How refugees stimulate the economy

Edward Brima

Edward Brima.

Can the presence of refugees boost the economy of a country? I doubt if many people will answer this question in the affirmative.

Recently the opposition proposed a ‘work for the dole’ scheme for asylum seekers, one that would pay food and accommodation vouchers, but no wages. So in Australia today refugees are seen as parasites, a burden on any nation which takes them in; a drain on welfare systems and contributors to unemployment.

History shows that such negative views are often baseless. Although there may be immediate costs as refugees are resettled and adjusted to their new environments, when given the required support and opportunities refugees can, and do, make significant social, cultural, and economic contributions to their host countries. They increase consumer markets for domestic commodities, create new markets, bring in new skills, provide employment and fill vacant employment positions.

As a result of the civil war in Sierra Leone my family decided to flee to neighbouring Guinea in 1996. We escaped at night and arrived in Guinea exhausted and famished. We walked through the bushes, forests, climbed mountains and crossed rivers on our way to the Guekedou refugee camp in Guinea.

On a daily basis, refugees escaping the crisis in my country arrived in Guekedou refugee camps in large numbers. In 2008 – after 12 years in a refugee camp – my family and I got the opportunity to resettle in Australia, enabling us to contribute to our own and our nation’s well-being.

In Australia today refugee populations have made great achievements in public spheres, including the commercial sectors, sports and community life in terms of multiculturalism.

From refugees to billionaires

According to the Refugee Council of Australia, 65% of current enterprises are comprised of refugees from non-English speaking backgrounds, compare with 55% from English speaking backgrounds. A good illustration of the entrepreneurial characteristic that refugee arrivals bring is shown in the 2000 Business Review Weekly’s annual “Rich 200” list. It revealed that five of Australia’s eight billionaires were people whose parents migrated to this country as refugees.

Journalist and TV personality David Koch recently featured on his blog some of our best-known and most successful refugees. They ranged from leading scientist Sir Gustav Nossal, global shopping centre entrepreneur Frank Lowy, and Visy Board’s Richard Pratt, to Young Australian of the Year and successful business woman Tan Le, actors Ahn and Khoa Do, and North Melbourne’s Majak Daw, the first Sudanese Australian drafted into the AFL.

Many refugees from Asia such as the Vietnamese have been very successful in spite of the substantial language barriers and cultural adjustment they encountered.

However, the majority of Australians are tired of refugees. An increasing number say refugees are threatening our stability and eating deep into funds needed to improve the lives of citizens, for example by expenditure on building more detention centres.

Impact on rural Australia

It is interesting that the positive impact of refugees has been particularly felt in rural Australia. True, there have been enormous exoduses in population resulting in skills losses, businesses, social capital and services. Yet the positive impact of refugees has supplied much-needed labour and stimulated economic growth and services, contributing to the revitalization of country towns.

Young refugees have been very successful helping the farming sector where many elderly people and new retirees no longer have the energy required for manual jobs.

It is also true that refugees have limited job opportunities for some local people by providing cheap labour. But the reality is that most of these are manual or seasonal jobs that most Australians citizens will not do, such as picking fruit or working in meat industries. While they are low paid jobs, refugee’s wages still contribute to the economy through taxes.

This has had a progressive effect on other domestic industries such as mining which also needs more workers, increasing profits, boosting disposable incomes, and thereby stimulating the domestic economy in no small way.

So while the presence of refugees in Australia might affect the economy adversely in some ways, overall refugees have had a salutary effect on the economy. The issue of refugees is one that industrialised nations can, and should, tackle in a more responsible way to lessen human suffering globally while still deriving economic benefits for all.

Edward Brima is a Masters student in International Development at La Trobe University