Creating a more inclusive economy by investing in refugees

23 June 2016

How can we ensure that refugees are welcomed to Australia and given the opportunity to participate in our society?

A UNHCR report predicting refugee resettlement states that in 2017, over 1.19 million displaced people globally will be in need of resettlement. Australia will accept at least 13,750 of these people through its offshore program, with an additional 12,000 people arriving from the Syria crisis—our largest refugee intake since World War II .

Our research and experience with programs has shown that having a job that matches their skills and qualifications is critical for refugees and asylum seekers. As well as providing income, employment can help migrants to develop social connections, language and cultural understandings, stability, self-reliance and confidence.

Welcoming refugees requires an up-front investment of public funds in strong programs and policies to make the labour market and business environment more inclusive.

The benefits of including refugees then continue to flow across generations. A 2011 study by the late Professor Graeme Hugo showed that the second generation of refugee settlers in Australia have a much higher level of labour force engagement than the first generation. The report also showed that many refugees have the personal attributes normally associated with entrepreneurship: a propensity to take risks, not to accept the status quo, and to take advantage of opportunities.

Some of Australia’s best known entrepreneurs came from refugee backgrounds , such as Westfield founder Frank Lowy, investor Huy Truong, and businesswoman Tan Le. And including refugees in the economy can have significant benefits at a large scale. In Europe, where migration flows dwarf those of Australia, a new report by the Open Network shows that investing 0.09% of GDP in refugees would yield an increase of 0.84% of GDP by 2020.

Refugees can boost productivity, create jobs and stimulate trade and investment. The IMF has also published a report around the refugee surge in Europe that argued that ‘the sooner the refugees gain employment, the more they will help the public finances by paying income tax and social security contributions’.

A publication by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection affirms that people from refugee backgrounds represent a resilient and adaptive workforce that can assist businesses to meet the needs of a diverse customer base and expand into new markets. Refugees and people seeking asylum also bring skills and international experience: the Brotherhood’s Given the Chance program has supported many participants who have arrived in Australia with qualifications in sectors such as architecture, education, psychology, geology, electrical engineering and banking.

But we still have a long way to go: Recent ABS data centered around the personal income of migrants shows that even after 10 years in Australia, the average refugee struggles to earn more than $25,000 per year—well below the current national minimum wage. On Census night in 2011 , only 40% of refugees who had arrived since 2000 were in the labour force and of these, 8.7% were unemployed. Those who are employed may have their skills and experience wasted: a 2006 study on the segmented labour market in twenty-first century Australia showed that recently arrived refugees were mostly employed in cleaning, aged care, meat processing, taxi driving, security and building, representing a ‘massive loss of occupational status’.

Welcoming refugees requires an up-front investment of public funds in strong programs and policies to make the labour market and business environment more inclusive. Such programs include supporting having refugees' qualifications and experience recognised , helping them develop language skills , and addressing bias in recruitment processes. This will ensure that Australia continues to reap the long-term economic and social benefits from our long history of investing in refugees.

Written by John van Kooy, a researcher at the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

Read Tony Nicholson's blog on the benefits of a more inclusive society

Find out about our Given the Chance program.

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