Refugee Council of Australia
Parliament House, Canberra
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Submission on strengthening multiculturalism

The inquiry into Strengthening Multiculturalism

On 27 March 2017, the Senate established the Select Committee on Strengthening Multiculturalism. The committee was asked to inquire into and report on ways of protecting and strengthening Australia’s multiculturalism and social inclusion. The Committee reported on 17 August 2017.

Our key concerns

Australia has had a long and successful history of multiculturalism. However, in recent years an increasingly divisive political and public discourse, coupled with harsh and inhumane asylum policies, have undermined the national commitment to multiculturalism and social inclusion.

RCOA therefore welcomed this inquiry as timely and much needed. Concerns about multiculturalism, social inclusion, equality and respect for all have been raised increasingly frequently during our annual community consultations. Experiences of social exclusion, racism and discrimination make it very difficult for refugee and humanitarian entrants to fully participate and rebuild their lives in Australia.

Supporting a multicultural Australia

Australia has maintained bipartisan support for multiculturalism since the 1970s. Unfortunately, our strong policies on multiculturalism are being undermined by increasingly divisive political rhetoric, the inhumane treatment of people seeking asylum, and a suite of policy changes that undermine our successful multicultural society.

In recent years, there has been a decline in the visibility of multiculturalism within the policy priorities of the Federal Government, marked for example by the disappearance of the term ‘multiculturalism’ or even ‘citizenship’ within the federal bureaucracy. Likewise, policy priorities have focused on ‘social cohesion’, ‘national security’ and ‘Australian values, as seen in the recent Federal Multicultural Policy Statement.

Another example of this change in policy can be seen in the proposed changes to citizenship requirements, including introducing an English language test and a stronger emphasis on ‘Australian values’. These proposed changes clearly represent a shift away from the commitment to multiculturalism, and will undermine one of our greatest tools for social inclusion.

Likewise, the Joint Standing Committee on Migration’s current Inquiry into Migrant Settlement Outcomes also emphasises concerns about the ‘anti-social behaviour’ of young migrants. This inquiry comes at a time when media and politicians are demonising people of refugee and migrant background, based on the misrepresentation of criminal activity.

The inhumane treatment of people seeking asylum in Australia represents the largest failure of our multicultural society. The success of multiculturalism depends on how we treat the most vulnerable in our community. Unfortunately, while simultaneously claiming to support multiculturalism, successive Governments have enacted policies designed to further exclude, punish and harm those who seek asylum.

As such, RCOA believes that we have a long way to go in strengthening multiculturalism in Australia. As discussed below, this involves welcoming the contributions of refugees and people seeking asylum, building on our successful settlement programs, ending our cruel treatment of people seeking asylum and combating racism in all its forms. To achieve this, strong political leadership from all sides of parliament is needed.

The contributions of refugees and humanitarian entrants to Australia

Since Federation, Australia has settled 870,000 refugees and humanitarian entrants.

They have had a profound impact on the nation’s social, cultural and economic life. National and international research shows that people from refugee backgrounds contribute substantially (socially, culturally and economically) to their new countries. The benefits of humanitarian migration can only be truly appreciated by taking a longer-term perspective, going beyond the initial period of settlement to the contributions of later generations.

The positive impacts of humanitarian migration refugees are clearly evident in regional and rural Australia. In recent times, large numbers of people have left many rural areas, resulting in the loss of skills, businesses, services and social capital. Successful regional and rural refugee resettlement programs have helped reverse this decline. More generally, the relative youth of humanitarian entrants makes a very positive contribution to an ageing labour market. For example, a recent report by AMES and Deloitte Access Economics found that the resettlement of 160 Karen refugees from Burma in the small town of Nhill in regional Victoria had contributed $41.49 million to the local economy.

Overseas research confirms that, after overcoming early barriers, the income of refugee and humanitarian entrants rapidly begins to converge with the incomes of others in the country. 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 (such as education, training and citizenship).

On a broader level, Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program 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 is also a demonstration of Australia’s solidarity with the many developing countries hosting large numbers of refugees, bolstering our international reputation as a country which respects and upholds human rights and international law.

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