Refugee Council of Australia
Two Karen people in a market garden with tractor in background
Home > Publications > Reports > Economic, civic and social contributions of refugees and humanitarian entrants: A literature review

Economic, civic and social contributions of refugees and humanitarian entrants: A literature review


Executive summary

This literature review on the economic, social and civic contributions of refugees covers relevant national and international sources while also seeking to identify information gaps and recommend future avenues of research.

Key findings

The 740,000 refugees and humanitarian migrants settled by Australia since Federation have had a profound impact in enhancing the nation’s social, cultural and economic life. Their resettlement has played a crucial role in international efforts to provide protection to persons whose life, liberty, safety and other fundamental rights are at risk.

It has also enabled Australia to tangibly demonstrate its international solidarity with the mostly poor countries hosting the majority of the world’s refugees. This should remain the primary focus of the resettlement component of Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program while at the same time exploring new ways to utilise better the huge potential that refugees have to enrich the nation.

Refugees make substantial contributions to their new country – expanding consumer markets for local goods, opening new markets, bringing in new skills, creating employment and filling empty employment niches. There may be short-term costs as refugees are resettled and adjust to their new surroundings but once successful integration has occurred refugees are able to quickly make permanent cultural, social and economic contributions and infuse vitality, humanitarian values and multiculturalism into the communities into which they are resettled.

Australia’s refugees and humanitarian entrants have found success in every field of endeavour, including the arts, sports, media, science, research, business and civic and community life. Refugees’ stories are extremely diverse; however, there are some commonly mentioned “ingredients for success” including having had community support; feeling motivated to “give back” to society; and having access to training, English classes, mentoring and cultural, sporting and volunteering activities.

Migration and the intake of refugees can diversify and enhance the skill level of the population, increase economies of scale and foster innovation and flexibility. Refugees are often entrepreneurial as they face the need to set up and establish themselves in a new environment. One illustration of this was evident in the 2000 Business Review Weekly’s annual “Rich 200” list which showed that five of Australia’s eight billionaires were people whose families had originally come to the country as refugees.

The efforts of refugee diasporas not only benefit Australia but often also their homelands. Outward remittances by migrants and refugees from Australia totalled over US$2.815 billion in 2006. There is increasing evidence that remittances are crucial to the survival of communities in many developing countries, including many which have suffered conflict and produced refugees. These remittances represent a significant development resource to these countries.

The positive impact of refugees has also been especially felt in regional and rural Australia. In recent times rural areas have experienced large scale departures in population resulting in skills losses, lack of local entrepreneurship, business closures and the loss of social capital and services. Successful regional and rural refugee resettlement programs have helped plug some population gaps, supply much-needed labour and stimulate economic growth and services delivery. More generally, the young age profile of humanitarian entrants makes a very positive contribution to a labour market in which new retirees now exceed new labour force entrants.

While existing information about the educational and labour force outcomes of the children of refugees is limited, available sources point to above average rates of success in education and employment, consistent with the successes achieved by children of non-humanitarian migrants from similar non-English speaking countries. An analysis of information on the children of migrants from Poland and Hungary (two major source countries for post-war refugees) shows that they are significantly more likely than third generation Australians to continue their education, to achieve a university degree or diploma, to work in a professional or managerial position and to have purchased or be purchasing their own home. Information on second generation Australians of Vietnamese background under 20 years of age show much higher than average rates of involvement in education, consistent with the commitment to education demonstrated by the first generation from Vietnam.

This contributes to higher social mobility for people of Vietnamese background (both first and second generation) who live in lower income suburbs. Children of migrants with lower English proficiency are much more likely to remain in education longer, complete a university degree and work in a managerial or professional role than children of parents with higher English proficiency. One researcher suggests second generation children have a cognitive advantage in literacy skills owing to their proficiency in languages additional to English, while others describe levels of motivation among migrant parents as part of an “ethnic success ethic” or “ethnic advantage”.

