Work remains a mirage for skilled but stymied asylum seekers

The Conversation

By the time I met Grace, she had been in Australia on a bridging visa for about 18 months. Part way into the interview, she reached for a stack of papers in her bag. “Let me show you something… this is from the bank,” she said. On her account statement, Grace showed me the recurring payments she was receiving from a non-profit agency that was disbursing basic living allowances to asylum seekers living in the community. She was receiving about A$450 per fortnight.

Asylum seekers living in the community on bridging visas receive a basic living allowance paid at approximately 89% of the relevant Centrelink Special Benefit (usually Newstart).

Without assistance to find work, asylum seekers develop their own explanations to make sense of why they have not succeeded. The findings from our interviews suggest the main explanations are precarious migration status, and the attitudes and recruitment practices of employers.

One interviewee, Nabeel, was particularly concerned about a condition on his visa which stated that “work rights would be reviewed every three months”. Given this, how could a prospective employer be sure an asylum seeker would be able to work for any reasonable length of time, regardless of their suitability for a particular role?

Perceived discrimination, and sometimes overt racism, also emerged from the interviews as possible explanations for asylum seekers’ experiences. Grace told me she had wanted to resume her previous career in accounting and finance once she had received her work rights.

Though not classified as “skilled migrants”, many asylum seekers do have skills and experience that have potential value in the labour market. Nabeel told me he couldn’t make use of his experience as a salesperson and accounts manager with an automotive firm. His wife — a bank clerk by trade — is also unemployed in Australia.

“It’s the loss of this country. Because I am young, I can do everything. My wife is also very qualified, but she is spoiled here because we don’t have a status, as well, Immigration put a three month review [on our work rights]. We are just surviving ourselves on Centrelink money. So it’s the loss of this country.”

Of the asylum seekers I spoke with who were working, almost all had jobs that didn’t match their experience back home. Some had postgraduate degrees — in business management, architecture, psychology, geology, or engineering. But these pre-migration qualifications did not seem to translate into the Australian context.

Work is critical to the successful settlement and integration of humanitarian migrants in Australia. Yet there is an obvious policy gap in the lack of adequate employment support available for asylum seekers. Assisting migrants to understand and navigate the Australian job market, recognising their skills and experience, and working with employers to reduce negative perceptions and recruitment risks are all key strategies that can give asylum seekers a chance.

However, relying on small community sector initiatives to fill big policy gaps is not a sustainable solution. With Australia set to accept an additional 12,000 people forcibly displaced by the conflict in Syria and Iraq, it is time to address the policy nexus between welfare, employment, and humanitarian migration.

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