Jobs for refugees: Why it’s time for a new approach in Australia

Australia has had a knack of settling people. In the postwar period, we successfully settled millions of migrants into the Australian community, including hundreds of thousands of refugees. These new Australians have fled persecution and become integral parts of one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world.

One of the reasons Australia became a leader in post-arrival resettlement was our ability to get people into work, refugees especially. We knew the best way to help refugees to rebuild their lives was to help them find work. The refugees Australia has resettled have proved to be among the most entrepreneurial and talented members of our society. Australian Taxation Office data shows refugees draw 10 per cent of their income from business earnings, more than any other migrant category.

But Settling Better, a report released earlier this week by the Centre for Policy Development with the support of The Boston Consulting Group, suggests that an inability to get refugees into work soon after they arrive has become the Achilles heel of Australia’s settlement record. We are letting these people down. The findings in the report build off a Centre for Public Impact roundtable in Melbourne last August with experts and policymakers from Australia, Germany, Canada and the US.

A missed opportunity

Australia’s poor performance in getting recent arrivals into jobs is further evidence that the mainstream employment services are failing the very people who most need help. On the best available data, only 17% of refugees are in paid work after 18 months in Australia. The outcomes for other highly disadvantaged jobseekers are not much better. Although employment prospects for refugees improve with time, the social and economic prize on offer if Australia can get refugees into jobs faster is enormous. Better job outcomes will strengthen social cohesion and help reduce alienation and extremism — not just among refugees, but also among those established members of the Australian community who might fear or resent the presence of newcomers.

The economic dividend is also significant. If the labour market outcomes for just one year’s intake of humanitarian migrants improved by 25% , then over the subsequent decade those new arrivals would be $466 million better off and the Australian government would bank $176 million in budget savings. To achieve this outcome year on year would compound the benefits — $2.5 billion for new arrivals and almost $1bn for the government

Time to think again

But we won’t improve at all unless we concede business as usual has failed. We need to act now as the economy changes, demand for low-skill labour drops, and our humanitarian programme grows. A new approach to refugee employment and settlement services would do three things.

First, it would invest in effective programmes to overcome the five principal barriers to better employment results uncovered in Settling Better. They are limited English, a lack of work experience, poor health, limited opportunities for women, and having only been in Australia for a short amount of time. Targeted employment assistance for humanitarian migrants isn’t a panacea for recent arrivals, let alone other jobless Australians. But it is the right place to start. The experience gained getting more refugees into work will generate innovative policy approaches that can improve services across the board.

Second, the new approach would leverage overseas best practice. This means enhancing private and community sponsorship within the humanitarian programme (as in Canada), introducing trial programmes for faster recognition of existing skills (as in Germany), and developing microfinance options that could be of particular benefit to women and their families (as in the US).

Finally, this problem won’t be fixed by outsourcing responsibility, but rather by consolidating it. There must be a clear centre of gravity for post-arrival settlement services in Canberra. One single government department, ideally the Department of Social Services, should own social cohesion and integration for refugees. And it should start by fixing employment services for these new arrivals. Funding must be connected with integrated service delivery at a local level, and government should work in tandem with non-government organisations to achieve impact on the ground.

The stakes are high. Unless results improve, Australia will cease to be an exemplar of settlement services for refugees. Over time, the social compact that supports a large immigration programme could fray. That’s a cost that a diverse, open and prosperous Australia cannot afford.


This article previously appeared in The Australian


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