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Adjournment Speech: South Sudanese community

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 15 Jul 2014

I recently met members of the South Sudanese community living in Sydney. It was a most informative meeting. We discussed the challenges members of this community face and I heard of a range of practical measures that would make such a difference to their lives. Members of this community have largely arrived in this country since the mid-1990s through Australia's humanitarian program. Most have settled in Victoria and New South Wales. The total number of South Sudanese living in New South Wales is approximately 6,000 with about 5,000 living in Sydney. According to the 2011 census, nearly half of all South Sudanese who made Sydney their home live in the Blacktown area. Other areas with a considerable number of South Sudanese include Parramatta, Holroyd, Penrith and the Liverpool Council areas. I did find this a very valuable meeting because the people I met with had a range of suggestions on how the people living in these suburbs could benefit from a range of programs that are needed considering they have been in Australia a short time and they are still adapting to Australian life.

Many of these people have experienced trauma prior to coming to Australia. The refugee experience South Sudanese have had before coming to Australia can be characterised as difficult and mostly under inhumane conditions. Life for them in Western Sydney can also be difficult and at times harsh. I was very disturbed to hear about the high levels of unemployment and the difficulties that they find getting work, and at times the racism that they encounter. Significantly, about 75 per cent have taken out Australian citizenship. According to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the unemployment rate among South Sudanese is 28.6 per cent. That compares to about 5.6 per cent among the Australian population. I found that a really alarming comparison. The unemployment rate among these people in Australia is much higher than the Australian average. This needs to be addressed.

At the meeting I held with members of the South Sudanese community, I heard about the low participation rate in the workforce and the high unemployment rate that they face. Many have qualifications and skills gained prior to coming to Australia and have not been able to translate these qualifications and skills into meaningful employment because too often the Australian employment market just does not recognise them. Even after getting some qualifications here through TAFE and university, many still find it difficult to gain employment.

I was very disturbed to hear how common it is for South Sudanese to take jobs below their qualifications and skills. Many who obtain degrees here are forced to take factory jobs because they cannot find the jobs equivalent to their qualifications. The reason given by employers for not employing these university graduates is that they do not have Australian work experience. Some South Sudanese have identified racism as often being a factor in why they get job knock-backs.

The Australian workplace is different from what South Sudanese might have experienced prior to coming to Australia. For example, things like using a computer or answering phone calls are skills that many South Sudanese do not have and they have not had the opportunity to develop them. The Australian workplace culture is not familiar to everyone. This may also mean that some South Sudanese do not quite understand the work culture and how to sell their skills to an employer—for example, how to write up a curriculum vitae dealing with selection criteria and drafting a cover letter showcasing their skills, knowledge and work experience. This could be a challenge for many Australians let alone for people who have recently arrived in Australia.

I detail those aspects of going for a job because this is where assistance can be given to these people in quite an easy and straightforward way. The people I met from the South Sudanese community have some very practical ideas on how these problems that can lead to other complexities in our communities can be addressed. The South Sudanese community leaders I met with really did have a wealth of ideas to overcome the barriers. Some of the things that they suggested included providing job ready training tailored to the needs of the community members that covers computer skills, the use of the phone and how people relate in the Australian workplace. They also spelt out the need for writing skills, particularly how to prepare materials needed when one applies for a job. How to find referees is something that is also needed.

An excellent idea offered was for government departments and private businesses to be recruited into a program that offers job placements. Another suggestion—again, a simple one—that a number of them put forward was how mentoring and volunteering work could help South Sudanese gain the work skills and work experience that can often be the first stage in finding a job. Obviously, volunteering work is something that can increase their employability. The opportunity to foster self-employment and small businesses was also taken up with me. This can open up considerable pathways and is another area where government support could bring considerable results.

I must admit that the issue of housing comes up with many, many communities that I meet with, but this was particularly acute for South Sudanese people. Finding suitable and affordable accommodation is not easy. With a medium income of below $300 a week, South Sudanese families really struggle. They struggle to find housing and they struggle to pay the rent when they do. I have got to say that so often, when reading about the material and hearing about their experiences, it does sound like racism is again a factor in the knock-backs that occur when people apply to rent a place. I was told how real estate agents seem to avoid offering South Sudanese people accommodation. Real estate agents also seem to prefer to offer accommodation to people who can pay a little bit more and who are financially more likely to pay rent on time and on a regular basis.

It is common to hear stories of South Sudanese families in Sydney losing their tenancy about six months into their rental period. The most common reason real estate agents give for termination of tenancy is that the landlord is selling. The other reason real estate agents commonly state for termination of tenancy is unpaid arrears. When a South Sudanese family is evicted, it takes them at least a couple of months before they find accommodation. So what happens in the meantime? In the meantime, they stay with relatives or friends, possibly in one house, or they split up and live in different houses with different people.

The effect, obviously, is that those houses are overcrowded, as friends, colleagues or extended family members take in these people. Sadly, what it sometimes means is that families do break up—they are separated. Overcrowding often leads to conflict between families as the host family or families feel the pressure put on their resources and utility bills. This also has the potential of speeding up wear and tear on the accommodation. So you can see a whole number of social problems flow from that.

