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Currently in Australia the costs and benefits of refugee settlement are poorly understood among the general population, leaving public opinion to be easily influenced by myth and misinformation. This paper reviews existing literature on the economic contribution of refugees to Australia, and identifies how this contribution could be understood more fully.
Existing studies vary markedly in their methodological approach. They can be grouped into two categories: studies that examine or model economic impacts quantitatively, and studies that seek to demonstrate that refugees do make a contribution to Australia. Within each category, assumptions about the meaning of ‘contribution’, and about the timescale over which it should be assessed, also vary enormously. A significant gap is that there are no comprehensive, intergenerational statistics on the economic contribution of refugees.
Despite these methodological disparities, no study finds that refugees impose a net cost to Australia in the long term. Research indicates that refugees start to make a net contribution somewhere between five and 20 years after arrival in Australia, reflecting the different assumptions and methodologies being applied. Various studies also find that refugees have a higher incidence of business ownership than other migrant groups, and that they play a critical economic role in unskilled and semi-skilled work in regional areas.
Systemic constraints on economic contribution, such as not having qualifications recognised, are well documented in the literature. Studies find that, as a result of these constraints, refugees are disproportionately dependent on social security for the first ten years after arrival, and that they are overrepresented among the underemployed, low-paid, low-skilled, and casualised labour force.
Acknowledging these structural factors, the most comprehensive studies use a relatively long time period to assess economic impacts, and they apply a broad definition of ‘economic’. Nevertheless, these studies also tend to rely somewhat on anecdotes and assertions, making their conclusions difficult to verify or refute. More work is therefore needed to assess the economic value of non-quantifiable and intangible contributions such as volunteering and community involvement, sending remittances to origin countries, and other linkages to origin countries. Additionally, much research subsumes refugees within broader research on migrants, and more work is needed to distinguish the long-term contributions of refugees specifically.
Dr Richard Parsons is an independent social researcher specialising in the social and community dimensions of business. His research interests are community and stakeholder engagement, sustainability and climate change, qualitative evaluation, and the role of language in constructing meaning. He has a PhD in organisational communication from the University of Queensland, a Master of Business Administration, and an honours degree in Economics and Public Policy.