Australia 'reaps rewards' from investment in refugees

Studies show refugees are entrepreneurial and will often open their own small businesses, similar to this Asian grocery store in Cabramatta, western Sydney. Source: Getty Images

Evidence currently on the Immigration Department's website demonstrates refugees bring significant economic rewards in the long-term.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton appears to have ignored information already in his department's possession about the contribution refugees make to the Australian economy.

Mr Dutton came under fire on Wednesday for claiming that refugees were illiterate and innumerate, even in their own languages, and would take Australian jobs or end up on relying on welfare.

However, a publicly available report undertaken for the Immigration Department in 2011, found refugees were able to overcome challenges, like poor education and language, to become contributing members of society.

The research was conducted by the late Graeme Hugo, who was a researcher with the Australian Population and Migration Research Centre.

The centre's acting director, Helen Feist, told SBS News refugees across Australia's migration history had been able to become "net contributors to our society, not net users of services".

"If we took a short-term view, yes [refugees] need a lot more support, they have a lot more troubles with English and education levels than we would prefer from a migrant group," Dr Feist said.

"But if you take a longer-term view, in fact, Australia can reap rewards from having a strong support for a migrant population. 

"We know that the youth – 16 to 25 – have high attendance levels at school, they often have better outcomes from higher education," she said.

"And second generation migrants – children from refugee migrants – often have much better outcomes than even their Australian-born counterparts."

Dr Feist said refugees tended to be quite entrepreneurial and willing to do jobs Australian-born workers shied away from.

"You’ve got to remember that people that flee their country, that choose to settle in another country, generally tend to be risk-takers," she said.

"We do find that there are higher levels of starting their own businesses, of being engaged in economic activity that sort of fits outside the square of just finding a job.

"We’ve also found that a lot of study in rural and regional Australia shows that they’re filling jobs that Australians don’t necessarily want to do in what we call the 'three D' employment opportunities: the dirty, dangerous or demeaning jobs. And they’re highly prized in a lot of regional areas as good workers willing to do the type of work that people struggle to find Australians to do.

'If you take a longer term view, in fact, Australia can reap rewards from having a strong support for a migrant population.' 

"They certainly have a niche – whether you call that skilled or low-skilled or not skilled, it certainly fills a niche for Australian industry."

Dr Feist said the school participation of refugee children was very high, but more research was needed to see why that did not translate into higher employment rates for people aged 18 to 24.

"Unemployment rates tend to be about the same as they are for Australian-born youth, but in the short-term they’re probably twice as high as they are for Australian-born youth," she said.

However this research is not reflected in Mr Dutton's comments, nor in those of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop who emphasised how expensive it was to educate refugees while defending Mr Dutton on Sky News.

Dr Feist said it could be difficult for governments to focus on the long-term, particularly during an election cycle.

"It’s very expensive, it’s very time consuming, it's resource-intensive in terms of needing people to be able to provide that assistance, especially with things like language," she said.

"But I do think as long as we take a long term view of what the outputs are going to be – the outcomes of that – then Australia is going to be in an advantage."

Refugee Council of Australia chief executive Paul Power said in a statement Mr Dutton's comments were confused and offensive.

"Mr Dutton’s comments are not only incoherent, they contravene the evidence substantiated by the contributions of hundreds of thousands refugees who have contributed to our country," he said.

"In accusing refugees of being unemployable while simultaneously taking Australian jobs, Mr Dutton makes a bizarre non-sequitur.

"The fact that this political attack is coming from the Minister responsible for Australia’s refugee program makes it even more offensive.

"Refugees settling in Australia need a strong and constructive advocate in the Australian government, not cynical political operatives that misrepresent their circumstances for short-term political advantage."

Mr Power said statistics showed "rates are relatively low during the initial period of up-skilling, but in a relatively short time refugees are very active in the workforce and in developing small businesses".

"Recent research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that, in the longer term, refugees are more likely than other groups of Australians to be developing small businesses, creating jobs and building economic opportunities for others.” 

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