The price of refuge: What is the truth of Australia’s resettlement story?
The Learning Press EXCLUSIVE
“They won't be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English."
“These people would be taking Australian jobs, there's no question about that."
"For many of them that would be unemployed, they would languish in unemployment queues and on Medicare.”
Peter Dutton, Sky TV, May 17 2016.
When Peter Dutton labelled refugees uneducated, unproductive and unworthy of our jobs,
many Australians wanted to throw things at the TV.
None more so than the people who work with those refugees every day and were horrified that the man responsible for inviting them into the country could be so disparaging about their prospects.
The immigration minister’s comments, made in response to opposition plans for a bigger refugee intake, caused the kind of uproar you might expect from the lobbing of a dead cat onto a dining table.
Labor senator Kate Ellis echoed the words of her parliamentary colleagues in describing them as “appalling, offensive and divisive”.
But was he right?
We’re a nation with a huge social security budget being asked to provide income support, accommodation, education and intensive language lessons for a constant stream of needy immigrants from strife-ridden countries.
A number of adult and child refugees from Afghanistan and other war-ravaged parts of the globe have never been to school - that is a fact.
And many adult refugees struggle to find work in an Australian labour market presenting ever fewer opportunities for unskilled workers as we transition from a resource-dependent economy - that is also a fact.
Those who work in the area of refugee resettlement believe that Australia’s system is up there with the best in the world - but the immigration minister is not wrong when he argues that it costs a significant amount to help those 13,750 people start new lives each year.
Yes, Mr Dutton’s suggestion that refugees will take Australians’ jobs at the same time as they take their dole payments is just plain silly.
But do his other comments hold water?
Dorothy Hoddinott is principal of Holroyd High School in western Sydney, one of 14 schools in Australia with an intensive English centre designed to bring children from non-English speaking backgrounds to a language level where they can move into mainstream schooling within a year.
She says: “What Dutton is saying is poisonous.
“Yes, Australia takes in some people who are illiterate and we do that because they are in need of protection, but you can’t say that the majority are illiterate because they’re not.
“And you can’t say that that remains a static situation or unemployment remains the same - people will be unemployed for a period of time and then find employment.
“All their children come to school and when those children hit the right schooling, then they’re not going to be unemployed, they’re going to be educated.
“So saying we’ll be supporting them all their lives, this is arrant nonsense.
“It’s very misleading and it’s the sort of thing that the lower end of the intellectual gene pool will hear because it suits their purposes – ‘they’ll take our jobs’, ‘they want us all to eat halal food’, ‘they’re stopping our women being free’.
“All of those arguments, those racist things that come over in ignorance - the sort of dog whistling that Dutton’s been engaging in - appeal to them because they are stereotypes about refugees and immigrants.
“They’re simplistic but stereotypes always are - they take away the need to think.”
Her frustration with the minister’s comments is matched by that of Paul Power, CEO of the non-profit Refugee Council of Australia, which promotes the development of humane, lawful and constructive policies towards refugees and asylum seekers.
He says: “It defies sense, other than looking at what his political motives are, that a minister who is actually overseeing the expansion of the refugee program would be fundamentally questioning the contribution that refugees can make to Australian life.
“Do you look at economic cost and benefit after two years, or do you look at the lifetime contribution of people when the median age of refugees - based on the most recently-available statistics - is 20 years old?
“For the majority, we’re talking about 40 years or more of economic contribution, so the costs in the early years are overwhelmingly covered by the lifetime tax and other economic contributions of people.”
To understand the costs and benefits of refugees to Australia, it helps to look at the process of settling them.
There are two streams for refugee resettlement, applications made through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and proposals from relatives in Australia. The final decision for both streams is made by the Australian Government.
When the refugees arrive, they receive orientation through one of 16 different organisations based in various regions and funded by the federal Department of Social Services.
Those organisations help with practical considerations like finding rental accommodation, opening a bank account, becoming registered with Government agencies, understanding how to get around a new community and settling children into school.
Refugees are given permanent residency and access to the same services that an Australian who is in the same economic circumstances might need - so they get access to the ‘job active’ employment support program, Centrelink benefits and Medicare.
They also receive access to the Adult Migrant English Program, which provides around 500 hours of English tutoring to help them develop language skills.
The story for asylum seekers is very different. A small number arrive on a visa and apply for asylum when they’re here, often living for years without access to safety net supports as their application is processed.
The rest are overwhelmingly those who’ve arrived by boat and, if not turned back to their country of origin, they’re sent offshore for processing.
