Beyond Borders: Reconceptualising the Refugee Burden

By Emily Lighezzolo

Emily represented QUT Business School at the 2016 OECD Forum in Paris.  


The refugee crisis has gained media attention on a global scale as forced migration has reached unprecedented levels following ongoing armed conflict and human rights abuses worldwide. Policy responses have been splintered across the international community, with both inclusive and exclusive agendas adopted as governments attempt to manage the consequences. While the refugee crisis is usually analysed through a humanitarian framework, an economic perspective is rarely examined. This paper looks to address the macro-economic implications of supportive refugee integration schemes in host countries, with particular focus on Australia. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) encourages early and supportive intervention policies by host countries to ensure successful integration of refugees and asylum seekers into labour markets. This paper will suggest policy recommendations to reconceptualise refugees as economic opportunities for OECD nations. Australia’s current refugee policies will be examined and compared to other OECD nations (Germany and Sweden) which have exemplary early labour force intervention programs. This is principally relevant with the current focus of the OECD on ‘productive economies and inclusive societies’, which provides a foundation for policy change and a coordinated scheme to alleviate the refugee crisis among OECD nations.

Introduction: the Refugee Crisis

The refugee crisis captured global attention in Europe last year as proportions of displaced persons reached figures which have not been witnessed since World War II. In the face of severe conflict and humanitarian abuses, the number of displaced people worldwide reached a record pinnacle of sixty million in 2015 (UNHCR, 2015). The scale of global forced displacement is not easing in 2016 but instead continues to grow. Despite the effects reaching worldwide, with common challenges and a shared threat, a severe discrepancy is evident in host nations’ policy responses on how to best deal with these refugee influxes.

An ongoing tension exists between restrictive and integrative policies for asylum seekers.  The notion of the ‘refugee burden’ has become predominant in political and public discourse (Zetter, 2012), and nationalist agendas frequently contravene a coordinated global response to the crisis. Policy responses are often judged through an ethical or humanitarian lens while the empirical economic perspective is ignored. Further, exclusionary preconceptions can present barriers to having a factual understanding of the refugee crisis, as asylum seekers can be misleadingly typecast and labelled with negative stereotypes. This paper poses integration questions through an economic framework so an evidence-based rationale for the successful integration of refugees into host countries can be developed to counter negative or biased stereotypes which are both socially and economically damaging.

The OECD supports the early, strategic and comprehensive integration of refugees and asylum seekers into the labour force. When given optimum support and opportunity, resettled refugees can have significant social, cultural and economic contributions to their host counties (Brima, 2013). Despite this, refugees and immigrants in OECD nations are often most likely to be unemployed, in low quality jobs or over-qualified in their jobs (OECD, 2015). In 2016, the OECD hopes to abolish the conception of the ‘refugee burden’ with the agenda of reconceptualising ‘refugees’ as ‘parts of the solution to many of the challenges our societies confront’ (OECD, 2016). In turn, OECD countries are encouraged to adopt open-door policies with early intervention agendas to not only alleviate the refugee crisis, but ensure successful integration of these refugees into host economies and societies. The OECD engages many of the most developed and influential countries, and progressive steps toward fixing the refugee crisis could be taken if member nations, including Australia, adopt its promoted agendas. 

Policy Recommendations

A coordinated global response will not only alleviate refugee influxes into certain host countries, but also provide an opportunity for economic and labour force growth. Australia also has its part to play in the face of this refugee crisis, being surrounded by a highly saturated region for displaced persons.

1.     Australia should adopt the three-step program for OECD countries to improve local integration of refugees into the labour market, which includes:

a)     Implement refugee skill assessments;

b)    Provide supplementary training and education to bring refuges up to work standards required in host countries; and

c)     Activate refugees’ skills through the cooperation of employers and support services.

2.     Germany and Sweden have exemplary programs in place to aid the OECD’s agenda, and it is recommended that Australia adopts similar early intervention and supportive policies.

