Bendigo refugee services willing and able to extend help to Manus Island asylum seekers

The Papua New Guinean courts have demanded their detention centre close and the Australian government is refusing to have them resettled in New Zealand.  

So what if Bendigo was to open its doors to the 600 asylum seekers languishing on Manus Island?

While there are no indications the men may be Bendigo-bound – the federal government has vowed they will never be resettled in Australia, and the state decides where Victoria’s refugees are homed – social services in central Victoria have said they have the skills and capacity to welcome more refugees, like those on Manus. 

Loddon Campaspe Multicultural Services executive officer Kate McInnes said the number of men left stranded on the Papua New Guinean island was “quite small” compared to the refugee population settled in the Bendigo region in recent years. 

“There's no reason Australia, even Bendigo, could not settle this number of people,” she said.

Cultural diversity in Bendigo still lagged behind the state average, she said; according to data from the last census, just 25 per cent of residents in the region were born, or have a parent that were born, overseas. 

Across Victoria that figure is closer to 55 per cent. 

High rates of migration and resettlement in Bendigo would bolster the city’s claims to multiculturalism, the LCMS head said. 

While some Australians argued there were not enough homes or jobs for new arrivals, Ms McInnes said that simply was not the case. 

"Medium and large-sized businesses, they'd go out of business if not for our newly arrived work force,” she said.

“We need more people to run our economy and grow our economy.” 

While the city once experienced a shortage of general practitioners, migrant doctors who arrived in the past decade filled that gap, Ms McInnes said.  

Bendigo also had a steady stream of affordable rental vacancies, she said. 

There was also a will among community members to assist newly arrived residents to settle in the city. 

Helen Musk and Di O'Neil

Helen Musk and Di O'Neil

Di O’Neil, part of Grandmothers Against Detention of Refugee Children, said she believed locals would open their homes to asylum seekers while they acclimatised to life Down Under. 

Several community groups in Bendigo offered practical assistance to migrants, from walking with them to school to accompanying them on doctor’s appointments. 

And helping a refugee did not mean leaving the existing community to languish, Ms O’Neil said.

She believed those extending a hand of help to newly arrived Bendigonians already supported in-need locals.   

“I can understand people are concerned about what local people aren’t getting, but it doesn't counter the need to treat other people with respect,” the retired welfare worker said. 

Funding for detention camps could be redirected to refugees resettled inside Australia, so no new financial burden would be created, she said. 

In Bendigo, the first port-of-call for new arrivals is the city’s community health service.  

For the past eight years, Bendigo Community Health Services has offered support to newcomers from their first day in the region until the fifth anniversary of their arrival.

Those supports included thorough health check, connections to education services, housing assistance and links with faith-based or sporting communities. 

It was a thorough process, but one cultural diversity and relationships manager Kaye Graves said could be expanded with enough notice. 

But it was not just the refugees who needed preparation for life in Bendigo; Ms Graves said pre-existing residents also needed to learn about from where their new neighbours came.  

“We need to build our community’s capacity to understand the person’s refugee background and experience, the torture and torment they may have experienced,” she said. 

The health worker believed Bendigonians were well-acquainted with the refugee experience because of their interactions with Karen people from the Thai-Burmese border, along with Somali, Pakistani and Afghani refugees. 

The City of Greater Bendigo is among dozens of Australian municipalities to register as a “safe refugee zone” with the Refugee Council of Australia. 

The symbolic agreement commits the local government to welcoming refugees into the community, upholding their human rights, demonstrating compassion for refugees and enhancing cultural and religious diversity in the community

Bendigo services are not the only regional Victorians offering to help solve the crisis on Manus Island.

The mayor of Indigo shire, Jenny O’Connor cited her city’s “welcome refugee zone” status as reason for writing to Canberra, demanding politicians home the Manus men in Australia. She also told Fairfax Media other mayors should follow suit. 

Indigo mayor Jenny O'Connor

Indigo mayor Jenny O'Connor

The Greens party member used Twitter to call the Prime Minister’s refugee stance “immoral” and “craven”.

“We should support refugees, no matter how they come to Australia, and the treatment by the government of these people goes against the ethics and morals of many people they claim to represent,” Cr O’Connor told the Border Mail.