Dr Jessica Stroja from Griffith University argues that churches and faith-based organisations have played an important and under-recognised role in refugee resettlement.
The world is currently facing a mass refugee crisis, and over the past decade, the number of refugees seeking assistance has drastically increased. While distanced from overseas sites of displacement, Australia is still deeply involved in the ongoing effects of this situation, with the complexity of government policies and public reactions to refugee arrivals regularly sparking discontent and controversy. This is not the first time Australia has engaged with the mass movement of refugees. Following the Second World War, the world experienced the largest mass refugee movement that had occurred to date, and Australia accepted more than 170,000 of these Displaced Persons for resettlement. Drawing on both diverse archival sources and more than 50 oral history interviews recorded by the author has led to the development of the first longitudinal study of Displaced Persons’ resettlement experiences in Queensland. It also provides key insights that can illuminate aspects of challenges faced by refugees.
Resettlement for refugees in Australia following the Second World War was complex, and refugees were regularly expected to abandon their past and assimilate into their new surroundings. While the date and the source of displacement may have changed, refugees arriving in Australia today face many startling similarities to the experiences of the Displaced Persons who arrived in this country after the Second World War. After arrival, many post-war displaced family members were separated – the possibility of which still weighs heavily on aid agencies today. Displaced Persons also found themselves in government accommodation deeply reminiscent of their prior encampment or incarceration, while today, concerns surrounding the conditions placed upon refugees and asylum seekers in detention are regularly raised.
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have only complicated the resettlement journey for refugees and their families. In fact, the need for additional assistance to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic has been clearly identified. In May 2020, the Parliamentary Library published an update acknowledging that refugees and asylum seekers living in the Australian community on temporary and bridging visas are not eligible for the Australian Government’s full range of economic support measures. Charities and not-for-profit organisations that support refugees in Australia recorded a surge in requests for assistance from refugees unable to access assistance during the pandemic. An open letter from the Refugee Council of Australia addressing this issue was signed by 218 charities, organisations, and advocacy groups – of which 50 were churches/places of worship or religious/faith-based organisations.
Churches and faith-based organisations affiliated with churches played a crucial role in the resettlement of Displaced Persons in Australia following the Second World War. Using the resettlement of Polish, Latvian and Ukrainian Displaced Persons in Queensland as a case study, it can be seen that refugee families in locations that lacked extensive, established migrant support networks relied on religious organisations for practical assistance during resettlement. Records held by the Lutheran Archives show that Lutheran Churches helped relocate separated family members when government requests for assistance were denied, and provided dedicated accommodation to migrants and refugees. Importantly, as documents held by the Archives of the Archdiocese of Brisbane show, the establishment of ethnic churches also provided refugees with the opportunity to worship in the language and faith of their choosing.
Interviews conducted by the author with Displaced Persons who were resettled in Queensland reflect the important memory of ethnic churches as central locations where both religious services and community events were held – they became a way for ‘a lot of people [to meet] up with friends who were scattered all over Brisbane. It was their way of getting together’. Even more importantly, these religious organisations became a way for refugee communities in Queensland to understand their resettlement. This was realised through the ongoing connections between ethnic churches and cultural observations that had been oppressed in Europe.
These organisations clearly played a practical role via the assistance they provided to refugees. Yet they also allowed refugees to come to terms with their trauma and loss, and became a place where refugees could negotiate the intense emphasis on assimilation and anti-refugee attitudes present in some locations. In fact, some refugees such as Halina, a Polish Displaced Person, felt refugees could maintain key aspects of their cultural identities because of the clergy appointed to ethnic churches and religious organisations as they ‘were the people who didn’t let this [assimilation] happen’. Many ethnic churches supported refugees’ ongoing cultural engagement and were supported more broadly by their Anglo-Australian counterparts – as key records held by the Baptist Archives of Queensland show. The practical assistance provided by these organisations, combined with social communities that refugees viewed as central to these ethnic churches, reveals a comprehensive network of support that was developed via ethnic faith-based organisations. It also provided a stark contrast to the way social workers framed some refugees as ‘problem cases’, instead providing displaced families with ways to negotiate trauma, engage with aspects of their religion and culture, and continue their journey of resettlement.
Faith-based organisations clearly have an interest in the seriousness of the situation facing many refugees in Australia today. Beyond their commitment to the Refugee Council of Australia’s open letter surrounding refugee assistance, numerous local places of worship have become involved in the issue, and organisations such as the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce provide ongoing engagement of the sector in this space. Yet there still remains little broader recognition of the critical role these organisations can play in the ongoing resettlement of refugees in Australia.
The historical case study that sparked this piece provides a crucial lens through which scholars, practitioners and the community can understand the relevance of engagement with religious observances for refugees as a central place of community, heritage expression and negotiation of assimilationist influences. It allows us to understand that the development of ethnic church communities not only provided pastoral care to Displaced Persons, but also contributed to feelings of solidarity among refugees. These organisations were central locations that provided a space to engage with other refugee families. Yet they also fulfilled an important practical role in the absence of formal assistance services provided by government departments and organisations. Understanding the role of churches and faith-based organisations within refugee resettlement is crucial when considering the long-term impact of historic events on displaced families, but it is also critical for refugees displaced from their homes due to contemporary crises.
This project has received funding from the Australian Historical Association, Copyright Agency, and National Archives of Australia under the Australian Historical Association-Copyright Agency Early Career Researcher Mentorship Scheme and the National Archives of Australia-Australian Historical Association Postgraduate Scholarship.
I would like to acknowledge the staff at the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research who supported my research, including Dr Robert Mason, who encouraged me to apply for the Early Career Researcher Mentorship Scheme, and Associate Professor Bruce Buchan, who acted as my mentor during the Scheme.