3.     The Federal Government should continue to fund and further community involvement in aiding the integration of refugees into the labour force, which falls under the Federal Government’s 2013 Community Proposal Pilot which recognises that social and cultural integration would help facilitate successful labour force integration. Through this, employers and community groups, alongside the government, will work collaboratively with refugees to ensure their resettlement scheme matches individual skills and labour market gaps.

Ultimately, the refugee crisis can be reconceptualised as an opportunity for inclusive growth if Australia works toward integration agendas proposed by the OECD.

Australia’s Refugee Policy

Refugee resettlement is an expression of international solidarity and responsibility sharing, providing international protection for vulnerable persons whose life, freedoms, health and human rights are at risk (UNHCR, 2011). Neighbouring countries in the Asia-Pacific currently accommodate the highest number of refugees in any developing region with approximately 3.8 million displaced persons (UNHCR, 2015). The effects of the refugee crisis have reached Australia’s borders, and it is important for Australia to demonstrate positive initiative in its response in order for other developed nations to follow.

Australia has one of the highest voluntary resettlement programs per capita in the world, taking 13,750 refugees annually under its Humanitarian Program (Karlsen, 2015).  In response to the Middle-East conflict and the ensuing humanitarian abuses, Australia has also committed to resettle 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees on top of its annual quota. However, the refugee crisis is not restricted to Europe and the Middle East, and Australia also needs to respond more generously and rapidly to the refugee crisis in the region as well. 

While Australia is recognised by the High Commissioner for Refugees for its exemplary refugee programs in psychological rehabilitation and social support (Refugee Council of Australia, 2015), there is still room for improvement in ensuring the successful integration of refugees and asylum seekers into the labour force. According to the Building a New Life in Australia project (2016), 90% of surveyed refugees had failed to find a job within three to six months of their residence in Australia. This was due to a myriad of reasons including social, language and education barriers. Many asylum seekers on bridging or temporary visas were only permitted working rights in 2015, and the administrative process has been slow, with many still reliant on welfare payments (Brennan, 2015). Further, Australia’s intervention Jobactive program has been criticised by the Refugee Council of Australia as being ‘ineffective in helping refugee and humanitarian entrants to find employment’ and ‘creat[ing] additional barriers’ for job-seekers (RCOA, 2015). Incorrect appraisals of refugees’ skills and experience as well as miscommunications often cause job seekers to be placed in positions not suited to their capabilities or aspirations. Additionally, refugees usually find it difficult to enter local labour markets. As such, it is not surprising that their employment outcomes often lag behind other migrant groups. The OECD (2016) promulgates that the reception and settlement of refugees need to be customised to the individual, rather than through generalised service providers.

Additionally, Australia’s tough detention policies for asylum seekers create a further barrier to their integration into the labour market. At the end of 2015, approximately 1,800 asylum seekers were in remote or overseas detention facilities waiting for resettlement in Australia, with average detention durations of 445 days (Department of Immigration and Border Protection, 2015). This prolonged isolation can increase the chance of skill and experience depreciation as well as jeopardise future job prospects for resettled refugees due to the employment gap (OECD, 2016).

The OECD stresses the importance of early intervention by governments to ensure successful long-term integration of refugees into the economy and society. Lessons can be learnt from Australia’s fellow OECD countries on good integration practices and how policy makers can remove barriers and provide support for successful and lasting labour inclusion for refugees. Countries such as Germany and Sweden have exemplary policies to make refugees fully integrated members of the labour market and economy.

Lessons from Sweden and Germany

There are a number of limitations that need to be noted when analysing the economic impact of refugee settlements. The topic has not attracted very much scholarly interest, creating a lack of empirical data.  Further, economic statistics rarely make the distinction between forced-migration and choice-migration (Hugo, 2011). Therefore, these limitations are pertinent in the evaluation of Germany and Sweden’s immigration policies and when interpreting quoted statistics.

