This is an edited extract of an address given by Hugh de Kretser at the Victorian Multicultural Commission’s Refugee Week event on 23 June, 2016
Australia is a multicultural success story and the contribution of refugees are a key part of that success. Australia has successfully accepted over 7 million migrants since 1945 including around 800,000 refugees and humanitarian entrants.
At its heart, the Refugees Convention is about a simple human notion of the international community cooperating to ensure that people fleeing crises are provided protection. By signing up to the Convention, Australia voluntarily made a legally binding promise to protect people from persecution, regardless of future social and economic contributions.
While protecting people is the primary goal, the evidence is clear about the great contribution refugees make.
The Immigration Department's research, conducted by Professor Graeme Hugo on the long term economic, social and civil contributions of humanitarian entrants, concluded that “the overwhelming picture over the longer term…is one of considerable achievement and contribution.”
The research contradicts the picture painted by the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton of illiterate and innumerate refugees somehow “taking Australian jobs” and “languishing in unemployment queues.”
The BRW Rich List is littered with success stories from refugee backgrounds. From Frank Lowy to Judy Cassab to Anh Do, there are numerous business leaders, community leaders, artistic, sporting and political leaders who arrived in Australia after fleeing persecution.
But of course success shouldn’t be measured only in terms of wealth or fame.
For someone fleeing war, trauma and persecution, success is safety. Success is being able to raise a child and look after their wellbeing. Success is rebuilding lives.
Success is engaging in productive, dignified work – whether it be cleaning, driving a taxi or working as a doctor.
Peter Dutton’s comments undermined that dignity. They deliberately undermined the pride that Australians rightly feel about the success of refugee contributions.
The fact that refugees and their children do so well, despite their background of extraordinary hardship and trauma, shows just how remarkable their stories are.
And for the 20% or so of refugees who arrive by boat and who endure the calculated cruelty of years in detention centres and on limbo on temporary visas, their success is even more remarkable.
Hugh de Kretser is the Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre.