Published daily by the Lowy Institute

#WorldRefugeeWeek: How Australians feel about refugees

We concentrate on the costs and ignore the benefits refugees bring to Australian society and economy.

Sri Lankan asylum seekers en route to Australia (Photo: Flickr/RobyGoes)
Sri Lankan asylum seekers en route to Australia (Photo: Flickr/RobyGoes)

Results from the 2017 Lowy Institute Poll reveal how Australians feel about refugees being settled in Australia. Almost half (48%) of the 1200 Australians surveyed believe that refugees currently in Nauru and Manus Island detention centres should never be settled in Australia (versus 45% who agree they should be settled in Australia). Moreover, almost 40% see asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat as a ‘critical threat’ to Australia’s interests.

These views towards resettling refugees may come as a surprise, given a finding from last year’s poll that was conducted at the height of the refugee crisis. The 2016 poll found a significant majority (62%) of Australians supported the government’s announcement to resettle 12,000 Syrian refugees in Australia.

Taking these two results together suggests that, when it comes to refugee resettlement, Australians are not immune from the NIMBY phenomenon. We think we should lend a hand in an international crisis, yet we are also cautious about hosting large numbers of culturally-different foreigners on our shores.

The ambivalence that Australians feel about refugees might be influenced by the never ending stream of terrorist attacks around the world. Another poll result this year is that 68% of Australians rate 'international terrorism' as the number one 'critical threat'.

The refugee-terrorism discussion is in no small part influenced by the rhetoric beyond our borders – Donald Trump Junior’s skittles analogy comes to mind, and his father’s executive orders aimed at banning immigration from certain countries. The same debate is also happening in Europe, and after the recent terror attack in Brighton, Victoria, so is Australia.

These are all conversations that we need to have - as is the discussion of how to handle failed asylum seekers in an expeditious and humane manner. But if we step back for a minute and take some heat out of the argument, we find that when considering the refugee issue through the public policy cost-benefit lens, we often miscalculate. As a society, we seem to be predisposed to think of taking in refugees as a sacrifice. One more demand on our strained national budget. We concentrate on the costs and ignore the benefits refugees bring to Australian society and economy. And there is no better time than Refugee Week to examine the considerable gains – both economic and social – that refugees bring to Australia.

Compared to other migrants in Australia, it is true that economic outcomes such as earnings and labour force participation rates tend to be worse for refugees. According to 2011 Census data, only 32% of humanitarian migrants were employed with an annual median income of approximately $28,000. These results should, however, be considered in line with education and language skills. Only one in four refugees reported having formal education and one in three humanitarian entrants reported speaking English ‘not well’ or ‘not at all’.

And for those refugees that do find jobs, the Census data suggests they are industrious and ambitious, working their way up into highly skilled occupations the longer they stay in Australia.  Some 64% of refugees who had jobs and had been in Australia less than a year worked in low-skilled occupations. By the time they have spent a decade in Australia, more refugees are in high skilled occupations than in medium or low skilled jobs.

The difficulties they face finding paid employment also prompts many refugees to look for other ways to provide for their families. In 2011-12, around 8500 humanitarian migrants in Australia reported $149 million in income from their own unincorporated business. The Census data suggests almost one in five (18.5%) of humanitarian migrants end up starting their own business, making them the most entrepreneurial group among all migrants.

Again, the likelihood of refugees starting their own business seems to increase with time, probably because they acquire the social and financial capital needed to move into entrepreneurship. The graph below illustrates this, with the proportion of humanitarian migrants that reported income from their own business increasing after five years of residence, and at a much faster rate than the migrants from the skilled and family visa streams.

These two graphs reflect the desires of most refugees fleeing atrocities. They want to be earning incomes and to forge a new life for themselves and their families. Instead of viewing refugee resettlement through a ‘security’ or even a ‘responsibility’ prism, refugees can and should be seen as a useful resource to help power economic growth in Australia.

How can we better utilise their entrepreneurial skills and grit to aid our economy? What are the tools that would help refugees to improve their employment prospects and integration, allowing them to thrive and contribute to our workforce?  These questions should also be front and centre in the national debate about refugees in Australia.

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