When we think of regional cities in Australia, some of us might think ‘close-knit’, ‘conservative’ or ‘resistant to change’.
Us new research transpose these stereotypes.
For four years, we have examined the attitudes of a regional city before and after hundreds of refugees settled in the area. Our surveys showed that residents of Armidale, in northeastern New South Wales, were initially quite positive about the Settlement Program and became even more positive.
Over time, they became less concerned about the impact of refugees on the city, interacted more with the refugees, and had a more positive attitude towards refugees and the settlement program.
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After a lengthy process, Armidale was selected in 2017 as the regional base for the Australian Refugee Program under the Turnbull Government. Since 2018, the city has welcomed some 650 Ezidi refugees, increasing the city’s population by almost 3%.
Ezidis are a religious minority, mainly from northern Iraq, Syria and Turkey, and are also referred to as Yezidis or Yezidis. They have been persecuted for centuries, including most recently by the Islamic State (or ISIS), which genocide committed against the group mid 2010s.
There are several elements in the equation for successful refugee reception. Responsive, hospitable communities is an important part.
We documented shifts in Armidale community attitudes toward refugee settlement through six consecutive surveys. Each surveyed about 200 residents, drawing a new sample each time.
Initially, the main concerns were whether there would be enough jobs and whether local facilities were adequate.
The opinion of the residents changed significantly about the number of refugees they were allowed to accept. The number of residents who thought the number was ‘too high’ decreased and the number of people who thought it was ‘too low’ increased.
But of course the sentiment was not uniformly positive (or negative).
Residents’ views on the number of refugees coming to Armidale over time
We segmented the community to identify clusters of attitudes among like-minded people towards refugee settlement. Initially there were four clusters, which we called ‘enthusiastic’, ‘positive’, ‘worried’ and ‘resistant’. Enthusiastic and positive formed the majority.
Over time, the positive clusters expanded and the negative clusters got smaller. At the last survey, our most negative cluster was actually positive towards the refugees. We’ve renamed it “cautious”.
Residents’ contact with Ezidis increased as time went on and was viewed mostly positively, with residents saying that Ezidis were “friendly”, “grateful” and “polite”.
The last three surveys also re-interviewed participants from previous surveys to examine changes in attitudes at the individual level. As with the community surveys, participants had a more positive attitude over time.
On average, the biggest change was in people who initially had reservations: those who started negative became more positive. People who started positive stayed positive.
A model for regional settlement
It’s tempting to think of Armidale as an outlier in regional Australia. Armidale was said locally to be ‘special’ – highly educated, multicultural, welcoming.
But when we compared Armidale with other similar areas in regional Australia there were few differences.
Armidale was fairly representative in socio-demography and attitudes to immigration and multiculturalism. Contrary to expectations, Armidale even scored slightly lower on social cohesion and on having multicultural neighbourhoods. However, we found that Armidale improved on all multiculturalism indicators during the settlement period.
Read more: Resettling refugees in other countries is neither reliable nor fair. So why is Australia doing it?
Our research showed that Armidale gradually adapted and embraced the refugee settlement program, a challenge stereotypes of regional Australia.
The study took place at a time of disruption to the Armidale community from the impact of a severe drought followed by the COVID pandemic. Nevertheless, the community became increasingly positive, a result that speaks to the hard work of many people and organizations, and the efforts and strengths of Ezidis to establish themselves as they build a new chapter of their lives in Australia.
If Armidale is representative of inner regional Australia, which it appears to be, our results are promising for refugee settlement in other regional cities.