At last count there were estimated to be at least 15 million refugees under the care of the United Nations globally, with war and conflicts being the main reasons people are driven to leave their homelands. Of this vast number, just 2,000 refugees came to Tasmania during the five years from 2008 to 2013, as part of the national humanitarian program.
Tasmania’s numbers are a tiny fraction of the 76,000 refugees that settled in Australia during that period – which is in itself a small number compared to the global refugee challenge.
In Tasmania we are a world away from the chaos of war. While we may not understand a journey driven by fear that can last half a lifetime, we can celebrate our ability to be a haven for asylum seekers. Many of us also have empathy for their devastating stories and relate to the upheaval of leaving a home you love.
But can Tasmanians also take another step and see the potential contribution that refugees can make to our island home? Can we embrace the idea that we need to do more to attract and keep more people here in the future?
While Tasmania has wonderful settlement services and community supporters for the tiny number of refugees we receive, there are many in the community that are less tolerant. Public attitudes about asylum seekers arriving by boat have hardened.
In January 2014 an opinion poll found that 60% of Australians want the government to increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers. 59% oppose refugees receiving government welfare assistance. While we don’t have Tasmanian statistics, we can assume attitudes are proportionate.
It’s also common to hear people making a distinction between refugees and other migrants – refugees are portrayed negatively, other migrants positively. The reality is that there are many experiences that both groups share –moments of joy, frustration and pain with the journey to a new land. A new home may promise opportunity, but there are barriers to overcome and confusing mazes of language and culture to decode. While their visas may have different numbers and their homelands more troubled, refugees bring labour, skills, and they increase the overall demand for goods and services. Like all migrants, Tasmania’s economy would benefit from an injection of new residents.
So how do we get there? The processing of refugees is an opportunity for Tasmania worth money and jobs, and something the state does well. The most recent federal budget allocates billions to the processing of a few thousand refugees offshore over the next 4 years – that’s thousands of dollars per day for each man, woman and child held in offshore detention centres. This budget is more remarkable when you compare that globally the United Nations has a budget of just $5.3 billion a year, to manage millions of refugees in dozens of countries! In comparison, it makes our levels of expenditure look overblown and unsustainable.
Offshore processing costs taxpayers ten times more than allowing asylum seekers to live in the community while their refugee claims are being processed. Thousands of jobs could be created by processing asylum seekers in Tasmania – without the inhumane conditions that have led to suicide attempts and violence in the offshore centres.
There are currently only about 60 people living in community detention in Tasmania. They are supported by community organisations, and their presence here creates local jobs and builds more diversity in the community. Pontville employed around 250 people – if we were to process all those who are still waiting on Manus and Nauru, that number of jobs would be in the thousands.
Becoming a hub for refugee processing is one thing, but Tasmania also has a population challenge that can be assisted by ensuring refugees choose to settle here. Tasmanian demographers predict that our population is on the cusp of decline, which combined with a rapidly aging population, presents a seriously issue for Tasmania’s future.
Overseas migration has been an important tool for most states of Australia to offset their decline in natural birth rate and the ageing of the population. But in Tasmania we have not seen this occur. Any small growth from overseas migration has failed to have an impact because a so many refugees and migrants tend to not stay here in the longer term. Community leaders report to the Council that people leave Tasmania because of support they can get from bigger and better resourced ethnic community networks in mainland cities.
Tasmania has room to welcome more refugees and other migrants – currently 12% of our population is born overseas, while the average on the mainland is 25%. Getting a better sense of how well we are retaining people and the reasons that people are leaving is essential for Tasmania, if we are to benefit from the skills and energy of new Australians, as valued members of our communities.