ARJA KESKI-NUMMI. Peter Dutton should know better – rather than demonise refugees we should stand tall and proud of what we have achieved over the past 70 years.

May 19, 2016

The problem with refugees and asylum seekers is that they are not us – so it is OK to demonise them. Dutton is not dog whistling when he puts people into boxes describing them as “these people”, asserts that they are barely literate or numerate in their own languages, can’t speak English and at the same time says they would take Australian jobs and at the same time assert that they will languish on the dole and Medicare! You can’t have it both ways Mr. Dutton.

He thinks he is right to talk of refugees in this manner. In fact I suspect he believes it must be said. The tragedy is that people like Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop give tacit endorsement to such sentiments, Bishop suggesting it was time for a reality check on refugee resettlement or Turnbull asserting that many refugees have never worked.

When they say refugees don’t work and don’t get jobs are they talking about the over 800,000 refugees resettled in Australia since the second world war or the tens of thousands of Indochinese who have arrived since 1977 or the Iraqi doctors who we kept in detention in the Howard years and then released via a trip to Malaysia to pick up a visa to come back to Australia because we knew we needed their skills?

It is dishonest to say they do not work. It is true that for many the struggle to get jobs is immense. But you can’t blame them. The rebuilding of shattered lives – families torn apart by wars and mass displacement, children who have had limited access to education or the sort of environment of safety we want all our children to live in takes time. The traumas do not disappear over night simply because they are now in Australia, but the way we provide resettlement support certainly helps in slowly rebuilding a sense of safety and security. Sadly for many that sense of security once lost will never be regained entirely even though the human spirit will ensure that a semblance of normalcy returns over time.

It has been my experience over many decades that almost all refugees have so strong a motivation to succeed that eventually they are some of our greatest wealth creators. Indeed research commissioned by the Immigration Department some years back on the social and economic contribution of humanitarian entrants found just that – while they may struggle in the first years of resettlement, in the long term they are more likely to create jobs than skilled migrants. And, those not in work are more likely to be volunteering in organisations that have helped them along the way, itself valuable work that goes unreported and unrecognised.

I have seen young asylum seekers leave detention, spirits broken but hungry to succeed and despite what has been thrown at them grateful to be given a chance to show they are different. But I have also experienced employers wary of employing anyone coming from camps overseas or detention centres in Australia – because often the effort to train and acculturate a person into an Australian working environment appears to be so difficult. It is time that instead of blaming people, proper employment-ready programs, job mentoring and wage subsidies were a part of supporting resettlement of refugees. The dignity of work is a powerful tool to encourage belonging and integration into a new life.

Refugees are not an abstract idea – they are people with the same aspirations and disappointments that we all face in life – compounded by the unimaginable loss of home, country and the certainties of life.

Rather than demonise them we should stand tall and proud at what we have achieved over the past 70 years. We should continue to be world leaders demonstrating that when you have resettlement and integration services that support not only the individual but the broader society it strengthens us all.

As Immigration Minister for some 18 months Mr. Dutton should know better. Shame on him.

Arja Keski-Nummi was formerly First Assistant Secretary in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. She was in charge of refugee policies and programs. She is now a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development and working on a Track 2 dialogue with people from the Asian region.












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