Why can’t asylum seekers fill those low-skilled jobs instead of more migrants?

There’s an immigration meme that does the rounds fairly regularly. Asylum seekers should fill low- and semi-skilled jobs that are going to other migrants.

In an otherwise good column for the Guardian, Richard Ackland slipped this in at the end:

“There’s something else that could work to our benefit. The government has given the go-ahead for visas to foreign workers who are prepared to do skilled and semi-skilled jobs at discount rates. Yet, we already have a supply of these workers sitting in wretched camps waiting to be processed on Christmas Island, Nauru, Manus Island and elsewhere.

The problem? Work rights for asylum seekers and providing semi-skilled visas to other immigrants are not mutually exclusive outcomes.

Before I expand, let me say there has been no “go-ahead” for migrants working below market salaries. This is a misunderstanding stemming from the government’s inability to communicate properly and some in the media skim reading the detail of policy announcements. Even in op-ed’s, this isn’t a high bar to clear.

Yes, asylum seekers should be allowed to work. Here is my take on that. The fact a government who purportedly have a strong belief in individual liberty refuse some the right to work is hard to fathom.

Further, at least for asylum seekers in Australia, mandatory detention has not proved to be an effective deterrent. This is the case in both Australia and in other developed countries (see Tim Hatton’s work on asylum seeking in the OECD). I would argue living in the community with work rights while asylum claims are processed would have a minimal impact on the trend of people arriving by boat.

Moving onto Ackland’s specific claim. It is true that asylum seekers would be able to perform many jobs in the labour market, some of which Australian citizens have shown a preference to avoid and employers face high vacancy rates.

But it is also true asylum seekers may not be able to perform some of vacancies that employers seek workers for. In the mooted ‘Designated Area Migration Agreement’ for Darwin, occupations such as childcare workers, disability carers, mechanics, bricklayers, office managers, carpenters, chefs and nurses are apparently included.

While the population of asylum seekers may include perfect matches for these vacancies, they likely do not.

Think about it this way. In a vacuum, should we force asylum seekers to live and work in specific places, such as Darwin? While the obvious retort is that this is better than mandatory detention, I think a superior policy outcome would be the freedom to work anywhere they choose. Government forcing already vulnerable migrants to work in particular locations on particular jobs is a recipe for failure.

Community support for newly arrived asylum seekers is a critical part of any settlement process. Given the large ethnic communities in major metropolitan cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – compared to where many of these Designated Area agreements are likely to be in place, this is fanciful thinking. The lack of community support combined with the lack of government support will fall flat.

Looking for a better outcome for asylum seekers should not be dependent on implicitly scapegoating other migrants. Further, any solution should be thought out and considered, something this policy meme is not.

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