It takes a village: why resettling refugees should be a community effort

An image of people's hands at a meeting
An image of people's hands at a meeting

Australia is seeking to resettle more refugees through new initiatives. But how does this benefit our nation, and regional areas in particular?

Associate Professor Sally Baker

ANU Centre for Social Policy Research

In the next year, Australia’s refugee intake will exceed one million people resettled since the end of the Second World War.

In a country of only 26 million people, that is an extraordinary story - especially when we think about the many generations of people with refugee and refugee-like experience we share our neighbourhoods, schools, local cafes, and playgrounds with.

This is why Australia is described as having one of the most generous per-capita humanitarian programs in the world.

However, the global displacement crisis grows more dire every day. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) estimates that more than 120 million people have been forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations. This is nearly six million more than this time last year. Most are hosted in neighbouring countries, many of which have limited resources.

The UNHCR tries to secure one of three durable solutions to support displaced peoples and relieve the pressure on countries of asylum: voluntary return, local integration, or resettlement to countries including Australia. For the latter, the demand far outstrips the supply and fewer than one per cent of refugees find a resettlement option.

What’s happening in Australia?

In 2023, Australia increased the yearly intake of our government-assisted humanitarian program to 20,000 places. While this is relatively generous, it won’t shift the dial on the growing global need.

To grow our resettlement numbers, Australia’s Immigration Minister, Andrew Giles, argues that we need to build the ’social licence’ by sharing the opportunities (and costs) of resettlement with civil society and other groups through ’ complementary pathways’ , in addition to existing government programs.

We have several complementary pathways in Australia - the Community Refugee Integration and Settlement Pilot (CRISP), where local community groups provide settlement support for at least one year, and the Skilled Refugee Labour Agreement Pilot , where employers hire refugees to fill roles and skills gaps.

A third - the Refugee Student Settlement Pathway - is ready to be piloted. It’s entirely feasible to imagine other complementary pathways with clubs and other special interest groups.

There are clear incentives for government to share the high costs of resettlement, but it also makes broader economic sense. In Canada, where private sponsorship has existed for decades, shows that community-sponsored refugees consistently have higher employment outcomes and earnings than government-assisted refugees.

Community sponsorship

Community involvement can have significant positive impacts. In the United Kingdom (UK), where the Community Sponsorship Program was established in 2016, there are accounts of how the initiative " creates a strong network of allies, friends and neighbours."

Working together to help newly arrived refugees also enables community members to get to know each other better. A report from The Church of England noted that people helping to "transform the lives of a resettled family" also "transformed their community for the better in the process, with greater communication, cohesion, and integration."

Skilled refugee employment

While community sponsorship will take time to scale, skilled refugee employment could be a game changer, providing significant economic and labour benefits to countries including Australia.

Working with global organisation, Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB), which has developed a global refugee Talent Catalog , several countries have begun to fill key skills gaps through leveraging the untapped experiences, talents, and resources in displaced communities.

The key to refugee labour mobility is that it uses a skilled visa with concessions, rather than a humanitarian visa, to bring refugees and their families into resettlement countries. TBB works closely with employers to match eligible refugees to jobs and to support them through the visa process.

It is particularly well-suited to filling urgent skills gaps. For example, in the UK the National Health Service has worked with TBB to source over 200 nurses and healthcare professionals.

In Australia, where 36 per cent of professions are in national shortage - especially in regional areas - refugee labour mobility offers key opportunities for meeting those needs. Examples include engineers and IT professionals, but also halal abattoir workers, aged care, and health workers. TBB has 500 primary applicant places to fill by 2025 and expects to then scale significantly by connecting training and education pathways and graduates with job requirements and experiences before refugees arrive.

But we know little about how employers - particularly small and medium enterprises, and those in regional Australia - perceive the idea of skilled refugee employment. And we will struggle to scale a good idea without finding out more and responding to the concerns and barriers that employers perceive.

To that end, an ARC-funded Linkage project led by The Australian National University and the University of New South Wales in conjunction with TBB and Regional Australia Institute, are embarking on a four-year research project to visit regional and rural sites in every state and territory to speak to local employers, industry groups and the local community.

Given the global need, the national skills gaps, and the significant community goodwill that exists within the Australian community, investing in complementary pathways makes good sense. But we also need to make sure we bring community, employers and universities along with us as we do so.

This article was co-authored by Dr Claire Higgins from the University of New South Wales and Jemma Bailey from Talent Beyond Boundaries.