From surviving to thriving: Work and economic security for refugees and people seeking asylum

John van Kooy, Brotherhood of St Laurence:

The Surviving to Thriving (S2T) research forum was held on 7 December 2016, convened by Dr Dina Bowman and John van Kooy at the Brotherhood of St Laurence (BSL) Research & Policy Centre in Melbourne. TASA sponsored the event through the Support Scheme for Thematic Groups, under the Migration, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism Thematic Group convened by Dr Martina Boese. The Melbourne Social Equity Institute at the University of Melbourne also provided in-kind and financial support to host the forum. The event was moderated by Peter Mares, Contributing Editor of Inside Story and Adjunct Fellow at the Swinburne University Institute for Social Research.

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Participants included migration scholars, sociologists (including several MEM-group members), applied researchers, community sector practitioners and postgraduate students who contributed to three key thematic discussions:

  • Lived experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in their search for employment
  • Practice perspectives on settlement and employment services
  • Government, policy and business perspectives on prospects for an inclusive economy

Searching for work and economic security amid intersecting barriers

The first panel discussion provided insights into the multiple, overlapping factors that hinder refugees and asylum seekers from obtaining meaningful work and jobs commensurate with their skills and qualifications obtained overseas. In a systematic review, Drs Nadera Burhani and Jawid Hakemi identified barriers including English language proficiency; local recognition of skills, qualifications and experience; ethnic, religious and cultural characteristics; and demographic characteristics (e.g. age, gender). Temporary and conditional visa status also represents a significant institutional barrier to work and citizenship for humanitarian migrants. The review of employment barriers and enablers is being conducted by people with lived experience of seeking asylum in Australia, highlighting how research can be carried out by migrants and contribute to their professional development and experience.

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While refugees and asylum seekers face labour market barriers, it is important to recognise their agency in drawing on individual resources and social networks to find jobs and start their own businesses. Research presented by Dr Caroline Fleay ‘unsettles’ public and political claims that asylum seekers – particularly boat arrivals – have limited employment prospects. With work being central to creating a sense of stability for humanitarian migrants, their agency and risk-taking disposition should not be overlooked. This includes understanding the potential benefits and pitfalls of small business development and entrepreneurship, presented by Prof Jock Collins, as a response to ‘blocked labour market mobility’ of refugees in Australia.

Aspiring to make change in labour market programs

The second theme of the S2T Forum explored different approaches to working with and assisting humanitarian migrants to maximise their economic and social participation. Many refugees and asylum seekers, particularly those recently-arrived, have never worked in Australia’s formal labour market, have limited access to job information, possess few local contacts or networks, and are unfamiliar with mainstream recruitment practices. In this context, service providers and community-based organisations play a critical role in building migrants’ labour market ‘know-how’.

Women seeking asylum or from refugee backgrounds have derived particular benefits from social enterprise models such as ‘space2b’, which provides participants with opportunities to develop their financial independence and expand their social networks. Similarly, the ASRC’s ‘Innovation Hub’, discussed at the forum by Abiola Ajetomobi, takes an approach which involves newly-arrived migrants in all stages of program design, development and delivery. Social enterprise and entrepreneurship initiatives represent attempts to ensure that refugees and people seeking asylum have direct influence and involvement in the programs and services that impact their lives.

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A presentation about the WEstjustice Employment Law Project highlighted the problem of migrant worker exploitation, particularly in food processing, cleaning, health and community service jobs. While legal reforms, targeted community-based education and increased employer accountability are needed, the presentation showed that the exploitation of migrant workers can be challenged by hearing and responding to the experiences of workers themselves.

John van Kooy presented BSL research with people seeking asylum that showed how having a job does not necessarily deliver the full benefits of employment as a socioeconomic right. For organisations delivering employment programs, going beyond simple ‘match-making’ between employers and job seekers can be a significant challenge. The findings presented and discussion in this session highlighted the importance of research-informed public advocacy and employer engagement to make employment services more effective, reinforcing the centrality of migrants’ voices and agency in program practice and research.

Does regional resettlement set refugees up to fail?

Australia has had high levels of permanent and temporary economic migration for decades with little public opposition, but the community is deeply divided over refugee and asylum policy. Regional resettlement to areas of labour market need has been advanced as a solution. However, Australian research has demonstrated the risks of channelling refugees into potentially ‘dirty, dangerous and demeaning’ jobs with a lack of enforcement of workplace standards and protections, and unrealistically high education and employment expectations for recent arrivals.

The third panel session explored the challenges and opportunities of regional resettlement and refugee employment. A review of research evidence presented by A/Prof Val Colic-Peisker informed a discussion about recent policy developments, including the advent of the Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV), which was analysed by A/Prof Alex Reilly. Poverty and destitution is a real risk of incorrectly treating humanitarian migrants as economic agents who can reinvigorate flagging regional industries. While some refugees may find appropriate employment niches in regional markets, Dr Martina Boese argued that specialist support services and joint action between government, community sector and business stakeholders at the local level are needed to open up sustainable employment, education and training pathways in regional locations.

Towards inclusive employment?

The final session of the forum invited government, advocacy and business perspectives on the potential for an Australia economy that is more inclusive of refugees and people seeking asylum. The benefits of diversity and inclusion policies and alternative recruitment streams for disadvantaged job seekers were advanced by Benetas as initiatives that could be taken up by corporate employers. Panel discussants agreed that community sector researchers and advocates such as the Refugee Council of Australia could play a key role in briefing parliamentarians on refugee and asylum issues.

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The discussion concluded with a call for forum participants to develop submissions to the Joint Standing Committee on Migration’s parliamentary inquiry into Migrant Settlement Outcomes.

Next steps

As convener of the research network on employment for refugees and people seeking asylum (now labelled ‘RE:Work’), the BSL Research & Policy Centre will continue to facilitate dialogue between sociologists, migration scholars and community sector researchers and evaluators. The purpose of RE:Work is to provide a platform for collaboration between network members, including: sharing research findings and insights; co-authoring research papers, reports, and policy submissions; developing project and funding proposals; and seeking mentoring and supervision opportunities for students and early career researchers focused on employment and migration issues. The BSL will continue to convene face-to-face meetings in 2017 and is working on the development of a regular email newsletter for network members.

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