The public housing is rarely an option, because of the way it is managed under the New South Wales coalition government. It is getting harder and harder for low-income families to gain public housing in New South Wales. I mentioned the median income for South Sudanese people previously. It comes in at about $300 a week. Clearly, property ownership is out of the question for the majority of these people. Again, members of the community and some of their community leaders have real, achievable solutions here that should be noted. The Department of Housing could employ a worker to work with disadvantaged communities like the South Sudanese community to build trust with real estate agents so that they having an understand on both sides: for those who are renting, it is what their responsibilities are; for the real estate agents, it is ensuring that there are no racist practices creeping into how they conduct their businesses.

The Department of Housing should increase housing stock to ensure that the waiting time for housing is reduced significantly. South Sudanese could be assisted through social housing planning to acquire properties that are affordable and suitable. I certainly acknowledged that they are long-term measures, but they should not be lost sight of. A responsible government would be working with communities who have chosen to seek asylum here and who have been settled here. The assistance needs to continue. Clearly, housing issues need to be addressed. Just with regard to the issue about employing somebody and the suggestion that the Department of Housing could employ a worker to work with disadvantaged communities, it has been suggested that that person could provide tenancy education to ensure that South Sudanese understand how the tenancy system works in New South Wales and to ensure that they know what their rights and obligations are.

South Sudanese cultural and social interactions are somewhat different to what those of us who have grown up in Australia experience. There are simple and immediate measures that New South Wales authorities could take to assist this community with their own development. Again, they are just very practical measures like improving access to community halls and meeting rooms, especially those owned and managed by councils, schools and community centres. This is a very rich community. They want to spend time with members of their community. Sometimes the young people want to be together, sometimes they want to have mixed events or sometimes they just want to hang out together. Facilities could easily be provided. It would not take much organisation and obviously it would be very little cost to achieve this. This would help ensure that South Sudanese community members can participate in positive, culturally appropriate activities.

I do acknowledge that there is an outreach program operating at Parramatta Park, which is one of the areas where many of the South Sudanese community live. It is led by the police, Parramatta City Council and other service providers. To ensure that the outreach program is ongoing, the New South Wales state government does need to provide funding to ensure that activities such as the weekly barbecue or the monthly meetings continue. Members of the committee are concerned in this era when they are hearing about government cutbacks that the funding must be cut back because of the so-called budget crisis. They are very troubled by this and worried that the very few services they have could be lost. That is something else that the government needs to address. It needs to give certainty that those programs will continue. When you consider how minimal they are, clearly they should be expanded.

What is also relevant in this discussion about the needs of the South Sudanese community are the pressures that they are under due to the situation in their own country. This adds a burden on members who are already here because between December 2013 and April 2014 over 10,000 people died, about a million were displaced and there was massive destruction of property and infrastructure in South Sudan.

Remember many of these refugees have only been here for a short time and how stressful it would be to hear about these disputes, wars and destruction going on, not knowing how your loved ones were or what had happened to your neighbourhood and those you had left behind. Reports in recent months that the government of South Sudan has not been paying wages also adds to the pressure. I am hearing about people sending money home to their relatives. These are all issues that are very relevant for the authorities when they are working with this community.

The South Sudanese community in Sydney has been affected by the civil war in many was. At least one South Sudanese who had lived in Sydney was killed in the war. There are many more South Sudanese Australians who are in South Sudan and might have been caught up in the civil war. South Sudanese Australians have lost property and investment, I understand, as a direct result of this war, and many have lost friends, relatives and family members. So the trauma that they had escaped and obviously stayed with them when they sought asylum here was probably reducing to some extent depending on their circumstances, but you could imagine that it is rising again as they hear about what is happening in their homeland, talk about it and try to work out what should be done.

Local South Sudanese have been helping to evacuate family members and relatives from the immediate danger of the war by paying for their evacuation to safety. Financial support is often ongoing, putting the South Sudanese living in Australia under considerable hardship. The South Sudanese I met have some very practical ideas on how the government could respond at the international level to this very worrying dispute in South Sudan. Australia through the Security Council could put pressure on the warring parties in South Sudan to stop the war, supporting the ongoing South Sudanese peace process in Addis Ababa and calling on the parties to negotiate in good faith and address all the outstanding issues without delay. It would help move to a final political settlement. International bodies such as the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam and Amnesty International should be supported to investigate the human rights violations by the warring parties and to bring responsible parties and individuals to justice. That was one point raised very strongly with me as a very practical way a number of international community groups and non-government organisations could assist.

I would very much encourage governments at all levels to engage with the South Sudanese community. I was deeply moved by the stories that I heard about what they have left in their homeland and the work they are undertaking—paid work, volunteer work, work with their community within Australia. As a community that has only recently arrived here, it is under enormous pressure. Racism, sadly, at times is part of the challenges that they face, and clearly we all have a great responsibility to engage with this community, learn from them and work with them so that they can become a rich part of Australia.

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