Never underestimate a survivor. John Menadue

Jun 27, 2013

It is surprising to see that the Foreign Minister Bob Carr suggests that we need to be much tougher in refugee determination as many claimants for refugee status are really economic refugees.

Some claimants will undoubtedly be economic migrants posing as refugees. But the refugee determination process which we and others have developed over decades is designed to sort this out and reject those who claim our protection if they are not genuine refugees.

The figures do not support Bob Carr’s proposition. After a thorough review by the Refugee Determination Tribunal, about 90% of boat arrivals are found to be genuine refugees. This figure of 90% is derived from the most recent DIAC statistics. For air arrivals who seek refugee protection, the ‘success rate’ is less than half the success rate for boat arrivals.

Where is Bob Carr getting his figures from to justify his argument about economic migrants? The figures that I am familiar with just do not support his claim. The ‘problem’ will not go away by half-baked theories that cannot be sustained by the facts.

In our discussion on asylum seekers and refugees, the major emphasis is on our generosity in giving a safe haven to persons who have been persecuted. That is the way it should be, but Australia has been a major beneficiary of refugee flows in the past.

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

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

In desperate situations, refugees make a decision to flee. They abandon almost everything for the hope of freedom, security and opportunity elsewhere. In a sense they ‘select themselves’ better than a migration officer ever could. It is hard to assess the motivation and risk-taking of a migrant applicant. Refugees show it by doing.

Since WWII, Australia has settled over 750,000 refugees from war-torn countries and societies wracked with violence and persecution. Settlement in Australia has not been trouble-free. It is always work in progress. But it has been a great success story in which Australians can be proud. The loss of constructive bi-partisanship threatens what we have done well in the past.

Some well-known refugees have contributed to this success story – Judy Cassab, Anh Do, Mirka Mora, Wolfgang Sievers, Henry Szeps,  Tuong Quang Luu, Les Murray, Sir Gustav Nossal, Frank Lowy, Harry Seidler, and Bishop Vincent Van Nguyen.

But more important than the well-known names are the hundreds of thousands of refugee families who have quietly gone about building their families, communities, acquiring skills, getting a job and educating their children. Early days are difficult for refugees. They come with little or no financial resources, their skills are probably not recognised and they will usually have language difficulties. These early difficulties are reflected in higher levels of unemployment and concentration in lowly paid jobs.

But their situation steadily and rapidly improves. Professor Graeme Hugo, ARC Australian Professorial Fellow, in his study ‘Economic, Social and Civic Contributions of First and Second Generation Humanitarian Entrants’ of May 2011, describes their contribution.

  • Refugees are younger and have higher fertility levels than the Australian population as a whole.
  • 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. 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.

In spite of Government timidity, coalition opportunism and media failure, 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.

John Menadue


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