According to Paul Power, there are around 1,000 people who have been identified as refugees but remain in those centres, but most enter Australian on bridging and temporary protection visas, waiting years for a resolution of their status without access to the usual resettlement services or welfare support.
Our asylum seeker cap for 2016 is 2,750, out of the total humanitarian and refugee intake allocation of 13,750.
“There is this thick black line that’s drawn between those who are resettled by the Government and those who seek asylum here - and in the case of Afghans, for example, they can be from the same villages,” he says.
“The ones who have arrived by boat are treated as though they need to be punished as an object lesson in how not to come, but ultimately they will remain overwhelmingly in Australia in the long term and become part of society.”
Whether or not they get access to resettlement and welfare resources, it is undeniable that adult refugees and asylum seekers rarely find work easily.
Paul Power says: “Where we collectively struggle the most is pathways into sustainable employment and the job market.
“There are all sorts of obstacles, including getting their past qualifications recognised in Australia, but the largest obstacle is the way in which the Australian jobs market tends to view the work experience of people who’ve come to Australia.
“On an international level for resettled refugees, the support offered in Australia is as good as any of the 25 or 30 countries involved in resettlement, but the employment outcomes in the early years are not as good as some countries because it’s a complex workplace in Australia.
“There are fewer entry level jobs than there used to be and also Australian employers tend to have a fairly negative view of the work experience that people bring if they’re not from Australia or English-speaking Western countries.
“But there are employers who’ve actually given refugees a go and who end up recruiting people from the same backgrounds because they’re impressed by the work ethic that people who are desperate to establish themselves in a new country naturally bring to the job.”
For Dorothy Hoddinott at the 540-pupil Holroyd High, the greatest obstacles when refugees first step through the school gates are often the practical ones.
She says: “We have maybe 50 different countries and between 20 and 30 different languages represented, the biggest languages are Dari Farsi and Arabic, followed by Chinese.
“About 60 per cent of the students in the school are either refugees or the children of refugees and I’ve got probably about 50 to 60 children who are asylum seekers.
“Some of those asylum seekers are unaccompanied, and if they’re under 18 they are living in the care of non-government organisations, so they live in hostel-type accommodation or if they’re 18 they have to live in the community and be independent.
“They vary from about 12 to 20 and come from very traumatic backgrounds, a lot of them.
“We come at education from a holistic perspective - the learning is going to grow out of meeting all the needs of the children.
“Some of those children have material needs, so it’s clothing, it’s sometimes accommodation, it’s the things they need for school - like calculators and exercise books. I’ve used school assistance money for dental work, bonds on flats, I’ve used it to buy furniture - you name it.
“If kids have one stable place in their lives, they can move forward.
“School has to be that for a lot of our kids because they own personal lives are so difficult, so fragmented and sometimes so challenging.”
Coming from such difficult backgrounds, and often entering high school with no prior schooling and no English, it would be reasonable to expect that many refugee children would struggle to achieve the most basic academic standards of literacy and numeracy.
More than 80 per cent of Holroyd’s students are in the bottom two quartiles for socio-economic status.
Yet the school saw 61 per cent of its Year 12 students accepted into university this year, with HSC results in a number of subjects - including physics, chemistry and extension maths - sitting above the state mean.
“Our results make me very proud and they also show very strongly that the sorts of comments Dutton’s made in the last few days are completely wrong," says Dorothy Hoddinott.
“What would he know? Yes, we have kids who arrive here illiterate and within 3-4 years those kids will be getting offers for university.”
Those results come through the efforts of a combination of committed professionals working under a range of agencies.
The important starting point, according to Dorothy, is a school environment where everyone is treated fairly, followed by access to enrichment and support programs underpinned by a strong academic curriculum.
Refugee children with little or no English spend a year learning in the Intensive English Centre before transitioning into mainstream school - but they learn English through the subject areas, so they study maths and science-based English, for example.
Holroyd benefits from an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher allocation of 5.4 and it also runs a refugee support program within the school with the help of three extra specialist teaching staff, two non-teaching staff and a full-time transition coordinator.
Mental health support comes through a Government-funded but independent body called STARTTS - the Service for the Treatment And Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors - which provides counsellors who work in school alongside refugee students.
Police and local welfare agencies may also be involved at various stages and the school is part of three university mentoring programs for disadvantaged children run Sydney University, the University of NSW and Western Sydney University.
