Friday, 07 February 2020

Address to the Menzies Research Centre, Melbourne

The Hon Alan Tudge MP is currently acting Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs

Thank you for having me and it is good to be back here at a Menzies Research Centre event.

As you may know, in December, the Prime Minister asked me to take on the additional responsibilities of Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs while David Coleman is on leave for personal reasons.

These responsibilities align very closely with my existing portfolio of Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure and David and I have worked on many issues together.  Moreover, I was Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs just two years ago, so I am familiar with the portfolio and hope to be able to continue the great work that David has done.

This is my first major speech as the Acting Immigration Minister – on a topic that is very important to Australia’s identity, our values, and our international obligations – our humanitarian intake.

Australia has a long and proud history of helping people in humanitarian need – people who have been displaced, fled conflict, suffered persecution and who have witnessed unspeakable atrocities.

Since World War II, we have welcomed more than 900,000 refugees and people in humanitarian need.

These people have helped make Australia what is today, with many becoming captains of industry or senior public figures – people like Harry Triguboff, Tan Le, Deng Adut, Sir Frank Lowy, South Australia Governor Hieu Van Le and the late Les Murray.

We are among the most generous nations in the world in this regard, with 18,750 places set aside for refugees and humanitarian entrants each year.  Our government has lifted this figure from 13,750 in 2013-2014.

On a per capita basis, only Canada has a higher intake. In fact, we are among only a handful of countries with an annual permanent humanitarian resettlement program.

Despite the commentary in the Twittersphere and in sections of the media, our record on humanitarian and refugee settlement is something all Australians should be very proud of. We have provided opportunities for people in desperate need and in the vast majority of cases, those people have seized the opportunity and made a great contribution back to our multicultural nation.

My message today however is that we still face immense challenges, and in critical areas, outcomes are getting worse, not better.

There are three main challenges I particularly want to address and they will be a focus of our government over the rest of this term of parliament: the unacceptably low employment rate of our humanitarian intake; the geographical concentration of settlement; and ongoing challenges with ensuring that we give refuge to those most in need.

Getting more into jobs

The key to Australia’s multicultural success has been how well we have integrated people from around the world and arguably the most important factor to successful integration is having a job.

A job is more than just a way of earning income. With a job comes a community, social interactions and pride that one is contributing to their own well-being and that of others.  There is self-confidence, dignity and independence that comes with working.

This applies to everyone, including our humanitarian intake. In fact, it is arguably even more important to their success in Australia so that they can have fulfilling lives and be at the centre of Australian society, not on its fringes.

The Centre for Policy Development makes this clear, stating “there is overwhelming evidence that employment provides the bedrock for successful integration”. FECCA and the Migration Policy Group make similar observations.

But on this basis, we are not doing well, despite all the investment, good intentions and an internationally recognised settlement program.

According to the 2016 Census the unemployment rate of refugees after one year of arriving is 77 per cent. And while the unemployment rate drops rapidly over time, 38 per cent are still unemployed after three years of being in Australia and 22 per cent after 10 years.

Unemployment at this rate is not good enough. Long term welfare dependence is debilitating for anyone, be they a refugee, long term citizen or anyone else.  We have to do better.

Moreover, the employment situation of our humanitarian intake now is quite different to that of earlier decades. In the 50s and 60s, many of the men went immediately into work when they arrived. Of course this was an era of exceptionally low unemployment generally and where low skilled work requiring little English was plentiful. Today’s job market is quite different.

Today, we expect that the unemployment rate of the humanitarian intake will be higher than other cohorts given the trauma which many have endured and the fact that as many as 5 per cent arrive with no literacy skills in any language, let alone English.

But it should not be as high as it is. 

The prize if we get better employment outcomes is immense, most importantly for individuals to enable them to fulfil their potential.  But also, for Australian society, socially and economically. 

A recent study undertaken by Curtin Business School shows that if migrants are given opportunities to work in jobs that match their skills and qualification, it could add $6 billion per annum to the Australian economy.

Reducing the “employment gap” by 25 per cent for a single year’s intake of refugees is estimated to be worth $484 million in income to those refugees and $180 million boost to the federal budget over 10 years.

So how do we improve the employment outcomes?

The Prime Minister commissioned Professor Peter Shergold AC to provide advice on how to improve settlement outcomes, noting that economic participation is critical. Professor Shergold made seven recommendations last year, all of which we adopted in part or in full.

But we are going further than the Shergold recommendations and getting more refugees into jobs will be an ongoing focus.

There are several components to our approach to getting better outcomes. 

First, improving English language capabilities

One of the biggest determinants of whether a refugee is in a job is their level of English.

English is more important than ever in the labour market – with less low skilled jobs and growing occupational health and safety standards which require a basic understanding of the language.

According to the Centre for Policy Development, 85 per cent of those who speak English very well are in the labour market, versus only 15 per cent of those who cannot speak English.

BNLA data shows that when identifying reasons for finding it difficult to get a job, close to 60 per cent of humanitarian entrants said “my English isn’t good enough yet”.

There is no other indicator which is as stark.

