Asylum seekers – an untapped talent pool

Nareen Young
Topics Inclusion

With the dust now settled on the federal election and a new Government taking their seats in Canberra, it’s worth thinking about those who were such a focus of the campaign. Asylum seekers.

Despite all the rhetoric from both sides of the political fence, asylum seekers continue to arrive in Australia, seeking protection from places where they face incredibly difficult circumstances and enormous dangers.  While it remains to be seen whether any Australian Government can have a substantial impact on the numbers of people seeking asylum in our country, it is within the power of both Government and the wider community to have an impact on the treatment of asylum seekers once they are here.

More than 14,000 people sought asylum in Australia in 2011-2012 according to the (former) Department of Immigration and Citizenship figures. And last year, the latest DIAC figures show the numbers are increasing – during the first three quarters of 2012-13 (as at March 2013), 17,698 asylum seekers had arrived, for the first time most by boat. But UNHCR figures show this is a mere drop in the ocean (if you will forgive the pun). Only 3% of the world’s asylum seekers seek asylum in Australia, compared to 17% in the US, 13% in Germany, 11% in France, 9% in Sweden, 6% in the UK and 4% in Canada. In Australia, the number of refugees we accept represents between 1-2% of our annual immigration intake. 

While the new Government now gets to put their plans to stop the boats into action, things will continue to get tougher for asylum seekers and refugees already in Australia.

Getting access to employment is an important step for asylum seekers. Work restores professional identity, allows people to contribute to the community, offers financial stability and provides personal dignity. Asylum seekers are not eligible to access government funded job assistance services nor do they receive Centrelink benefits. For some, volunteering is the only option available as those who arrived by boat after August 2012 have had their work rights curtailed.  And under the proposed system of Temporary Protection Visas, asylum seekers will be granted work rights.

The NSW Asylum Seekers Centre’s Employment Assistance Program connects asylum seekers who wish to share their professional expertise, skills and business sense with local employers. The Centre is celebrating its 20th anniversary  this year and is keen to engage employers in a conversation about how we can all work together to harness the skills and talents of men and women seeking a productive life in Australia.

The service supports job seekers who are living in the community on Bridging Visas with full work rights and those with permission to volunteer. These candidates have intermediate to advanced English language fluency, are highly motivated and possess a very sound work ethic. All are bi or multi lingual and many come from cultures that value enterprise and innovation.

Cultural diversity of this kind provides many benefits to employers. Culturally diverse employees enable businesses to better understand and service an increasingly diverse client base; to open up business networks and assist in identifying and entering new local, regional and international markets and assist in developing domestic niche marketing.  With 9.9 million Australian consumers either born overseas or having at least one parent born overseas, businesses that want to reach their ‘whole’ market cannot afford to ignore this critical mass of consumers.

2011 research by Dr Graeme Hugo for DIAC found evidence that over the long term, refugees and  their children make considerable contribution to Australia. The study found that refugees help meet labour shortages, including in low skill and low paid occupations. They displayed strong entrepreneurial qualities compared with other migrant groups, with a higher than average proportion engaging in small and medium business enterprises. They benefit the wider community through developing and maintaining economic linkages with their origin countries. And importantly they also make significant contributions through volunteering in both the wider community and within their own community groups.

The Employment Assistance Program has been operating since early 2010 with securing high retention rates one of the principal aims. Current employer partners appreciate the effort the service takes to screen applicants for their visa status and employment suitability, making sure there is a match both at a professional and personal level. The high retention rates are also a product of the Transition to Work support service offered to employers and employees for up to three months following a placement.

When asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants begin a new job, employers continue to have an important role. A recent DIAC publication emphasises that most really want to contribute, are highly motivated to adapt to life and work in Australia, and just want to be treated the same as any other employee. But bear in mind that your business might be their first experience of an Australian workplace. New employees may be uncertain or anxious, and might need more support and information to understand your expectations of them, your business and administrative processes and practices.

Some of the things employers can do include arranging a mentor or buddy to explain how things are done in your workplace, explaining Australian slang, including the new employee in workplace social activities, and providing ongoing support in resolving practical and cultural issues. It is important to make sure new employees know how the workplace operates – even if it might appear to be obvious – in terms of things like leave, uniforms, record keeping, lines of reporting and supervision, breaks and all safety issues.

I would encourage all employers who value workplace diversity and overseas experience to contact the Asylum Seekers Centre to negotiate mentoring, structured volunteering, corporate social responsibility and paid employment opportunities. 

Nareen Young is DCA’s Chief Executive Officer

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