Refugee settlement governance has 'no centre of gravity'

By David Donaldson

February 20, 2017

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Construction of road infrastructure

There is “no centre of gravity” within government for helping settle newly arrived refugees into their lives in Australia, argues a report released by the Centre for Policy Development.

Giving the system more coherence by centralising responsibility for post-arrival settlement services — a policy  area currently divided between three departments at the federal level — would help increase employment rates among refugees, improving social cohesion, saving the budget money and enabling new arrivals to lead better lives.

The current setup is not doing a good job getting refugees into employment. It’s estimated just 17% of humanitarian migrants are in paid work after being in Australia for 18 months. Two out of five recently arrived humanitarian migrants work as labourers, but the need for labourers in the economy is falling. Before coming to Australia, 60% of refugees held high-skilled jobs, but only 26% of humanitarian migrants working in Australia are in high-skilled positions.

Settling better: reforming refugee employment and settlement services, authored by researcher Henry Sherrell with the assistance of BCG, identifies five principal barriers to newly arrived refugees finding jobs: limited English, a lack of work experience, poor health, a lack of opportunities for women and having only been in Australia for a short amount time.

“The refugees Australia has settled have proved to be among the most entrepreneurial and talented members of society,” says Terry Moran, CPD chair and former secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

“Australia’s relatively poor performance in getting recent arrivals into jobs is further evidence mainstream employment services are failing the very people who most need help. It’s time for a new approach.”

Improving outcomes by 25% for just one year’s cohort would improve those individuals’ financial position by $466 million over a decade and save the Australian government $176 million, the report estimates. Maintaining these achievements would compound the benefits.

The report represents the first time the Building a New Life in Australia longitudinal research survey data has been analysed publicly, and builds on an August 2016 roundtable co-hosted by the Centre for Policy Development and the Centre for Public Impact, which featured insights from experts and policy makers from Australia, Canada, the United States and Germany on settlement services and labour market integration for refugees.

Governance divided

To improve the number of humanitarian migrants finding jobs and ensure successful integration, CPD recommends a three-pronged approach: investing in efforts to overcome the barriers identified, including intensive case management and rebuilding existing programs on an improved evidence base; taking policy ideas from overseas, including enhancing community and private sponsorship, better recognition of existing skills and developing microfinance options; and giving the Department of Social Services carriage of post-arrival policy.

At present, post-arrival responsibility is divided between the DSS (social support on arrival and ongoing, such as housing referrals and community orientation), the Department of Education and Training (language and other education) and the Department of Employment. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection handles pre-arrival.

Spreading governance across three departments is “highly detrimental”, argues the report.

“There is no centre of gravity for humanitarian policy. New policy proposals must sift through multiple checkpoints and veto processes. Administrative coordination is difficult and unruly. By splicing up each section of humanitarian policy into small parcels, each component part is lost in the broader departmental setting where the primary goal does not align with humanitarian policy,” says the think tank.

To improve policy development, implementation and oversight, a single department should be responsible for how humanitarian migrants are selected and processed before they come to Australia, and another for what occurs after they arrive.

CPD recommends the Department of Immigration and Border Protection be responsible for the former, and the Department of Social Services for the latter.

“The complexity of settlement services necessitates a centre of gravity within a government department that has an explicit mandate to build public confidence, maintain social cohesion and improve humanitarian employment outcomes. There must be a clear line of responsibility so that government can safeguard public confidence in the migration program and the humanitarian program, twin public policy traditions in Australia that have shaped who we are as a country and as a society,” the report argues.

The good news is the government can do better, says the Centre for Policy Development’s CEO, Travers McLeod.

“One government department must own the problem, invest in overcoming identified employment barriers and establish a more integrated approach to settlement services linked with local communities,” he thinks.

“As our economy changes and demand for low skill labour drops it will only become harder for humanitarian migrants to secure work. We need to act now.”

The Commonwealth is of course not the only government involved in the resettlement process — state and local levels also play an important role, with certain councils holding a disproportionate number of resident refugees.

“This places a premium on integrated, joined up service delivery at the community level,” argues the report.

A federal Office of Humanitarian Settlement would be well-placed to ensure a proactive, properly funded approach to local engagement, CPD believes. It would focus on policy, program design, commissioning, identification of best practice and accountability, and would not directly deliver services but can improve coordination of service delivery between state, local government and not-for-profit providers.

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