Refugees, migrants at greater risk of drowning are being urged to learn to swim

Thu, 29 Apr 21

Refugees, migrants at greater risk of drowning are being urged to learn to swim

Refugees, migrants at greater risk of drowning are being urged to learn to swim - ABC News

Teaching adult migrants and refugees how to swim should be part of welcoming new arrivals to help prevent tragic deaths, according to water safety experts.

Sixteen people, all born overseas, have drowned in the past 10 years in the Coffs Harbour region of NSW, according to Royal Life Saving Australia.

The Coffs Coast is a major resettlement area for migrants and refugees.

These figures have prompted the CEO and founder of Aquatic Tutoring Australia, Grant Lawler, to improve the swimming capacity and competency among this high-risk group of new arrivals.

Mr Lawler commented that one of his Yazidi swim students summed up their transition to life in Australia quite well:

"When you come to Australia you need three things, you need to get a job, get a drivers licence and learn to swim," he quoted.

Mr Lawler said there were wonderful community services in the Coffs Harbour region, but there was a lack of support for adults to access aquatic experiences.

"Children get vouchers from the government to pay for swimming lessons, whereas adults do not," he said.

Cost was not the only barrier. Language, cultural differences and time were also preventing migrants and refugees from taking swimming lessons, Mr Lawler said.

"A lot of people are out blueberry picking or doing some sort of labour to support their families and it is really hard to access swimming lessons," he said.

Refugee lawyer and Aqua English founder Sarah Scarce agreed most of the focus was on children when drowning statistics were "very high" among adults.

"We couldn't help but notice the drowning fatalities that were happening, particularly in South East Queensland, and the correlation between drowning, injury and fatality and either being an international student, refugee or migrant," Ms Scarce said.

"Swimming is an integral part of Australian culture and it is life and death."

Confused by the pool signs

Ms Scarce, who has been teaching language and swim classes for 15 years, said there was a "hidden language" around the pool.

"There are sub-cultural skills in addition to language skills required in the water," she said.

Swimming pool signage of 1.5m water depth for the pool
Some signs around pools are not at eye level or easily understood by non-English speakers.(

ABC Coffs Coast: Claire Lindsay


She said simple things such as signs around the swimming pool can be confusing to non-English speakers, and many signs are not at eye level but down low and out of sight.

She said that of her swimming students, the men generally had no risk strategy around water.

"They'll go into the deep water without connecting that they have to come up," she said.

Whereas women behave quite differently around the water, "sweating profusely, trembling and shaking," she said.

Ms Scarce said Aqua English classes were about entering the water safely and being able to breathe properly, blowing out air "instead of sucking it in" and being comfortable underneath the water.

two men in a pool holding on to the pool edge smiling
Participants have to interpret Australian instructions, such as treading water, which may not exist in their culture.(

Supplied: Aqua English Project


"If they're stuck in a rip they can float," Ms Scarce said.

"If we're lucky we can turn that float into survival back stroke."

Swimming for good health

Royal Life Saving's national manager for research and policy Stacey Pidgeon said drowning prevention programs were fantastic but needed to be combined with broader health and wellbeing outcomes.

"Sometimes communities don't understand the value of learning to swim," Ms Pidgeon said.

Ms Scarce agreed the wider health benefits of one or two hours in the water were cathartic and appealing to many people.

"You don't have to worry about visa status or whether you're going to put food on the table tonight," she said.

'Cultural reckoning'

Ms Scarce said a lot of people coming out of refugee camps had been in informal learning settings their entire lives and were not always literate with technology, computers or even their own language.

Islamic swimwear worn by three women holding a surfboard
Aqua English partners with multicultural community organisations to design culturally appropriate swimwear.(

Supplied: Aqua English Project


She said one option to the language barrier could be installing technology at swimming pools to deliver multilingual instructions, at the push of a button.

Along with English and communication issues, migrants could also be put off by a lack of appropriate swimwear and a less-than-welcoming front desk, she said.

"Sometimes that front desk person can make or break a program," she said.

Ms Scarce said two brothers from Lebanon had proved the difference when it came to forming relationships with communities at the local swimming pool.

"We've seen the intake of those from Arabic speaking backgrounds go up because they know when they go to the pool, someone is bilingual there," she said.

"You need to want to create relationships and WOMO [word of mouth] is the most powerful way of doing that."

When it comes to drowning prevention strategy, Ms Scarce said it was about breaking down the statistics and working backwards.

"Which particular nationality are drowning? Where are they drowning? What age group is drowning? What gender is drowning?" she asked.

Ms Scarce said a multifaceted, collaborative approach was needed to assist members of the community who were most at risk of drowning, as the problem could not be fixed by one organisation alone.

Posted MarMarch 2021

Tags: ABC, ABC Australia, ABC Coffs Coast, Coffs Harbour, Aqua English, Water, Refugees, Migrants, Yazidi, Drowning Prevention, Adult Swimming, Water Safety, English As Second Language

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