The Government invests $250 million a year into English language programs, including the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP). The AMEP gives eligible migrants 510 hours of free English language tuition. Humanitarian entrants can get up to an additional 1090 additional hours including job-specific lessons.

We know that successful completion of the AMEP can help people get jobs, including for those who arrive from war-torn countries with no English at all.

Overall, however, only 21 per cent of people who exit the program have a functional level of English. This is due in part because participants on average exit the program after 300 hours of classes, well below the minimum 510 hours freely available.  

When surveyed, most participants (60 per cent) say they don’t complete the program because of work or family commitments, and others because they just don’t feel the class is useful.

The Shergold Review concluded that there is not a strong enough focus on vocational English in the AMEP, and not enough flexibility to enable refugees to work and learn English at the same time.

The Government is reforming this program and we will be monitoring it more closely on an ongoing basis.  To start, the program has been brought inside the Home Affairs Department to better align with other settlement programs.

From July, we will also be trialing new ways of delivering English tuition.

Organisations will trial different options, which could include:

  • The ability for those already working to do language training in their workplace or online. 
  • Providing childcare and English classes at the same locations so mothers can attend without worrying about dropping their kids somewhere else.
  • Or better still, “mums and bubs” classes where mums can meet and learn with others in a similar situation.

If these trials work, the government will roll them out further.

From July, we are also changing how we measure progress in the AMEP and we will be monitoring outcomes more closely. I want providers to improve their performance and I want participants to commit to doing the work.

Finally, I will be exploring whether English language training can begin even before a person arrives in Australia. Typically, a person will be waiting in a camp or their community for up to 10 weeks after they know they have a place in Australia. There may be opportunities to do more here.

The second way to improve employment outcomes is to have more specialist based employment services that can offer more customized attention to individual refugees. 

This was the direct recommendation of Professor Shergold based on the finding that “the present jobactive system is simply not delivering the outcomes for refugees that it should.”

Consequently, I am working closely with my colleague Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash, Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business to trial new methods of connecting humanitarian entrants with the jobs available.

Already the Government is running Regional Employment Trials in ten disadvantaged regions, to assist local jobseekers - including refugees and migrants – get into work.

They are generating good results.

For example, the Bricklaying and Construction Pathways for Young Refugee and Migrant Job Seekers project in Melbourne.

The collaboration between the African community and large employers is focused on young migrants and refugees who have been unemployed for more than six months.

Already, 19 people are training to get a formal qualification in bricklaying and construction, and a job with a major building company.

In Townsville, the Language Boost for New Migrant Jobs program is creating jobs for migrants who have English skills and previous work experience but haven’t been able to find work.

After completing training and accreditation, graduates of the project will undertake fee-for-service contract work, providing support to other new arrivals as Bilingual Support Workers.

These trials will inform the development of a new employment services model, in July 2022.

The Government is also rolling out a two-year Skilled Refugee Pilot to offer skilled employment in Australia to up to 100 skilled refugees, including in regional areas.

We will be working with an experienced external provider to develop the pilot within our existing, permanent skilled visa framework.

Third, we want to harness the good will and the innovative approaches from businesses and the community.

When we announced in 2015 that we would resettle an additional 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees, a flood of offers came in from businesses, individuals and community organisations wanting to lend a helping hand.

There is enormous good will in the community and incredible innovation which is occurring. 

Companies like Allianz, Woolworths and the John Holland Group have put in place special initiatives to recruit and retain refugees in the workforce – to give them a better chance in Australia. We would like to see more companies follow their pathway.

There are also great community organisations which get impressive results with getting refugees trained and into jobs.  We need to examine how we can scale up these organisations or see them replicated elsewhere.

Sydney’s ‘Bread and Butter Project’, for example, was set up in 2013 by members of a local, small business to help humanitarian entrants become qualified bakers. Since then, more than 40 people have undertaken the six-to-eight month traineeship, which includes on-the-job bakery training, TAFE accreditation, English-language tutoring and assistance in securing ongoing employment after graduation.

The results speak for themselves:  Every single graduate has found employment, none of the graduates access Newstart allowance and all the children of the graduates are either in school, at university or employed.

Thrive is another organisation that operates in Sydney and Melbourne – providing mentoring, business and financial support to help refugees build successful businesses. Thrive has funded 188 businesses - a vast majority of which are still, simply thriving.  Thrive has met with around 1,000 refugees and humanitarian migrants and written over 600 business plans. I expect many more of these business plans will come to life in the months and years ahead.

I’ll be taking advice on how to capitalise on great initiatives like these and those in the Regional Employment Trials from a newly created Refugee and Migrant Services Advisory Council.

Paris Aristotle AO will chair the new council, but will be supported by members with direct employment experience.

  • Ms Kerrin Benson: outgoing Chief Executive Officer of settlement provider, Multicultural Australia;
  • Mr Huy Truong: Co-founder and Deputy Chair of the not-for-profit Thrive Refugee Enterprise
  • Ms Prudence Melom: Chief Executive Officer of E-raced, a not-for-profit organisation combating racism
  • Mr Pat O’Sullivan: who brings extensive very senior business experience at PBL Media Nine Entertainment Co and Optus, and is currently the Chairman of Carsales.com, HealthEngine and Dreams 2Live4, a program supporting people living with cancer.

