More Refugees Are Good For The Economy, And Society

I vividly remember meeting and getting to know John*, a young man in his late teens, through my past work in health and justice.

He was nearing the end of a stint in juvenile detention and I had the opportunity to ask about his experience of being locked up and what he hoped for his future.

John took me by surprise when he spoke about how society just saw him as a bad young person and how little we understood, or cared, about what had happened to him -- what he had survived -- and the experience of being in a new country and not feeling welcome.

You see, John had been forced to be a child soldier and he’d seen terribly traumatic things and survived too much violence.

He'd figured out for himself how to get out of that terrible situation and apply for refugee status with the United Nations Refugee Agency, eventually getting resettled in Australia.

READ MORE: Developing Countries Are Putting Australia To Shame On Refugees

Despite his troubled past, John had an incredible pride and motivation.

When I asked if he had family, he said: " No. This is me now, I am alone".

If you really consider that statement, it's an incredibly heartbreaking and deeply isolated thing for someone to say.

Lucy, a Sudanese refugee living in Melbourne, holds an old photo of her daughter Susan -- they were separated inn 1988, due to civil war, and eventually reunited six years later in Australia. (Image: Kim Landy/OxfamAUS)

This conversation gave me insight into just how stressful and hard it is for refugees settled in Australia to try and build a new life here. It can be especially difficult when the family members they love dearly -- parents, sisters and brothers, aunts, uncles or cousins -- are missing, living in danger in the war-torn countries they’ve fled or struggling to survive in a refugee camp on the other side of the world.

Compare John’s experience to another women I worked with, Amara*.

I only met Amara briefly the first time, but I was aware that her circumstances were deeply challenging. She was a single mother struggling to meet her own needs and those of her children.

Months later I bumped into Amara and couldn’t believe how well and happy she looked. She spent the next 15 minutes telling me about how amazing it was to have her husband now also resettled in Australia as a refugee. I asked her how long they had been separated and she said he was stuck in Africa for seven years after she fled with their children.

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I can only try to imagine how hard this must have been for Amara and her children, not having their dad around and being worried about his safety.

But the reality is in Australia, we have a complex refugee and humanitarian system that makes many families wait for years to be reunited, and some never see their mothers, fathers, siblings or children again.

No family should be forced to live apart.

Unified families, who love and care for one another, are the glue that binds our communities together. In our work we see this in camps for refugees and displaced people -- from Bangladesh to Lebanon, Yemen to South Sudan.

After leaving Ethiopia and enduring a long period of separation and hardship, Lelisse (left) was finally reunited with her husband Dabessa and their children in Australia in 2013. (Image: Kim Landy/OxfamAUS)

New research conducted by Monash University shows that family unity is the key to successful resettlement of humanitarian migrants in Australia and it leads to a lower probability of mental illness.

However, our government, and some Australians, are not in favour of supporting more refugees or allowing more family members to be resettled here, partly due to a concern over cost.

But for the first time, comprehensive research by Deloitte Access Economics has quantified the great economic benefits to Australia of welcoming more people who need a new home.

The new economic modelling found increasing Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program from 18,750 now to 44,000 by 2022-23, could increase the size of the economy by a whopping $37.7 billion in today’s dollars over the next 50 years.

The increase in our population would also help the economy sustain on average an additional 35,000 full-time jobs every year and increase the demand for goods and services by $18.2 billion.

I join humanitarian groups in calling on the Australian government to increase our refugee intake and within it create a visa stream of 10,000 places annually that is specifically designed to make it easier for humanitarian migrants to be reunited with their families.

READ MORE: The Way Australia Cooks Its Refugee Books Is Just Not Cricket

I know from personal experience how important family support is.

My mum and my siblings have been rocks in my life. They have given me continuity and ongoing support, and the ability to survive adversity.

When I lost my partner I remember very little of that time except my sister walking me through it step by step, saying now we have to organise the funeral, now we have to visit the florist. I couldn't have coped without her.

We should do everything we can to keep families together. It will hugely benefit them, and now we also know the social and economic benefits for the rest of our society will resonate for decades to come.