New regional refugee visas can be a win-win if we match people with the areas that need them
Jack Archer – Deputy CEO, The Regional Australia Institute
The story of Nam-Ha Quach published in ABC Open last week exemplifies the contribution of refugees that settle in regional Australia. Teacher by day and market gardener by night, Nam-Ha and his family run a ‘suspended veggie’ program. They double all donations made and deliver produce to refugee families in the Ballarat region.
Thousands of new refugees could join regional communities to alleviate workforce shortages under the Australian Government’s new refugee policy. The creation of a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) late last year provides a new alternative to the controversial Temporary Protection Visa.
The right people going to the right areas could make this a successful initiative for both regional areas and refugees, but there is a lot to be done before we’re at that point.
Many regional areas have very few spare workers and find it difficult to recruit workers when they need them. [In]Sight Australia’s regional competitiveness index shows that the labour markets which are the most competitive and under the greatest pressure are in regional Australia (see map). This suggests an unmet demand for workers, particularly in agriculture and supporting industries such as local services, manufacturing or processing.
There is also a strong precedent for humanitarian migration into regional Australia and a depth of experience in regional areas. Areas in rural South Australia and Victoria particularly have welcomed many humanitarian migrants to their communities. Their experience tells us that while challenging, the opportunity is significant if refugees who are prepared to take a chance at life in the country.
High demand for the SHEV amongst new refugees is also likely. Neither of the available visas guarantee permanent protection, but compared to the reintroduced Temporary Protection Visa (TPV), a SHEV offers the chance to stay for five years in Australia and also the opportunity to move to skilled or student visas if a period of sustained employment is achieved.
At this point, the publicly available details of how the SHEV policy will work remain scant and the Government’s impending announcement of the details of this initiative will be a test of how committed they are to making the concept work. While it was not their initial policy, there is a substantial opportunity for success if it is thoughtfully set up and managed well.
Current announcements identify that regions will need to nominate themselves to participate in the program, thereby enabling SHEV holders to work in their community. Refugees will also have to choose a SHEV visa over the option of a TPV. The risk is that from here the Australian Government takes a hands-off approach to implementation. Ensuring the right workers go to regions that need them will require an active facilitation process.
The first question many regions will be asking is what kind of skills and experience refugees could bring to their community. There will be willingness in many regional areas to welcome refugees. However, to convince communities to participate, local leaders will also need to be confident the refugees can genuinely resolve unmet job needs in their region.
Providing regions and employers with basic information on the skills and experience of eligible refugees should be a priority. Around 30% of humanitarian visa holders can be expected to have formal qualifications that may allow them to take up more skilled roles. People with a rural background or experience in agriculture may be particularly valued by communities. Regions need better information to make an informed decision about whether to participate.
Refugees will also need to be informed to make the right choice. Professionally skilled refugees and those with an urban heritage may be reluctant to participate in the program without understanding the opportunities on offer. This is where local government and regional employers will need to step in. State governments indicating their intention to nominate areas for SHEV participation, in consultation with local leaders, and identification of the types of jobs likely to be available would be a welcome first step.
This will enable good initial choices to be made by both sides, but the need for refugees to be mobile within regional Australia should also to be considered. Employment conditions can change and some work may be seasonal. Ensuring people can move between regions during the five year period is essential to success.
Finally, it can be expected that many areas will need to bring new services online to enable SHEV holders access to support services. The Refugee Resource Centre’s online directory of refugee services currently lists no regionally based services. It is important that arrangements for support to SHEV holders are clarified.
Our assessment is that each of these issues can be resolved via a proactive and practical approach to implementation. The history of humanitarian migration in regions and the persistent need for workers suggests it could be a successful one, enabling SHEV holders to secure long term employment and make a valued contribution to the future of our regional communities.