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Support key for Central American refugees

AAP logoAAP 22/09/2016 Belinda Tasker

Glenda Mejia remembers all too well her family fleeing as refugees from El Salvador across the world to a new home in Australia more than two decades ago.

It was 1992 and her parents were desperate to get Glenda, then 20, and her three younger siblings away from the civil war gripping their homeland in Central America to the sleepy town of Toowoomba, in Queensland's south east.

"It took time to feel safe," recalls Dr Mejia, a senior lecturer in languages at Melbourne's RMIT.

"Our house in Toowoomba had a glass sliding door and we were afraid of someone breaking in. The windows didn't have bars on them, so it was kind of a surprise."

Dr Mejia praises the support she and her family were given from a local Anglican church support group, which helped them with English lessons, school enrolments and jobs.

She said similar support will be vital to help a new batch of refugees from Central America integrate into Australia under a plan announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull this week.

It is not yet known how many refugees Australia will take in from a centre being set up in Costa Rica under a US-led program to help cope with a mass exodus of people fleeing gang-related violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

"We were guinea pigs," Dr Mejia says of her family's arrival in Toowoomba under a special humanitarian program.

"I'm not saying there wasn't any racism but we were just lucky to be really well received by Anglo Australians.

"We integrated really well because we of the way we were welcomed to this country."

Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson has raised doubts about Australia taking in refugees from Central America while tens of thousands of others are waiting closer to home in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

"It would be more appropriate for Australia to support them," she told AAP.

"That's not to say there's an acute humanitarian need in Central America but it would be easier for them to integrate in the US where there are large Central American communities already."

Australia took in 75 refugees from El Salvador in 1983 under a special humanitarian program following the outbreak of a civil war two years earlier.

Another 10,000 Salvadoreans were accepted between 1983 and 1986, some of whom lived for long periods in Costa Rica and Mexico before entering Australia.

After a United Nations-brokered peace deal ended the civil war in 1992, migrations from El Salvador to Australia slowed.

There were 9651 El Salvador-born people living in Australia in 2011, census data shows.

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