When the federal government blithely sets the annual immigration rate, including in it a significant number of refugees, it clearly does so without giving a toss for either the needs of those who are brought in or the needs of the existing communities into which they are settled. Unless it starts to invest considerably in this number there is a very big risk that Australians will not only remain opposed to further immigration but that immigration will continue to contribute to a range of gut-wrenching social problems as well as Australia’s economic growth.

This particularly applies to refugees. Refugees differ from other migrants in a number of ways; they often don’t have local family connections and support or the skills that would guarantee employment. They also haven’t planned to come to Australia in the way that others might have and are often severely traumatised by their experiences at home.

This means they need extensive government assistance, and so do the suburbs expected to take large numbers of them. Traumatised schoolchildren who are years behind in educational attainment do not make it easy for classmates and teachers, however sympathetic. The same goes for parents. With the exception of some limited assistance for counselling and trauma, it is very difficult to see where the federal government has contributed to meeting refugee needs. As usual the states get counted out of the population and immigration debate but are left picking up the pieces.

At a recent seminar I attended in South West Sydney for the African Family Safety Project, the irresponsibility of our refugee program was forcibly brought home. Domestic violence is rife in parts of this community and it and their leadership groups are struggling, almost unaided, to cope with it. The community’s efforts to contain family violence are fought at every turn by their own demons and the NSW and federal government’s refusal to recognise that it needs to be dealt with now before another ghetto of crime and disadvantage is established.

SydWest Multicultural Services, which ran the seminar, receives some funding from the Women’s Policy Office but little else. The seminar’s main focus was with mostly Sudanese refugees who came from Africa under Australia’s Humanitarian program. In the four years from 2002-03 to 2006-07 escapees from the Sudanese civil war accounted for a quarter of our intake. They included boys who had been soldiers, girls and women who had been raped, men who had been tortured, men and boys who had fought for their lives and killed. Eighty-two per cent of these people have little or no English language. Why should we be surprised that there might be difficulties establishing them in metropolitan Blacktown, where they have been sent?

There was good and bad news from the seminar. The good news was the presence of men at the seminar and a general agreement that domestic violence was wrong and should be stopped.

The bad news was that this is going to be difficult. We are talking about intensely traumatised people. Some will be silent, others will act. But there is also the culture gap. Some male participants complained about the nature of the Australian welfare system and what they saw as its preferential treatment of women. In the space of a few days these families had been transported from violent and lawless refugee camps or traditional community life in rural villages to brick veneer homes and welfare incomes in Anglo-Celtic Sydney. In Australia, welfare income is mostly given to mothers rather than fathers. Refugee women are in frequent contact with community services where men are not included and many men felt community service providers were breaking up their families by telling their wives they had the right to walk away from a marriage that made them unhappy. It was the men who were isolated and powerless, they said, and domestic violence was retaliation.

Male frustration was compounded by the generous youth allowances provided to their children once they turned 16. It meant their children could defy them (I assured them they were not alone in this) and traditional family respect was broken.

As the meeting progressed it was clear that for this community, the dramatic transition to Australia, lack of work for men and the power of the welfare dollar had become a diabolical cocktail. Official letters and phone calls from polite Department of Community Services workers were clearly not cutting it with families desperate for some face-to-face contact with people prepared to listen to them. One young man pointed to a poster on the wall. “That poster is a lie. It says Australia is a multicultural country. It is not. We were not told our ways would not be respected, that there was only one rule and that was the Australian way,” he said.

“My wife was encouraged to leave me when she should stay.” Others agreed.

There are hundreds of changes we need to make if we are serious about averting a social disaster in Blacktown and anywhere else that has to deal with a very different group of newcomers, especially if they are traumatised, unable to find work and struggling to bridge cultural divides. If we do not we will spend the next 20 years digging our new citizens out of the ghettoes to which we have condemned them and addressing crime and social dislocation.

While a theoretical discourse about the most desirable population size rages in the remote political echelons of Canberra, a city with strikingly few refugees of Sudanese or Afghani extraction, real Australia has to get on with the job of dealing with it. A little less theory and a lot more practical assistance would make the intellectual vanity of the population debate easier to take.