Extension opportunities for gifted and talented children come through Western Sydney and the University of Technology, Sydney, while the Beacon Foundation and the Australian Business Community Network help connect students with local business to foster post-school connections.
“We have a full academic curriculum and people have the opportunity to go forward into full academic positions,” says Dorothy.
“I don’t believe in dumbing down the curriculum at all.”
The achievements of adult refugees are harder to quantify, with very little study undertaken in recent years and, according to Paul Power, a “lot of twisting of fairly flimsy statistics”.
The most reliable, he says, is a 2011 study by Professor Graeme Hugo commissioned by the immigration department and titled “A Significant Contribution: The Economic, Social and Civic Contributions of First and Second Generation Humanitarian Entrants”.
Hugo, a former director of the Australian Population and Migration Research Centre, paints a very different picture to Peter Dutton.
His research states:
Paul says: “Professor Hugo’s research shows that the longer people are in Australia, the more positive the economic contribution is.
“If you look at the question over two generations, the outcomes are quite impressive in terms of the Australian-educated children of refugees who are more likely to study at university at higher levels and more likely to achieve higher degrees, more likely to work in professionals and more likely to be purchasing their own homes than children of Australian-born parents.
“Professor Hugo’s research says humanitarian entrants are more likely to be involved in entrepreneurial activities than even skilled migrants and the Australian-born population.
“That probably comes from two places: people who’ve started again in a new country have little to lose and are prepared to take a risk, but also finding a right place in the Australian employment market is very difficult for people from refugee backgrounds and often people ultimately end up starting their own business in response to that.”
A 2015 Department of Social Services survey backed Hugo’s work, reporting that less than one fifth of refugee and humanitarian arrivals were illiterate (there is a technical difference between the two groups - humanitarian entrants are considered to face a slightly lesser severity of danger then refugees).
Dorothy Hoddinott says one defining feature of Australia’s adult refugee population is the desire to see their children educated.
“Because they’ve been deprived of things, particularly their children of education depending on where they’ve come from, they’re very conscious of the value of education," she says.
“They support their children absolutely - boys and girls - in getting an education.
“The much harder nuts are the very entrenched underclass Anglo-Australians who’ve lost hope and all connection.
“We have some of those kids in the school, too, and we do achieve with those kids, too.”
The danger in Peter Dutton’s arguments, according to Paul Power and Dorothy Hoddinott, is their appeal to those who fear the impact of refugees with no understanding that they make up just over five per cent of migrants each year.
Our refugee intake is currently 13,750, while the non-refugee migration intake is 190,000 - and that doesn’t include those coming through our open migration agreement with New Zealand, which in recent years has sometimes swollen the figure to as high as 240,000.
“If people have concerns about population growth and the impact of migration on pop growth, which can be at the base of some of the debates that are occurring in the community, then arguing about the refugee program is not really the debate that needs to occur,” says Paul Power.
“Similarly this question has come up about infrastructure and traffic jams and access to transport.
“To in any way suggest that the resettlement of refugees or the arrival of asylum seekers makes a significant impact is ludicrous.
“The debate that people in larger cities are having about infrastructure should be focussed on infrastructure, not about blaming these small numbers of people.”
So should we take more refugees?
Number-crunching done on a purely scientific basis by Associate Professor Thomas Stace of the University of Queensland, suggests that we could if we wanted to.
He wrote for The Conversation: “My estimate is that a wealthy nation can comfortably accommodate refugees up to about 0.2% of its population per year.
"For Australia, the current population is about 24 million so a 0.2% annual intake equals about 48,000 refugee places that we could comfortably resettle per year.
Paul Power says we can afford to be more generous, even as he acknowledges Government plans to increase our total refugee intake by 5,000 to 18,750 over the next two years - not including another 12,000 Syrian refugees Australia has committed to resettle here.
“We can certainly take a larger number and you can make the case for an expansion of anything from 25,000 to 50,000,” he said.
“Our refugee resettlement placements are about five or six per cent of total annual migration, so the idea that it could be 10 or 15 per cent would see a program of 33,000 or so - something like that is achievable.”
The Australian immigration department currently promotes Graeme Hugo’s research on its own website in terms which could not be more at odds with minister Dutton’s comments.
It says the overwhelming long-term picture for humanitarian entrants and their children is one of "considerable achievement and contribution".
“They display strong entrepreneurial qualities compared with other migrant groups, with a higher than average proportion engaging in small and medium business enterprises," it states.
Of course, that’s when the illiterate spongers aren’t languishing in unemployment queues...