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Housing problems harming the health of refugees in SA: research

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The majority of asylum seekers and refugees living in Adelaide believe their current housing situation is harming their mental health and wellbeing, new research reveals.

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Flinders University’s Belonging Begins At Home report shows more than three-quarters of refugees and asylum seekers in Adelaide have experienced problems in their current house and more than 80 per cent feel their housing situation negatively impacts their health and wellbeing.

The report, funded by the Australian Research Council and conducted in partnership with AnglicareSA, the Australian Refugee Association, Baptist Care SA and Shelter SA, is the first of its kind in Australia to examine how housing experiences can affect the health and wellbeing of people with refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds.

Key housing problems identified in the report include cost, size and layout, poor housing condition, a lack of heating and cooling and concerns about safety.

Asylum seekers and refugees also reported experiencing difficulty finding a house with the majority citing cost, transport issues, lack of Australian references and problems sourcing a suitably sized house for their family as key barriers to securing appropriate tenancy.

The study’s lead researcher, Associate Professor Anna Ziersch, said sourcing housing could be a particularly stressful experience for refugees and asylum seekers.

“It can take quite a while for asylum seekers or refugees to navigate Australia’s housing system and many are forced to stay in accommodation that’s not practical for them in terms of size and security,” she said.

“These experiences come as people are also trying to find work, settle their children into school, learn a new language and culture and often deal with trauma and loss.”

Twenty-two per cent of the study’s survey participants reported incidences of discrimination in Australia because of their ethnicity, religion or skin colour.

The report also revealed two-thirds of people who had lived in Australia for seven years or less had resided in more than one house since arriving.

Ziersch said this was because the majority of refugees and asylum seekers were living in private rental housing with short-term leases.

“The mobility issue and tenure insecurities are having a big impact on refugee and asylum seekers’ wellbeing,” she said.

­­­­­“You have women finding a place, settling their kids into a school and building connections and support bases in the community and then having to relocate just a couple of months later due to short-term leases.”

Ziersch said difficulties settling into Australian society were also having a negative impact on refugee and asylum seekers’ mental health.

“Mental health is one of the standout things from the report and it’s being impacted by different things like visa difficulties or security issues,” she said.

The report also cited social isolation, family separation, housing situation and past trauma and hardship as key issues impacting refugee and asylum seekers’ mental health.

Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Service clinical services manager Ana Maria Holas said conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were often exacerbated when refugees and asylum seekers encountered housing problems in Australia.

“When a person comes here as an asylum seeker, one of their hopes is to be able to find that sense of belonging and home as they deal with their grief and loss,” she said.

“If someone experiences difficulties sleeping because his or her sleep is interrupted by images of traumatic experiences then that can be exacerbated if they’re then worried about if they will find a safe house or have enough money to find a house.”

Holas said women were particularly disadvantaged when it came to dealing with housing uncertainty.

“Women can be under enormous pressure to get accommodation for their children and if you don’t speak the language and you’ve only been [in Australia] for a very short period of time… it can be really difficult.”

Mehdi Safaei moved to Adelaide from Iran with his partner two years ago and said he was glad to leave his original Housing SA assigned accommodation.

“It was good to move because refugees are given houses in a Housing SA area. We have to live with drunk people, loud people…they were a bit noisy and they were our neighbours,” he said.

“When we moved to [our current house] we were two [people] and now we are three – we have a little boy so it’s a little small but [we have] good neighbours.

“We have some friends with skilled visas and it’s really difficult for them because they don’t have a reference or it’s a problem because they move in maybe three months or six months to a different house.”

Adelaide’s Somali Community Council president Abdullahi Ali Ahmed said Somalian refugees often found it difficult to find housing in Adelaide big enough to accommodate families of seven members or more.

“The vast majority of people are unemployed and they might wait years to find accommodation for their family,” he said.

“Often they have no choice but to have a family of 10 people living in a house of three bedrooms because they can’t find something else.

“There are lot’s of health risks as they are not modern houses that they can afford but old houses with only one toilet for 10 people and [the houses are] not easy to maintain.

“This affects their general wellbeing and mental health definitely.”

Ali Ahmed said people in his community often suffer from isolation due to cultural differences between Somalia and Australia.

“In Somalia lot’s of people do what’s considered here as trespassing. They walk into other people’s houses and have a meal or socialise but here you have to stay in one spot and organise a community meeting to get together.

“People are not engaged and socialising with each other [and] that’s causing isolation.”

Shelter SA chief executive Dr Alice Clark has called on the next State Government to address the issue of housing for new arrivals, saying everyone should be entitled to “basic human rights.”

“Housing plays such a crucial role to health and wellbeing [and] we need to do better as a society if we want to increase the social and economic participation of new arrivals in this state,” she said.

“This is not a third world country, we need to move towards providing housing for everyone who needs it.”

The Belonging Begins at Home report included a list of recommendations to reduce the negative impact of housing on people with refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds.

These included increasing welfare entitlements, broadening eligibility for social housing and rental assistance schemes, providing private rental liaison officers and improving transport support.

The report also recommended cross-cultural and trauma-informed training and accreditation of real estate agents, property managers and government and non-government support providers.

“Many people don’t understand the impact of trauma that these people have gone through so we need to improve that understanding so we can better support these people when they come to settle here,” Ziersch said.

“This is a national issue and we need to address this not only here in Adelaide but across the country.”

Read the Belonging Begins at Home report here

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