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What do we know about people seeking asylum and employment?

Author: Liam Rasmussen

Screenshot of journal articleMisinformation about people seeking asylum and employment is widespread. A journal article, ‘People seeking asylum in Australia and their access to employment: just what do we know?‘, examines what we do and do not know about access to employment for people seeking asylum.

The article, by Caroline Fleay, Anita Lumbus and Lisa Hartley, looks at the employment statistics of people seeking asylum. The article contends that:

  • People seeking asylum and refugees experience improved labour participation and contributions to society over the long term
  • They face many severe barriers to employment, often due to punitive government policies
  • These barriers are made worse by divisive political discourse on the topic.

Commentary from politicians and media figures should instead emphasise the many positives of refugee employment, just as government policy can be improved to assist their involvement in the labour force. Recent events, particularly harsh funding cuts to Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS), will only serve to increase the destitution experienced by people seeking asylum.

What we do know

The article points out the need for more research on the employment experiences of people who came by boat between 2007 and 2013. However, we can still learn something through research on the employment of people seeking asylum.

Studies show that some people seeking asylum in Australia come with ‘considerable skills and experiences’. This clearly contradicts Minister Peter Dutton’s statement that many refugees are ‘illiterate and innumerate’. Their skills cannot be used while they are denied working rights or sit in detention.

In contrast, good things happen when refugees are empowered to work and contribute to Australia. A 2011 study by Graeme Hugo refugees in regional areas can address labour shortages and can contribute to significant regional growth. Their job prospects improve in the long term, with ‘second-generation refugees (having) higher levels of labour market participation than the general population’. This is largely because people from a refugee background are strongly motivated to work and become economically independent.

What stops them from getting work

People from a refugee background may initially struggle to get into work, but there are complex underlying factors why this is. Some government policies make it more difficult for people seeking asylum to get work, especially for those who came by boat.

Under both Labor and Coalition governments, they have been detained or released into the community with very little, including being prevented from working. Government policy has made it more difficult for people seeking asylum to work, and has contributed to their forced destitution.

People seeking asylum face systemic barriers to participation in the formal labour market, even accounting for their education and English skills. These barriers: include

  • Lack of Australian work experience
  • Lack of qualifications recognition
  • Family commitments, particularly for women, due to a lack of an extended family support network
  • Being granted a temporary protection visa and not a permanent one
  • Government policies resulting in detention and restricted rights to work

A focused effort should be made to both acknowledge and remove these barriers. As well, it is clear that denying work rights to people seeking asylum while giving them inadequate support harms their mental health. Getting work instead improves their mental health and should be encouraged by government policy.


The authors highlight the negative effect of misleading statements by senior politicians, including Ministers Dutton and Morrison, about the employment of people seeking asylum. Research demonstrates the damage done by such comments.

Misinformation will only disenfranchise those from a refugee background, and negatively affect the community’s attitudes towards people seeking asylum. Ministerial statements can also be hypocritical, given the negative impact of government policy.

This point will only become more pertinent as policies, such as funding cuts to SRSS, continue to force destitution on people seeking asylum. Ultimately, there should be an effort made to reduce the destitution that punitive policies are forcing on people seeking asylum.

Read the article

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