Belonging and engagement in migrant communities – Scanlon social cohesion survey findings 2022

The Scanlon Foundation Research Institute’s latest annual Mapping Social Cohesion Report was released late last year. It found that the sense of national pride and belonging has declined to its lowest level since the survey began in 2007. However, the report also indicates that while the sense of belonging at a national level has declined, social cohesion at the neighbourhood level was resilient, particularly amongst culturally diverse communities. This FlagPost explores some issues in the report’s findings related to migrant communities and sense of belonging.

The report discusses factors involved in whether people experience a sense of national belonging. A major one is financial security – people who ‘describe themselves as poor or struggling to pay bills report substantially lower levels of national pride and belonging, material and emotional wellbeing, social inclusion, and participation’ (p. 6). While not the leading indicators, language background and experience of discrimination are also of interest when looking at factors relevant to migrant communities.

Language background and belonging

It might be expected that new migrants to Australia may feel less of a sense of national belonging than people born here. The survey found that this is the case, but particularly so for migrants whose first language is not English – this group had levels of belonging 4.4 points below the national average (see Table 5 on page 20). The effect decreases with time spent in Australia – migrants whose first language is not English who have been in Australia for over 20 years had a higher sense of belonging than those who arrived less than 10 years ago (3.0 points below the national average compared with 6.2 points below, as illustrated in Figure 1).

Figure 1                Average belonging scores by length of time spent in Australia and first language, 2022 survey (National average = 0)

Average belonging scores by length of time spent in Australia and first language, 2022 survey (National average = 0)

Note: The value for the column ‘20+ years, first language is not English’ is mislabelled; the correct value of 3.0 is given in the text of page 19.

Source: James O’Donnell, Mapping Social Cohesion, Scanlon Foundation Research Institute, 2022, 19.

In general, people born in Australia had a sense of belonging 1.1 points higher than the national average. However, the results also show that people born in Australia whose first language is not English had a sense of belonging at 7.0 points lower than the national average. The report does not offer a further breakdown of this group, and it may be too small to draw any reliable conclusions in the context of the survey results.

According to data from the 2021 Census, under 1.5 million people born in Australia speak a language other than English at home (8.7% of those born in Australia). The largest groups of these people are young – 36.4% were aged under 10 years and are likely the children of new migrants. Across all age ranges, this group also includes not just speakers of migrant languages other than English, but speakers of Australian Indigenous languages and Auslan users. Note that the Census uses ‘language spoken at home’, whereas the Scanlon survey distinguishes whether a participant’s ‘first language’ is English or not.

The Scanlon survey sample includes only people aged 18 and over, so the ‘sense of belonging’ result in this case is possibly capturing the longer-standing migrant communities where generations born in Australia have grown up with close community linguistic ties but may have found it more difficult to form an identity as part of ‘mainstream’ Australia.

Discrimination, belonging and engagement

Experience of discrimination is another relevant factor in the sense of belonging: people who experienced discrimination in the previous 12 months ‘based on their skin colour, ethnic group, or religion’ score lower than the national average on belonging (–2.7 points, p. 71). People of migrant background appear to be more likely to experience discrimination: 35% of people who speak a language other than English, and 24% of people born overseas, reported discrimination, compared with 16% overall (p. 40). However, again note that some of these groups could also include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and that people in majority groups, such as people of Christian faith, may also report experiencing discrimination.

In a finding the report labels ‘striking’, the experience of discrimination may be associated with people who are more socially aware and more politically active. People who reported experiencing discrimination were significantly more likely to have engaged politically and socially, such as through community groups or providing unpaid help (p. 71). This may indicate they feel well-connected to their local communities and neighbourhoods if not to the nation as a whole.

People who reported experiencing discrimination were significantly less likely than the national average to agree that ‘accepting immigrants from many different countries makes Australia stronger’, a measure that had 78% support across all survey participants (p. 71). This may reflect their experiences and awareness of aspects of society where cohesion is less consistent.

The local level

The report includes a section on interviews conducted in selected local government areas of high cultural and linguistic diversity, which indicates that diverse communities ‘are vibrant, cohesive, and well-connected places’ (p. 84). Communities felt that the local responses to the COVID-19 pandemic helped bring people together. However, the effects of the pandemic, including health issues, lockdowns, and ongoing mental health impacts, have added to stress factors in the communities.

Although economic pressures are highlighted as a key concern, the report does not examine other possible factors such as the impact of recent natural disasters on communities and the effectiveness or otherwise of government or local responses to these.

These survey results indicate that there are further issues to explore in how the migrant experience, language background and discrimination are perceived and reflected in social cohesion as part of national identity. People whose first language is not English may face more challenges in feeling acceptance and belonging at a national level, but their experiences may also point to stronger engagement, awareness and participation at a community level.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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