The council will have its first meeting with me later this month.

Fourth, we need to coordinate services better.

Professor Shergold was clear in his report that we need a better connected system – that “bureaucratic silos, within and across governments, undermine an end-to-end service delivery”.

Community organisations and industry say they are often frustrated that support for refugees has been disjointed – you deal with one department for health, another for settlement services, another for English language training and another for employment services.

We’ve already taken practical steps to address this.

We have moved responsibility for migrant services from the social services minister to the immigration minister. And settlement programs, including the AMEP, have been consolidated into the Department of Home Affairs. One minister, one department responsible for overseeing a humanitarian entrants’ journey end-to-end.

The newly created position of Commonwealth Coordinator-General for Migrant Services also reports directly to me, as the acting minister, and the Secretary of the Department.

The Coordinator-General – Ms Alison Larkins – will coordinate services across the Commonwealth and work with state, territory and local governments, the private sector and community organisations.

Ms Larkins will be a centre of gravity – ensuring the government services on offer, all the community groups wanting to help and all the businesses looking to employ refugees are working together.

She will have a national focus, but work locally to harness community goodwill, build capacity in regional communities, drive efficiencies and ultimately deliver better employment and English language outcomes.

Regional settlement

Since 2014-15, more than 70 per cent of refugees have been settled in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

This has led to over-concentration in some suburban areas. In 2018-19, 60 per cent of humanitarian entrants settling in Sydney have settled in Fairfield, while a third who settled in Melbourne live in Hume.

This puts strain on services and often isolates refugees. We want refugees to be part of the wider Australian community – not just confined predominantly to certain suburbs.

Many refugees have come from rural communities and succeed in regional areas.

The Shergold Review noted that regional areas provide refugees more attractive employment and lifestyle options, and the opportunity to connect to a welcoming community.

Department of Social Services research found humanitarian entrants living in a regional area were 11 per cent more likely to be employed than those in a metropolitan area.

Professor Shergold also noted “there is an unmet appetite for greater numbers of refugees to live in regional and rural Australia.”

More refugees in regional areas helps fill labour shortages and stimulates local economies. Many communities are facing ageing and declining populations – more refugees addresses both.

The resettlement of Karen refugees has added more than $40 million dollars to the small Victorian town of Nhill and more than $67 million to the city of Bendigo. They’ve also helped create hundreds of new jobs.

The proportion of refugees referred for settlement in a regional area has been increasing in recent years, from 30.2% in 2016-17 to 44.8% in 2018-19.

We have now set a target of 50 per cent by mid-2022.

And we are looking at opportunities to expand regional settlement locations this year to add to the 21 we already have in place.

We are working very closely with State and Territory Governments, local councils and communities to ensure appropriate supports, such as housing, employment, health and English language tuition are in place.

This must be done with the support of local communities.

The Government will have more to say about this in the not too distant future.

Keeping our borders secure and giving refuge to those most in need

The final challenge that I want to discuss today is the ongoing challenge we have to ensure that Australia remains firmly in control of who arrives in the country.  This is vital to ensure the integrity of the immigration system and guarantee ongoing public support.  Importantly, it is also critical to ensure that our fixed annual humanitarian places are provided to those most in need.

As a nation, we have experienced the situation where Australia lost control.  Under the former Labor government, the borders became porous, and people smugglers determined who arrived in the country, not the Australian Government.

Integrity was lost, confidence in our system was lost, people drowned, and desperate people in refugee camps had their places taken.

This last point was often lost. During Labor’s time in Government, the number of people granted a Special Humanitarian Visa dropped from almost five thousand people to just 500 – people who had followed the proper processes, who did not pay people smugglers, were displaced by those who arrived unlawfully on boats.

Since coming to Government in 2013, we have worked hard to restore our borders and rebuild the Australian public’s trust of our immigration programs.

By doing this, we are able to settle those most in need, in particular women, children and minorities. We have now set specific targets for these groups.

As Professor Shergold identified, “we should maintain a general and well-targeted program, working in close collaboration with the UNHCR.  Maintaining the integrity of selection based on humanitarian need is paramount.”

The Government committed at the last election to maintain the humanitarian program at 18,750 places per year over the next four years.


The Government spends around $500 million each year on settlement support for humanitarian entrants and vulnerable migrants. Professor Shergold and his team acknowledged that our settlement services “are of a high standard” and are “well-respected internationally”. So we start from a position of strength.

However, we must do better, particularly in relation to employment.

In the words of Professor Shergold: “If we continue to do what we have done until now, we will continue to get what we always got.”

I have never met a refugee who doesn’t want to succeed, who doesn’t want to contribute to Australia, like so many generations of migrants have before them.

Humanitarian entrants have much to offer our nation, but also have significant challenges to overcome. This Government will support them to succeed in Australia.

This will benefit us all.