John Menadue-Refugees – the demographic dividend.

Feb 17, 2014

As responsible members of the human family, we have a strong moral case to provide protection for the victims of persecution and violence.

There is also a strong case in our own self-interest – that refugees almost by definition are risk-takers and entrepreneurial. It can be argued that they are amongst the most highly motivated and determined in the Australian community.

Most importantly if we want to see economic growth and rising productivity we need young people. Even the hard headed economists know that it is people that matter and not how they have come here. We need to open our minds as well as our hearts.   Let’s look at asylum seekers and refugees from an economic perspective as well as a humanitarian perspective.

Along with many other developed countries, Australia has a problem with its rapidly ageing population. Treasury and others have pointed out that in the future there will be many more old Australians than there are today. The number of Australians 65 and over is expected to increase rapidly from around 2.5 million in 2002 to 6.2 million in 2042. That is, from around 13% of the population to around 25%. For Australians aged 85 and over, the growth is even more rapid from around 300,000 in 2002 to 1.1 million in 2042. In 2002 there were more than 5 people of working age to support every person aged over 65. By 2042 there will only be 2.5 people of working age supporting each person aged over 65.

Data published by Professor Graeme Hugo at the University of Adelaide has highlighted the much younger age structure of refugees. Refugees are not only younger than the Australian population, but also younger than migrants. Migrants and refugees will not be a silver bullet. We need to respond in many wages including lifting the retirement age, but refugees can make a significant contribution to slowing down the ageing of the Australian population. In his report published in May 2011, Professor Hugo pointed out the following:

  • ‘An important characteristic of the contemporary refugee/humanitarian intake … is that it is substantially younger than the national Australian population. … The medium age of the refugee/humanitarian intake over the 2003-09 period was 31.8 years compared with the medium age of 42.9 years in the population.’
  • ‘Not only is the refugee intake young when compared to the national resident population, it is very young when compared with the total immigration intake. … Dependent aged children and young adults aged 15-24(from a refugee background) are significantly over-represented compared with all migrants, while the middle and older working aged group (25-49) (of refugees) are significantly under-represented.’
  • ‘Refugee/humanitarian entrants… are disproportionately concentrated in the age groups which contribute towards a demographic dividend.’

There has been recent comment about the increased number of Iranian asylum seekers. There is a debate whether they are really asylum seekers or economic migrants. There is no doubt however that they are young, well-educated and very determined. Most would make excellent settlers and are a very good example of how young migrants and refugees can lower our age profile. We need to open more migration pathways for young people who face discrimination within their own country but cannot be regarded as refugees as they have not fled their country.

But an expanded refugee intake would not only deliver us a “demographic dividend”. Refugees make other important contributions as outlined by Professor Hugo

  • They are increasingly settling in regional Australia.
  • They place a high store on education for their children. 48% of second generation people who are Australian born have post-school qualifications. For the total refugee groups, the percentage is much high at 59%, with some refugee groups showing remarkably high levels of post-school qualifications, e.g. Estonia 65%, Latvia 65%, Slovakia 65%, Sri Lanka 61%.
  • Refugees are more likely to demonstrate entrepreneurial and risk-taking attributes than the Australian community as a whole. They have a higher incidence of owning their own businesses than other migrant groups.
  • The second generation of refugee settlers have a much higher level of labour force engagement than the first generation and in many cases, the level is higher than for second generation Australians.

Their commitment to Australia is also shown in their uptake of citizenship.  A study prepared for OECD by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (October 2010) reveals that the naturalisation rate by birthplace for all foreign-born is 80%. For significant refugee groups it is much higher – Croatia 97%, Poland 96% and Vietnam 97%. For New Zealand it is 45%, for the United Kingdom 71% and the United States 70%.

Not surprisingly, refugees in their early years are ‘takers’ of Australian generosity. But year by year they increasingly become great contributors. They pay back many times the generosity they initially receive. They contribute to Australia out of all proportion to their number. It is a great success story for all Australians.

We can draw inspiration from the very successful refugee programs of the past. Australian business and society generally have been great beneficiaries. It is in our self-interest, as well as for sound moral reasons that we need to break with the stalemate and toxic debate that surrounds refugees. Doing the right thing really pays off.

Refugees deliver many dividends including a “demographic dividend”. They are much younger than the Australian population and migrants.

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