A Migration Debate With Bolt-on Logic

Last Updated May 20, 2011 1:36 AM EDT

Newspaper columnist & TV commentator Andrew Bolt's use of statistics could mislead debate on asylum seekers and the merits of migration in general.
In his inaugural TV slot on Channel 10 last Sunday Andrew Bolt interviewed Afghan refugee Riz Wakil and spoke of a Department of Immigration survey that he claimed shows that after five years in this country "something like 94 percent [of Afghan refugees] are on Centrelink benefits, only 9 percent actually are employed". Ignoring the limitations of his mental arithmetic, I thought it was an assertion worth looking into. A scan of the website and a call to the Department's press office couldn't unearth those figures.

It's true, though, that those in Australia born in Afghanistan have a far lower rate of employment than the population at large, but the issue isn't as pronounced as Bolt would have us believe. According to OECD figures, at the time of the last Aussie census there were just under 10,000 Afghanistan born adults living in Australia: 32 percent of them were working, compared to 58 percent of the adult population at large.

This is hardly surprising given the mismatch in language and education skills needed for gainful employment. Less than half of those from Afghanistan have any form of secondary education --- those that do are twice as likely to be employed. Helping these new arrivals attain a higher level of education, whilst an extra cost, would ultimately provide payback for the economy.

Even with education they still fall in the employment stakes --- 42 percent of secondary educated Afghanistan-born residents have a job, compared to 74 percent of those born here with a secondary education. The gap is less when we take into account gender --- only 11 percent of Afghan women without secondary education were employed, compared to 30 percent of men. If it's possible to encourage more Afghan women to integrate with the western approach to employment, the difference could be reduced still further.

Bolt's focus on the employment prospects of Afghan refugees is disingenuous. It's such a small issue. At the time of the last census those born in Afghanistan accounted for 0.07 percent of the entire adult population, so a higher unemployment rate in this minute subsection of the total population is the least of our economy's concerns.

The danger is that this sort of talk influences attitudes towards the concept of further migration. Populist media often talks about how high levels of migration result in either more people on the dole, or more jobs being taken from Aussies --- whichever argument is most convenient at the time.

The fact is, employment rates between those born here and those born overseas are very similar. Sixty percent of adult Aussie natives were employed at the time of the last census, compared to 52 percent of those born overseas. Those from North America (66 percent) and South Africa (69 percent) are more likely to be employed than some of our older migration sources, such as the UK (54 percent), Italy (35 percent) and Greece (35 percent). In fact, employment rates for Greek- and Afghanistan-born Australian residents are very similar, each with high gender bias.


Australia is at, or close, to full employment. Economists and business leaders argue that there's a real danger that our future growth will be constrained by the availability of suitable labour --- both skilled and semi-skilled. Migration can help fill the gap. Skilled migrants are an obvious first step, but we shouldn't assume that refugees are a drain on the economy. Whilst not all family members seeking refuge in Australia will ultimately be employable, many will, given the right training.

Bolt's views encourage people to see migrants as a cost to the economy, rather than seeing each new working age person as an opportunity for growth. It's a sad position from a man whose parents migrated here from Holland. And he's using statistics to selectively support his argument that we need to cut our refugee intake. As we all know, you can do anything with statistics: for example, a male migrant from his parent's homeland is only 1.3 times more likely to be employed than an Afghan male. Perhaps we need to stop Dutch migration too.

Data source: OECD Database of Immigrants in OECD Countries
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