Between 2008 and 2010, the SettleMEN study followed a cohort of 233 recently arrived men from refugee backgrounds living in urban and regional areas of South East Queensland with the aim of documenting their health and settlement experiences. This report presents the key findings of the study.
Of the 233 participants, 76% were living in Brisbane (urban settlement) and 24% in the Toowoomba–Gatton region (regional settlement). The majority (74%) were born in Africa, 13% in the Middle East, and 13% in Southeast Asia (Burma). At the baseline interview, participants ages ranged from 18 to 69 years (mean=32). They had been in Australia for an average of 24 months (range= less than one month to 57 months). All participants settled in the regional area were African-born. Compared with men living in urban areas, those in regional areas were significantly more likely to be single, have lived longer in Australia, report good levels of English language proficiency, and to have lived most of their lives in rural areas or in refugee camps. At the end of the study, the overall attrition rate was just 10%. This small drop-out rate reduces the chances of non-response bias and strengthens the validity of the study.
Overall, the SettleMEN study has found that, despite their recent traumatic history, this group of recently arrived men from refugee backgrounds report good levels of subjective health status and mental health, low prevalence of health risk behaviours, and moderate to good levels of wellbeing. However, wellbeing in the psychological, social relationships, and environment domains decrease significantly over time. Although men settled in regional areas appear to be healthier and happier than those living in urban areas, they show a greater decline in their levels of wellbeing in the social relationships and environment domains. Men in regional areas also experienced more difficulties in accessing health care services.
Most SettleMEN participants reported healthy levels of family functioning, and for those who were married (or living together) the majority were happy with their relationship. However, making decisions about financial matters, including how to support their relatives overseas, was a common source of family conflict. Although a slight majority of participants reported more traditional beliefs about the role of men and women in society, their attitudes towards gender roles varied. Overall, tensions regarding how to reconcile their traditional cultural roles with the roles of men here in Australia were common. Also common were concerns about police and government representatives’ direct intervention in parenting issues and family conflict, and the lack of acknowledgement of the mediating cultural role of extended family and community elders in these situations. Most men reported high levels of social support and social trust. Although most aspects of social trust increased over time, bridging relationships with people from other cultural backgrounds decreased over time. At the initial interview, men in regional areas were more likely to report healthy levels of family functioning, feel confused about what was expected from them as men in Australia, and were more likely to trust and be trusted by their ethnic communities. The longitudinal data reported a greater increase over time in the levels of trust towards and from neighbours, workmates, the media, and the wider Australian community among men living in regional areas when compared to those in urban areas.
A considerable number of men had either obtained tertiary/trade qualifications overseas or were undertaking tertiary studies in Australia upon resettlement. Many, however, reported negative experiences while studying at Australian institutions, including learning difficulties (English language ability, literacy, numeracy, and computer skills), poor interaction with and inadequate support from lecturers, and experiences of discrimination from lecturers and fellow students. Negative educational experiences were more common among regional participants. This group of men reported high levels of unemployment and significant barriers while trying to secure work in Australia, including discrimination.
A considerable number reported an income below the estimated poverty line for a single person in Australia. Most of those working were employed in low-skilled and low-paid occupations, which many believed were below their level of skills and qualifications. Regional participants faced even greater discrimination and difficulties participating in the labour market. Family, friends and community networks were an important source of information about work and one of the most successful strategies to find employment. Dissatisfaction with employment services was common.
Mixed findings emerged from the experiences of life in Australia. Commonly acknowledged important sources of support were government departments, settlement services, own ethnic communities, and educational institutions. However significant challenges for men’s successful settlement were the language barrier, difficulties finding work, lack of own transport, acculturation stress, financial difficulties, and difficulties finding housing. Most were paying high rental fees relative to their limited income.
Reported experiences of discrimination were widespread and not limited to the housing market, but also in the neighbourhood, on the street and public places, from the police, and in stores and restaurants. Men in regional areas were significantly more likely to report racism and discrimination. Also, although most participants reported positive interaction with police, men in regional areas felt particularly targeted by police, especially while driving a car.
In general, the men rated their subjective social status within the low to mid ranges in terms of educational institutions, workplace, in their own ethnic communities, and in the broader Australian community. When compared with men in urban areas, their social status in the wider Australian community decreased significantly over time among men in regional areas. Issues such as low income, unemployment and discrimination influenced not only their assessment of their social status but also their sense of control over their lives, which decreased significantly over time. This decline was greater among men in regional areas.
Despite the challenges encountered while living in Australia, most participants, in particular those living in regional areas, felt that their lives were getting better. However, repeated failed attempts to find and secure a good job, financial difficulties and experiences of discrimination impacted markedly on men’s satisfaction with life in Australia.
One of the most important implications of the SettleMEN study for policy makers, employers, service providers, and host communities in general are the pressing needs to tackle barriers to economic participation and to reduce discrimination. Economic participation in particular underpins the wellbeing and successful integration of men from refugee backgrounds with important positive flow on effects for their families and the whole Australian community. Discrimination in rural and regional areas is a particular challenge that requires specific targeted strategies and whole of local government approaches. From a policy and service provision perspective, there is a need to examine models of best practice implemented in other regional areas across Australia. This is of particular relevance given the emerging evidence that some regional areas have been able to overcome the challenges of diversity and provide better settlement outcomes for refugee communities.