While lockdown measures remain our best strategy to manage the COVID-19 spread as vaccination rates increase, the resulting psychological distress and economic damage cannot be ignored. For refugees and people seeking asylum, the impact is disproportionately felt, and the challenges profound.
This article by Dr Victor Sojo, Dr Mladen Adamovic and Diarmuid Cooney-O'Donoghue was first published by Monash Lens on 30 September and is part of the Improving Management Practices to Integrate Refugees and People Seeking Asylum research project supported by the Melbourne Social Equity Institute.
While lockdown measures remain our best strategy to manage the COVID-19 spread as vaccination rates increase, the resulting psychological distress and economic damage cannot be ignored.
For refugees and people seeking asylum, the impact is disproportionately felt, and the challenges profound.
The experience of Mahmoud (not his real name) reflects the challenges refugees have faced in the Melbourne labour market over the past 18 months. Mahmoud is a refugee from the Middle East, who came to Australia two years ago for safety and a better life.
He lives in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, which continues to experience the worst impacts of the spread of COVID-19’s Delta variant. It’s a largely working-class region, with a considerable refugee population. These residents often work in industries such as warehousing, construction, healthcare, and delivery services that cannot be completed by working at home, exposing them to infection and job losses.
While Mahmoud is highly skilled, with a master’s degree and experience in engineering, he’s been unable to find work as an engineer in Australia because he lacks local work experience, and his engineering qualifications aren’t recognised in Australia.
However, after contacting a migrant support centre, a case worker put him in touch with an organisation that assists refugees and people seeking asylum to find work.
This organisation found an infrastructure and engineering company that agreed to take Mahmoud on as an intern. Unfortunately, in April 2020, as Melbourne battled through its first COVID-19 wave (March-June), the employer withdrew the opportunity. The company was more broadly laying off staff. Mahmoud faced a period of unemployment, but found casual work in a warehouse, below his skill level.
Mahmoud’s experience is mirrored by employers of refugees and those working for organisations assisting refugees and people seeking asylum to find work in Australia. For example, one manager who works in construction explained in mid-2020:
“We haven't planned any additional recruitment during the time of this current COVID outbreak […] I know overall, there’s definitely been a drop in the number of vacancies being advertised across the market. I think refugees will be lost in that potentially; there's a lot of people out of work at the moment.”
These findings are from a study based on 35 interviews with senior managers from organisations that employ and assist refugees and people seeking asylum in mid-late 2020, as Victoria battled through its second COVID-19 wave (July-November).
Our interviews indicate that the labour market has become more difficult for refugees and people seeking asylum in the COVID-19 era than it has been for other members of the Australian community. There are several reasons for this.
Declines in available jobs
The COVID-19 lockdowns have affected industries such as retail, gastronomy, hospitality, and tourism, where many refugees and people seeking asylum work. Our research indicates these people are often hired as an employment buffer, meaning they’re employed when a country’s economy is booming, but laid off when jobs are rare.
Further, they’re more likely to work in casual jobs without job security, making it easy for employers to terminate their employment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
More competition in the labour market
The decline in available jobs increases competition in the labour market. Thus, refugees and people seeking asylum often lose out due to having less Australian work experience, weaker employment networks, and unrecognised qualifications.
Lack of government support
The Australian government is spending billions of dollars to prevent the collapse of the Australian labour market, and help workers who suffer from financial hardship. Refugees with permanent visas can access JobSeeker payments that can reduce their financial hardship. However, people seeking asylum living in the community on temporary protection visas or bridging visas aren’t eligible for JobSeeker.
Now, without access to JobKeeper, employers are also less likely to keep on temporary visa holders.
Discrimination and an ‘Australian first’ mentality
Our findings indicate that an “Australian first” mentality has developed. An interview participant who assists refugees and people seeking asylum to find work argued that this population had suffered from bias during COVID-19:
“I think it has disadvantaged refugees even more, because there have been a lot of job cuts, and people have this ‘Look after Australians first’.”
A new path forward
In response to the challenges of refugees to find employment, our research suggests some strategies to improve employment prospects for refugees and people seeking asylum:
- Pathways to permanent residency and citizenship for people seeking asylum
- Access to healthcare and a financial safety net
- Online training and education
- Social procurement.
Within our interviews, the most common policy response referred to by managers was social procurement, which would see employment opportunities for disadvantaged groups set aside specifically within governments or other organisations.
For example, the Victorian Level Crossing Removal Agency provides opportunities for work experience in the infrastructure sector, and upskilling for refugees who have previous skills and experience in engineering in their country of origin within the EPIC Program. Such strategies can be replicated by other organisations with sufficient investment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated Australia’s reliance on essential workers in industries such as healthcare, aged care, warehousing and food services, many of whom are refugees and people seeking asylum. It’s our responsibility to repay the gratitude by supporting refugees and people seeking asylum to find sustainable employment, and to help them build better lives.