of the current housing shortage and tightening economic situation affect all prospective home owners and renters, the challenges are magnified for members of new migrants and refugee communities, particularly those from non-English speaking backgrounds. Factors range from the psychological to the financial, and are not easily remedied in the short term. For instance, the experience of many years of displacement, emotional abuse, trauma and grief, can severely impact on a refugee or humanitarian entrant’s ability and eligibility to obtain and retain adequate housing. Their lower than average socio-economic status also forces many refugees and new migrants to accept more marginal housing conditions.

Capitalistic practices mean many low-income earners find that they are at a serious disadvantage when competing for housing in the private rental and ownership market. For instance, many recent arrivals are unemployed and find themselves competing against working couples. A general lack of understanding of the housing industry and of tenancy laws is also highly problematic, along with a lack of references and rental history. The experience of new migrants and refugees in accessing properties is particularly strained, however, through instances of discrimination based on language, race, religion, migration status and financial circumstances.


As tenancy laws vary from state to state, tenant protective measures are highly ambiguous. This is a major obstacle to tenants of all backgrounds, but doubly more confusing for new arrivals who are often already unclear about their rights and responsibilities. This situation leaves new migrants and refugees highly susceptible to incidents of discrimination and exploitation. According to the Refugee Council of Australia, exploitation not only occurs while refugees and new arrivals are in private rental housing but also when they are ending a lease. Unfortunately, the fact that many new arrivals find accessing housing incredibly difficult means victims of unfair or unlawful practices are often reluctant to report their experiences, and will go to great lengths to ensure they do not get a bad reference.

Many new arrivals from refugee backgrounds also experience difficulties recovering their bond. Some tenants have reported incidents of landlords who penalise tenants for the whole amount of their bond for minimal damage, pre-existing poor conditions or damages that are the landlord’s obligation to repair. Once again, refugees are often reluctant to challenge decisions of landlords through tenancy tribunals or find these processes too time-consuming, lacking in resources or difficult to navigate. Given the number of times most new migrants and refugees move house, the inability to recover the bond from one property to reinvest in their next home represents a significant increase in cost. Urgent policy protection is needed to reduce the risk of discrimination, intimidation, and exploitation experienced by these already vulnerable groups.

Access to information about the private property market is particularly poor among new migrants and refugees from non-English speaking backgrounds. It is not uncommon for a significant proportion of newly arrived refugees to have low levels of literacy in their native languages as well as English. Many refugees have also experienced years of displacement with little or no access to education. Person to person information sessions are regarded as a useful means of communication and engagement for new migrants and refugee communities.

While the housing crisis generally has been blamed on immigration levels by the Housing Industry Association, it is immigrant communities that often bear the brunt of housing shortages. The Rudd Government’s expanded National Rental Affordability Scheme greatly increased the numbers of rental properties across Australia providing a boost for households on low and moderate incomes. However, issues such as discrimination and misunderstanding still remain. As part of the Rudd Government’s social inclusion agenda, the investment into key community education and engagement programs such as providing new migrants and refugees with a greater knowledge of the housing sector and cultural awareness training sessions for real estate agents should be encouraged.

All Australians deserve accessible and affordable housing. From what I have seen, I am confident that the Rudd Government will rise up to the challenge.

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About the Author

Jieh-Yung Lo is a Melbourne based writer and Associate Producer of the upcoming documentary film New Gold Mountain - Your Chinese Australia.

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