Contrary to the views being espoused in the lead up to the election, the future prosperity of Australia’s labour market hinges on the participation of immigrants and refugees.
Economic sociologist and Monash University lecturer, Erin Watson-Lynn, tells SBS that migrants and refugees drive “The Three Ps” of economic growth: “population, participation and productivity”.
More than a quarter of Australia’s population was born overseas, and 45 per cent of the entire population has at least one parent born overseas, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Australian migrants and refugees are more likely to be below the age of 40, “meaning they are prime working age,” says Erin. But “labour market outcomes for refugees are worse than for other immigrants, including lower labour force participation rates and higher unemployment rates.”
Refugees as entrepreneurs
“Refugees are entrepreneurial at a rate higher than other immigrant groups,” according to one report. These entrepreneurs include Australian neuroscientist-turned-property-investor-turned-publisher-turned-venture capitalist, Shelli Trung, who was born in a detention centre in Hong Kong and moved to Sydney at the age of four.
“Being a refugee and former migrant, I think that has made me a little bit more pro risk,” says Shelli. “I feel I could have been in worse situations. My parents left their home on a boat to Australia not speaking a word of English. That boat could easily have capsized, but my parents made the journey and survived.
"I don't see what they did as as a risk. It makes you stronger,” she says.
Money was always tight in the Trung family growing up, with both parents working long hours as labourers. Often Shelli’s mother, having begun her day at three or four in the morning, would return from work in the evenings and run a sewing business from her garage.
“The only time I had with my parents was working over the sewing machine,” she says. “I ended up having a really serious work ethic. I work for fun.”
Simon*, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee, co-developed an app called SettleIn, which allows newly arrived refugees to communicate with case workers, share paperwork and documentation, and help plan and set goals to make the “settling in” process less stressful.
He and his team of seven - including Alice Brennan, a British aid worker specialising in psycho-social care for refugees, and Remi Duracher, a volunteer and co-founder of StartupSocial - conceived the idea at the inaugural TechFugees Australia Hackathon in November last year. Simon, Alice and Remi were subsequently accepted into an incubator program at Pollenizer to help get their start-up underway.
Simon tells SBS he helped to develop the app because he wanted to simplify the transition period for other newly-arrived refugees in Australia.
“I want people to learn from my experience,” he says. “If this app had existed [when I arrived], it would have helped me. It would have saved a great amount of time and money.”
Simon's engineering studies were “interrupted by war” in 2015 when he was forced to flee Syria. He has been living in Australia for seven months and has been accepted to complete his studies at Western Sydney University on a scholarship.
Refugees driving the economy
The cost-benefit of upskilling Australian refugees and migrants is not simply a financial incentive, but an economic imperative according to Erin Watson-Lynn.
“Our current birth rate simply does not meet the required replacement rate. It places enormous strain on the public health system, because of an increased dependency ratio,” she says.
“There is actually a risk if we don’t bring in migrants. The dependency ratio is increasing dramatically because of the ageing population; we have to be able to replace these people in the labour market; we have to have taxpayers to support the standard of living we currently enjoy in this country. That is what the risk comes down to.”
The Australian government spends $250 billion a year on social disadvantage, according to The Centre for Social Impact.
“Even I can tell you that’s the worst return on anyone’s investment,” says Innovation Consultant and former public servant Anne-Marie Elias.
There is actually a risk if we don’t bring in migrants.
Anne-Marie has been working at Sydney co-working space Fishburners, forming partnerships with the private sector, not-for-profits and refugee communities, with the goal of providing upwards mobility for the country’s most vulnerable.
Though progress may be slow, there are signs that the private sector is starting to respond to incentives posed by engagement with Australia’s refugee, immigrant and cultural communities.
Merivale recently employed a group of Tibetan refugees to work in the kitchens and train as chefs at their newly renovated Newport Arms Resort, via a newly formed recruitment agency Bright Hospitality, a start-up co-founded by Tim Davies, targeting refugee communities.
Davies and CEO Sharon Flynn tells SBS it has partnered with major brands, including Merivale, Miss Chu and the Q Station, and provides formal training courses at Wesley Mission through which participants are then placed in employment.
“The training opportunities and placements into employment enables refugees to practise their English skills in a learning environment,” says Sharon.
If you're the first to reach out and say 'we’re going to find jobs and back your business and speak your language and help you integrate', I think that would be a tremendous advantage and they will have a lead on competitors.
Sonam Wangmo, a translator and facilitator at the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors, says that language, social isolation and guilt are the three major obstacles refugees must overcome to assimilate into Australian society.
For many refugees there is a “cultural expectation” of stoicism from their own community; that they are lucky to be given asylum and they should accept their lot in life, even if it means living in poverty and social alienation.
Sonam credits refugee employment programs like Bright Hospitality with having an outsized impact on earning potential and cultural integration.
Google app strategist Michael Ascharsobi says it’s important to note that there are many members of Australia’s refugee community who “are either already skilled or have a strong drive to acquire new skills”.
“We can build tech to empower refugees to identify and complete the requirements needed for their skills to be recognised faster, ultimately helping the skills shortage,” he says.
“We can also provide opportunities to those who are eager to learn new skills, developing a generation of skilled professionals.”
And if economic imperatives aren’t enough, Alan Jones, angel investor at Blue Chilli Group, says there’s money to be made for early adopters working with marginalised communities. “If you're the first into these marginalised communities - a provider of internet or financial services, a retailer or a bank - the first to reach out and say 'we’re going to find jobs and back your business and speak your language and help you integrate', I think that would be a tremendous advantage and they will have a lead on competitors.”
*Simon's surname has been withheld to protect his family who remain in Syria.