While there is much evidence that humanitarian entrants do achieve positive employment outcomes over a period of time, it is equally important to acknowledge the short term barriers to economic progress encountered by refugees in order that these can be addressed with appropriate policy and program responses by Federal and State governments. Research suggests that targeted employment support programs may have better outcomes for refugees and can be more cost-effective than mainstream employment support services.

Furthermore, vocational education and training programs linked with English language learning, and initiatives that provide opportunities for refugees to gain work experience, have both proven to facilitate successful pathways into employment. Other factors that contribute to labour market success include: professional mentoring programs; overseas skills and qualifications recognition; and programs that facilitate access to drivers’ licences.

Research conducted overseas confirms that, after overcoming initial barriers, refugees subsequently achieve a rapid convergence in earnings with other migrants and the native population, and thus a longer-term perspective is required. International studies also conclude that because refugees lack the option to return to their homelands, they are more likely than other migrants to invest in country-specific human capital (e.g. education, training and citizenship). While there is a divergence of views among countries as to how quickly refugees can be expected to achieve economic self-sufficiency, there is consensus internationally that it plays a pivotal role in successful integration.

Volunteering is also an important tool for integrating refugees into broader society. However, different meanings and ethnic-based understandings of the term “volunteer” can result in research failing to recognise the current extent of voluntary work by members of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities. Studies show that informal volunteering plays an important role in building social capital, and also that CALD community volunteers provide the greater part of their services to benefitting mainstream society rather than their own ethno-specific group.

Information gaps identified and future research recommended

One limitation identified during the research concerns the relative lack of literature or research differentiating between refugees and other migrants. While refugees face many challenges in common with other migrants, they also have needs peculiar to their own situation. It is therefore problematic that often the available literature proves to be limited to policies, services and integration issues for migrants generally. It is recommended that humanitarian entrants once again be included in the sample of the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Australia (LSIA), and be studied as a separate category within the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia surveys. This would facilitate a more accurate analysis of all factors relating to the economic, social and civic contributions of humanitarian entrants.

There is a need for longitudinal data collection and research into the economic progress made by refugees, including an exploration of factors contributing to differential labour market outcomes.

More empirical data is required concerning the skills, accreditation and former work experience of humanitarian entrants prior to their arrival in Australia in order to better determine how they could be best engaged in addressing skills shortage in the Australian economy. It is suggested that priority be given to further in-depth study of local conditions that promote or hamper economic integration and participation. More generally, future research should place greater emphasis on structural, physical and psycho-social factors impacting on refugee employment. Monitoring the implementation of the new Job Services Australia model will be vital for evaluating its effectiveness in supporting refugee jobseekers into work and identifying elements of good practice.

The absence of any comprehensive study of the educational, employment and social outcomes of the children of refugees leaves a major gap in understanding the long-term benefits of Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program. Research is required to understand the contribution of the second generation to Australian society and also how differences in the education, employment and settlement experiences of parents impact on outcomes for the children of refugees.

Specific research should also be conducted into the experiences and outcomes of children of refugees and humanitarian migrants, to determine the role of the refugee experience, settlement support, parental motivation and educational opportunities in their educational and social development – comparing their experiences with those of children of non-humanitarian migrants.

Quantitative research is required on the impact of remittances from humanitarian entrants on receiving countries as well as the role that diasporic refugee populations play in development strategies with home and host nations. This would help contribute to a better understanding of potential spin-off benefits of Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program towards international development efforts and improving global peace and security. In-depth studies are also required to quantify the impact and influence that migrant and refugee diasporas have on development through trade, investments, business exchanges, social networks and human capital transfers.

While there is an abundance of individual refugee success stories, more empirical research is required into “factors contributing to success” in the resettlement of refugees and their participation into economic, social and cultural life in Australia.

Read the full report

You can download the report here or read the PDF on the next page.

2010 Contributions
Size : 1.6 MB Format : PDF



Be a champion for refugee rights

Join our mailing list and be the first to receive active resources. We need you to show Australia cares about refugees.


  • Category

  • Topic