Refugees on welfare: the real numbers

File image Source: AAP

New data shows the number of refugees on payments, such as the dole, compared to the rest of those on welfare is comparatively low.

As at March 2017, 4.1 per cent of those receiving payments such as Newstart, Parenting Payment, Youth Allowance, Carers Payment and the Disability Support Pension were refugees.

There were 103,487 refugees on these welfare payments, compared to the total of 2.5 million people on those of working age benefits.

However, experts say refugees may be over-represented among the welfare population when compared to those working.

Peter Whiteford from the Australian National University Crawford School of Public Policy says on an analysis of the 132,400 arrivals between 2002 and 2011, refugees on welfare may be over-represented by more than four to one as a proportion of the working age population (0.86 per cent).

But he argues that shouldn’t be a reason for not taking in refugees, and the over-representation is not surprising given refugees are not selected on the basis of skills like other migrants.

“All the international evidence is that they will not be as successful in the labour market as those who were selected to enter a country on the basis of their skills,” he told SBS World News.

“But this is not the reason why they are taken – which is to meet international obligations and because they were in danger.”

Time on welfare

The data, from the Department of Social Services, also provides a snapshot of the time refugees spend on working-age payments before finding jobs.

It shows almost half of those looking for work in the first year eventually leave Newstart payments after five years.

There were almost 33,000 refugees on unemployment benefits one year after they arrived, but that drops to 21,165 three years into their new lives.

It drops even further five years after their arrival, with 16,895 of them remaining on Newstart.

However, the trend is reversed when it comes to claims on the disability support pension (DSP) and the carers payment.

One year after arriving, 1,750 refugees claimed the DSP. That more than doubles to 4,197 after three years, while after five it jumps to 5,673 claiming the pension. The data relates to refugees who arrived between 2002 and 2011.

Professor Whiteford said receipt of the disability support pension increases with age, and the assessment takes more time than for Newstart.

"So it is not unexpected that there will be an increase over time in the number on DSP," he said.

"Also some people will acquire a disability after they arrive in Australia as a result of accident or disease and will receive DSP some years after they arrive."

Welfare by country of birth

The Department also provides statistics on recipients of welfare payments by country of their birth.

When it comes to the dole, those born in Australia are the biggest recipients of Newstart, followed by those born in the UK, Vietnam, and then New Zealand.

People born in the UK were also the biggest recipients of the disability support pension besides Australian-born recipients, at 30,863 of the 764,960 total. This is followed by New Zealand-born and Vietnamese-born recipients.

Why can't refugees find work quick?

The Department said it’s expected that refugees have poorer employment outcomes than other migrants in the early years of settlement, whether due to a lack of English language proficiency or work experience, or poor health.

“However, this improves over time by learning English and participating in the Australian community,” it said in a statement to SBS World News.

“Helping humanitarian entrants find employment is a priority for Government, as this not only improves their quality of life but reduces the number of people on welfare.”

Organisations that help refugees resettle say while new arrivals have a high level of motivation to find work, securing jobs soon after arriving is difficult.

Requalification barriers 

Settlement Services International (SSI) CEO Violet Roumeliotis says there are many barriers that impede their employment.

“The Australian labour market has never been responsive to, for example, a tiler from Iraq with 20 years’ experience but no certificate to prove it,” she told SBS World News.

She argues refugees aren’t turning up their noses at jobs in Australia which they may be overqualified for in their birth countries.

“The cost of re-qualifying as a dentist in Australia is astronomical, but there are many refugees who will take roles as dental hygienist and technicians, or undertake internships to keep their skills up, until they are able to jump back into their old career,” Ms Roumeliotis said.

In a recent report SSI found taxpayers saved $880,000 in Centrelink benefits by some new businesses it has supported.

But refugees shouldn’t be seen as a ‘return on investment’ because of the circumstances of their fleeing their homeland, she said.

“They’re people who due to extraordinary reasons beyond their control, found themselves needing to ask the world community for help,” Ms Roumeliotis said.

The Australian Council of Social Services said refugees have rights to social security as others in the community.

“We should be proud of providing such assistance to people who have escaped persecution,” chief Cassandra Goldie told SBS World News.

“To force people into absolute deprivation is a cruel act, and as a nation we should oppose it in the strongest possible terms.”