Sweden and Germany have both adopted open-door policies to the current refugee influxes surging through Europe, admitting the highest number of Syrian refugees among industrialised states outside the region (Ostrand, 2015). Admitted refugees in Germany are immediately granted unrestricted access to the labour market as well as social benefits on par with German citizens, while asylum seekers must wait a period of three months to enter the labour market and undergo a priority assessment (Archer, 2015). The OECD recognises that often resettled refugees are permitted immediate benefits, but asylum seekers have to wait months, sometimes years, to receive integration support from host countries (OECD, 2016). Germany has also implemented induction courses in language training and civic education for asylum seekers who have come from countries with high refugee resettlement rates (OECD 2016). Comparatively, Sweden permits asylum seekers labour market access immediately upon arrival as well as language training to aid assimilation into the workforce (Archer, 2015). However, labour restrictions are still placed on temporarily admitted asylum seekers in both Sweden and Germany. Self-employment is disallowed in Sweden and asylum seekers must undergo labour market tests until fifteen months of their residency in Germany (OECD, 2016).

While there are some barriers to labour market access in these countries, Germany and Sweden have implemented fast-paced and aided integration policies to increase the chances of refugees becoming positive members of the workforce. The International Monetary Fund (2016) estimates that if refugees are well integrated into the labour force, the GDP will rise in Germany and Sweden by 0.3% and 0.4% respectively. Comparatively, in its ‘Given the Chance’ program, Australia provides tailored employment support for refugees in the form of training and long-term partnerships with employers. However, asylum seekers are disregarded and given no support or integration training to gain entry into the Australian workforce.

Sweden and Germany also host integration policies that are customised to the individual and their experiences, skill levels and education. Both countries assess refugees’ workforce qualifications at their arrival to make sure their human capital is utilised and job prospects meet their individual profile. Sweden’s Recognition of Prior Learning scheme (RPL) tests refugees’ credentials, on-the-job skills and knowledge, with additional bridging courses if required, and places them in shortage occupations of similar skill-sets. Further, Sweden has also integrated employment elements into its dispersal scheme, placing refugees in localities with ample job opportunities that match their work profile. This ensures that refugees are not placed in regions where their skill sets are not in demand or where employment barriers exist (OECD, 2016).

Germany has an ‘Early Intervention’ program where case workers go out to reception facilities to assess refugees' competencies and qualifications, and then develop individual employment strategies to match their skills with the needs of German employers. However, the OECD (2016) recognises that local employers in OECD countries often disregard work experience and qualifications of persons from non-OECD countries. Australia does not have a systematic skill assessment to match refugees’ qualifications with employment opportunities, even though skills levels are important factors in successful labour market integration.

What Can Australia Learn?

By improving support services and integration strategies for refugees and asylum seekers, Australia can reap economic benefits and reconceptualise the ‘refugee burden’. Refugees can increase or create consumer markets, fill employment gaps and off-set aging demographics (Brima, 2013). Parsons (2016) asserts that refugees are willing to work in labour market sectors that are often eschewed by Australian citizens. They also provide an opportunity for regional growth, especially in economic sectors such as tourism, agriculture and mining, which often exhibit labour shortage (Hugo 2014). Refugees also have a higher participation in education and self-employment than Australian-born citizens (Hugo, 2014), showing an individual willingness to gain independent skills.

While it is important to note the short-term costs of resettling refugees, the long-term benefits to Australia’s economy and labour force can off-set these costs. The RCOA (2010) has found that net economic impact of refugees is positive after approximately a decade and this can be reduced if Australia adopts more supportive and strategic integration policies.


The ‘refugee burden’ can be reconceptualised as an opportunity for economic and labour force growth when examined through an economic lens. However, policy responses still remain splintered among the international community with both inclusive and exclusive agendas being adopted. The OECD promotes productive economies as a result of inclusive societies, which in-turn will foster a globally coordinated scheme in alleviating the refugee crisis. Australia also has an important part to play in aiding the global scale of displaced persons, even in its isolation. There exists a unique situation to reframe the refugee crisis as being a humanitarian disaster into an economic opportunity. This can be done if OECD nations support the long-term integration of refugees into the labour force with early intervention programs.

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