The case for increasing Australia's humanitarian intake

The case for increasing Australia's humanitarian intake

Daniel Bowers
April 26, 2022

The war in Ukraine has caused the fastest growing refugee crisis since WWII with over 4 million people having fled the country in the past five weeks. In response to the crisis, there are three durable solutions, in which refugees can reclaim rights associated with citizenship: repatriation, local integration, and resettlement.

Repatriation is when refugees return home and is the most often the preferred option by refugees and host countries. Over 870,000 refugees have returned to Ukraine after they had fled the war, due to a growing belief that the war may last for years and a willingness to accept the dangers rather than live as a refugee in another country, without a sense of community or home. However, many will not feel comfortable risking their safety to return home, as is the case for millions of refugees across the world who have escaped conflict and persecution.

The option of local integration is the process of refugees gaining permanent residency or naturalising in their host country, which is often a country neighbouring their country of origin. Currently, 85% of refugees are hosted in developing countries.

However, for the most vulnerable refugees, resettlement provides the most durable solution. However, less than one percent of the world’s refugees are resettled each year.  Worldwide in 2020, only 34,400 refugees were resettled out of the 20.7 million refugees mandated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 2019, the number was higher, at 108,000, yet it was just over half a percent of the mandated number.

Australia has a long history of accepting refugees, with over 900,000 accepted since 1947. In response to the war in Ukraine, the Australian government has made available a subclass 786 Temporary Humanitarian Concern (THC) visa for all Ukrainian nationals who are in Australia on temporary visas and those who will arrive in the coming months, other than maritime crew visa holders. The visa will be valid for three years and allow people to work, study, and access Medicare. So far, the government has granted over 6,000 Ukrainians this visa and over 1,700 of these visa holders have arrived in Australia. This is in addition to the 17,875 resettlement places allocated in the 2022-2023 budget under Australia’s humanitarian program, which was previously referred to as a ‘ceiling rather than a target’ by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, meaning the Government is under no obligation to meet this number. In per capita terms, Australia ranked fourth in refugee resettlements from host countries for 2020. However, after accounting for the overall number of refugees taken in each year from 2016 – 2020, Australia has disappointingly ranked between 14th and 30th per capita.

Due to the worsening global refugee crises, there have been calls for Australia to increase its Refugee and Humanitarian Program intake. This is in conjunction with the voices of leading economists who overwhelmingly support an increase of Australia’s permanent migration level to up to 190,000 per year to boost economic growth and promote a more dynamic society. A Deloitte Access Economics Report by Oxfam Australia in 2019 found that increasing Australia’s annual humanitarian intake to 44,000 over five years would align the country’s refugee resettlement with other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries and would bring an extra $37.7 billion to the economy in net present value terms over the next 50 years. This would also sustain an average of 35,000 additional new jobs every year.

The report finds that humanitarian migrants who are generally younger than the broader Australian population have an above average workforce participation in the health care and social assistance sector – 21% compared to the average 13%. An ageing population and the expansion of large-scale programs, such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, has seen this the industry become the nation’s largest and fastest growing. As such, an increase in humanitarian migration will help meet future labour demand. It is also interesting to note that the report found humanitarian migrants demonstrate greater entrepreneurial qualities than other visa streams, with 14% of their income coming from their own unincorporated business compared to just 4.7% of skilled migrants. This is because the challenges faced by some humanitarian migrants in gaining employment, due to factors such as language barriers, poor skill recognition, and discrimination can lead to entrepreneurial action becoming a necessity to support themselves and their families. Increased entrepreneurship is an important contributor to broader economic growth. A 2013 study found that just a 1% increase in start-up businesses per annum increases GDP per capita in the following year by approximately 0.3% and reduces unemployment by 0.1%.

Humanitarian migrants are initially a net recipient of government support after arriving as they require settlement services to set up their life in a new country. However, research has shown that it takes a little over ten years before taxation revenue collected from humanitarian migrants offsets the initial expenses.

Without a significant increase in the number of humanitarian visa places, Australia is unable to properly respond to the emerging needs of Ukrainian refugees, Afghans who have applied for resettlement, and refugees fleeing conflicts in nations such as Myanmar, Ethiopia, Syria, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Yemen, and Venezuela. The Deloitte-Oxfam report and other examples illustrate that supporting more people in need and increasing Australia’s humanitarian intake will not only benefit refugees but also the under-resourced developing nations currently hosting them, the cultural diversity of Australia, and most importantly, the Australian economy.