new research shows refugees trust institutions

With the number of COVID increasing in the multicultural western suburb of Sydney, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard has speculated that the region’s migrant and refugee communities “have not built the trust in government ”, which could make them reluctant to engage with health authorities.

And yesterday Hazzard made another indirect reference to the people of West Sydney saying:

There are other communities and people from other walks of life who don’t seem to think that it is necessary to comply with the law and who don’t really care much about what they do in terms of impact on the rest of the community.

Concerns about the lack of trust among migrants and refugees in Western Sydney institutions – or their alleged disregard for the rules – mirror similar comments from authorities in Melbourne during the COVID outbreaks last year.

Our recent research among refugees in New South Wales shows that these concerns about trust in government are unfounded, especially among recently arrived refugees.

Our 2019 and 2020 surveys reveal that these individuals actually have a very high level of trust in Australian institutions and a high level of commitment to fulfilling their social and civic responsibilities.



Read more: Multilingual Australia lacks vital information on COVID-19. No wonder local councils and businesses are stepping in


What our research reveals

The study, led by Settlement Services International (SSI) and researchers at the University of Western Sydney, explored refugees’ sense of participation and belonging in Australian society.

We interviewed 418 refugees in their preferred languages, reaching a diversity of backgrounds. All of the refugees had permanent residence and those in our 2020 survey had lived in Australia for an average of 24 months.

In the 2020 survey, we found that our respondents had very high levels of trust in government (86% responding “a lot”) and the police (84% “a lot”), with no noticeable difference between women and men. men.

Trust in the media, however, was considerably lower (39% trusting the media “a lot” and 41% “a little”), but still comparable to that of the Australian population in general.

The lowest trust was expressed for members of the wider Australian community, with only 24% saying they trusted these people “a lot”, 45% saying “some” and 10% saying “not at all” “. This was comparable to the results of a long-term study of refugees in Australia.



A typical resident of western Sydney

Muneera, who came to Australia from Iraq, lives in western Sydney with her family and is typical of the refugees we interviewed. Muneera was supported by SSI upon her arrival in March 2019 as part of the Australian Government’s Humanitarian Settlement Program.

Although not part of the research, she was happy to share her story of dealing with COVID-19 during the current lockdown.

With limited English, Muneera obtains COVID-19 information from Arab community social media groups and mainstream TV news. She also relies on her sister, who speaks excellent English, for regular updates on public health restrictions.

Like many other families in lockdown, some of her children have lost their jobs and her son is struggling to attend high school at home without a laptop. Still, Muneera and her family are committed to staying home and understand the need to stay informed and comply with restrictions.



Read more: We need to collect data on ethnicity in COVID testing if we are to bring the Sydney epidemic under control


Why community support is so vital

In our survey, we found that refugees in NSW were highly motivated to fulfill their social and civic responsibilities, including obeying the law, being self-reliant, treating others with respect and helping others. In fact, these sentiments were almost universally shared among our respondents.

They also reported knowing how to get help and access essential services, including how to find out about government services (69% ‘know very well / fairly well’) and, most importantly, what to do in an emergency ( 77% “know very well / fairly well”). They also knew how to get help from the police (78% “know very well / fairly well”).



When it came to helping others in the community, volunteer rates among refugees in our survey declined in 2020 (48%) compared to 2019 (60%), but were still comparable to volunteer rates. (49%) across Australia. community during the pandemic.

All respondents to this survey had permanent residence in Australia, a key factor in enabling their settlement and access to services.



Read more: Understanding how African Australians think about COVID can help tailor public health messages


The refugees in our study were also made to feel welcome in Australia, being part of the Australian community and supported by a range of networks, including their ethnic and religious communities and other groups. At this early stage of their settlement, they found it relatively easy to make friends in Australia, talk to their neighbors, and maintain networks of mixed friendships.

In Western Sydney and other culturally diverse parts of Australia, containing COVID-19 presents multiple challenges, including the rapidly evolving public health advice and the need for accurate information in community languages.

However, the premise that refugees have a low level of trust in institutions or are reluctant to follow the rules is not supported by our research.

People are seen lining up at a COVID vaccination pop-up clinic at the Lebanese Muslim Association in Lakemba, southwest of Sydney.
DAN HIMBRECHTS / AAP

Rather than labeling various communities as lacking in trust, their existing social capital and the extent of their community relationships and networks can be a critical resource in the battle to contain COVID-19, as the example of Muneera shows.

Starting from a position of trust, the challenge is how to effectively activate and fund all the organizations and networks with which refugees and migrants engage in their daily lives.

This should be coupled with clear and consistent messages in the languages ​​of the community, delivered through a variety of channels (including digital) and formats (including video). Peer-to-peer engagement from community members and trusted organizations can be incredibly effective in supporting behavior change and maintaining health and safety.

Targeted mental health promotion and financial support are also essential to ensure families like Muneera’s get the support they need during the pandemic.


The authors’ research on newly arrived refugees will be discussed in a moderated online roundtable to be held on September 9 from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. (AEST). Registration is free, but essential.

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About Linda Stewart

Linda Stewart

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