From surviving to thriving: inclusive work and economic security for refugees and people seeking asylum

Date 07 December 2016
Location University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria

As global forced migration continues to grow, research into the recruitment barriers, support needs, and long-term economic contributions of humanitarian migrants has revealed insights that can inform policy and programs. This research forum brought together migration scholars, sociologists, applied researchers and community sector practitioners.

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Logos of the University of Melbourne, Melbourne Social Equity Institute

Decent, secure and satisfying work is vital for achieving positive settlement outcomes for refugees and people seeking asylum. However, there is a gap in Australia between critical scholarship and service provision, and between scholarly analysis and government definitions of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’. 

The forum aimed to:

  • amplify the voices and lived experiences of refugees and people seeking asylum as research participants and subjects
  • raise awareness of current thinking and practice on supporting employment and economic security for refugees and people seeking asylum, and
  • foster research collaboration between universities, community services sector, business and government.

The forum was hosted by the Brotherhood of St Laurence Research & Policy Centre, in partnership with the Melbourne Social Equity Institute at the University of Melbourne, and The Australian Sociological Association (TASA).

It was moderated by Peter Mares, a prominent public voice in debates on refugees and social justice, a Contributing Editor of Inside Story and Adjunct Fellow at the Swinburne University Institute for Social Research.

Forum program

Read the program (PDF, 2.6 MB) including presenter profiles


Lived experiences of refugees and people seeking asylum 

Dr Nadera Hayat Burhani, Dr Jawid Hakemi & Alex Haynes, Melbourne Refugee Studies Programme

From surviving to thriving (PDF, 208 KB)

This presentation will discuss the genesis of a research project that is being led by people seeking asylum in Melbourne. The researchers will discuss their journey as community development professionals and how their research project is embedded within their own experiences of seeking meaningful work in Australia. Additionally the use of partnerships and collaboration with the Melbourne Refugee Studies Program, the ASRC (Asylum Seekers Resource Centre) and the Community Development Professional Networking group will be shared. The presentation will highlight the importance of harnessing existing knowledge of refugee and asylum seeking communities as primary researchers in the area of seeking employment.

Prof. Jock Collins, University of Technology Business School, Sydney

Refugee entrepreneurship in Australia: one strategy to overcome refugees blocked labour market mobility (PDF, 1 MB)

One important response to the high unemployment rates and blocked labour mobility of refugees is to start up their own business. This presentation reports on findings of two current research projects into refugee entrepreneurship in Australia: a survey of refugee entrepreneurs, with a focus on Hazara refugees who own businesses in Adelaide, and an action research project designed to assist newly-arrived refugees in Sydney to start up a business.

Dr Caroline Fleay, Centre for Human Rights Education, Curtin University

Unsettling assumptions about people seeking asylum and their access to employment (PDF, 104 KB)

This presentation will explore some of the employment experiences of people seeking asylum who reached Australia by boat in 2010. After spending lengthy periods in immigration detention, many were finally released into the community with the right to work and granted permanent protection visas. Drawing on the few studies that explore their experiences after their release from detention, and several extensive interviews conducted for a new study on employment experiences, this presentation will unsettle public and political claims that people who arrived by boat at this time continue to have limited employment prospects. It will also highlight some strategies they have adopted to access employment.

Practice perspectives on settlement and employment services

Ms Abiola Ajetomobi, Innovation Hub, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC)

Systematic and deliberate approach to empowerment and leadership development of people seeking asylum (PDF, 748 KB)

Improving long-term employment outcomes for people seeking asylum and refugees is often unlikely unless innovative approaches are taken. There is a real need for organisations to develop mechanisms for leadership capacity building to empower people seeking asylum to contribute at all levels of program delivery, program design and program evaluation. However, this participatory approach is often said rather than done. Abiola will present ASRC's approach to ensuring people seeking asylum have influence and involvement in the programs and services that impact their lives and how their contributions are necessary to determine and advance their own futures in a symbiotic way. She will also discuss the leadership capacity building initiatives, the outcomes and learnings of the ASRC Innovation Hub.

Ms Catherine Hemingway, WEstjustice (Western Community Legal Centre)

Not just work: ending the exploitation of refugee and migrant workers (PDF, 2.6 MB)

The WEstjustice Employment Law Project seeks to improve employment outcomes for newly arrived and refugee communities in Melbourne’s western suburbs. Building on a period of research and consultation, the project has delivered two pilot programs over the past two years: an employment law service and a community legal education program. Data and stories gathered were documented in a final report, Not just work, launched in November 2016. In this session, the report author and Senior Employment Project Solicitor at WEstjustice will talk about the key findings and recommendations.

Mr John van Kooy, Brotherhood of St Laurence Research and Policy Centre

Beyond matchmaking? Rethinking labour market assistance for people seeking asylum (PDF, 3.6 MB)

People seeking asylum with the right to work in Australia face complex disadvantages in the labour market, regardless of the education, skills and experience acquired in their home country. They typically have limited access to local job information, and few opportunities to develop crucial networks. Without evidence of local work experience, they also find it difficult to compete with other job seekers – even for entry-level jobs. In this context, programs and services that build asylum seekers’ labour market ‘know-how’ can act as critical bridges to mainstream employment. The Brotherhood of St Laurence program Given the Chance for Asylum Seekers assists participants to navigate labour market demands, obtain crucial work experience and training, and develop local contacts and networks. The presentation will explore the opportunities and challenges of developing an employment model for asylum seekers within a tight labour market and a constrained policy environment. 

Refugee employment and pathways to settlement 

Assoc. Prof. Val Colic-Peisker, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University

Is there a problem with refugee employment in Australia? A review of research evidence (PDF, 2.2 MB)

In the mainstream perception, fed by a section of the Australian media, humanitarian entrants are often seen as a burden to the taxpayer and people who are likely to be welfare dependent. Yet the reality is quite different and more nuanced, as shown by research evidence. Refugee arrivals often cannot use their skills and formal qualifications and are channelled into unattractive job niches that Australians avoid. In this context, they are a critical workforce in a number of regional towns whose key industries are saved by the ‘regional resettlement’. The presentation will discuss some key aspects of the refugee ‘employment problem’. 

Assoc. Prof. Alex Reilly, Public Law and Policy Research Unit, University of Adelaide

The Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) and narratives of protection (PDF, 555 KB)

There is a disjuncture between public attitudes to economic migration and attitudes to refugees. Australia has had high levels of permanent and temporary economic migration for over 20 years, with very little opposition from the public. On the other hand, the community is deeply divided over Australia’s policy on refugee processing and resettlement, with a bipartisan hardline stance accepted by a majority of Australians. The Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) offers the prospect of a new narrative to embrace those in need. But there are dangers in this new narrative. As currently framed, the expectations of refugees on a SHEV are unrealistic and there is a risk of setting up SHEV holders for failure. Can the SHEV be reformed to offer an effective pathway to resettlement? 

Dr Martina Boese, Department of Social Inquiry, La Trobe University

Refugee employment in regional Victoria: practice perspectives from service providers, local government and labour market intermediaries (PDF, 473 KB)

Many refugee arrivals are either directly resettled in regional Australia or relocate to regional locations for work or other reasons. What roles do local governments, service providers and employers play in relation to these jobseekers? This presentation draws from focus groups with government, business and community sector representatives in regional Victoria, which were conducted as part of a three-year research project on regional settlement of visible migrants and refugees. 

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