Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

The way to a cohesive society: cultural assimilation or structural inclusion?

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By Ibolya (Ibi) Losoncz*, RegNet, ANU

Australian Government poster displayed between 1949 and 1951 in reception rooms and dining halls at various migrant reception centres in Australia. (Image courtesy of the NAA/Wikipedia).

Australian Government poster displayed between 1949 and 1951 in various migrant reception centres. (Image courtesy of the NAA/Wikipedia).

Increased international migration, including refugee admissions and resettlement, has changed the ethnic make-up of many developed countries. Instead of capitalising on diversity, government policies rely heavily on the assimilation of migrants as a way to create cohesion and unity within mainstream society. In public discourse, assimilation also tends to be portrayed as a precondition for social cohesion. But wouldn’t supporting the economic, social and political participation of newly arrived immigrants while acknowledging their diverse cultures be a more effective way of building a cohesive society? A critical look at Australia’s humanitarian resettlement program provides valuable insights to this important question.

Despite Australia being a safe society of stable institutions and high living standards, far from zones of conflict, there has been ‘much anxiety expressed about social cohesion – now and in the past’.[1] This concern about social cohesion is reflected in Australia’s immigration policy, dominated by a strong emphasis on migrants assimilating and adopting Australian values. At the same time, there is much less thought given to ensuring that there are effective means for humanitarian migrants to participate and be included in society. The government assumes that existing mechanisms developed to ensure that institutions provide equal access to all members of Australian society will also ensure equal access to humanitarian migrants and other minority groups.

My recent research shows that this assumption is at odds with the reality for many humanitarian migrants.[2] Drawing on extensive fieldwork, I have argued that mechanisms developed to ensure equal access among citizens fail to secure such rights to humanitarian and other migrant groups. Instead, they favour those already socialised to the functioning and operation of these institutions, who know how to work the system. By failing to account for the marginalisation and cultural values of many migrant groups, these processes actually block pathways to social and economic security, prompting some humanitarian migrant groups to disengage from government, community and social institutions.

The narrative that Australia’s resettlement services make it a ‘world leader in the field’ is very common.[3] Yet, despite the resources invested in resettlement programs, many humanitarian migrants experience severe social and economic problems. In fact, one of the strongest indicators of disadvantage in our society is humanitarian entry status, often combined with other indicators of disadvantage such as low English proficiency and education levels. While Australia gives legal permission to humanitarian migrants to resettle here, it does not afford them the same living standards and opportunities enjoyed by those born here. Economic marginalisation of humanitarian migrants prevents them from fully participating in or belonging to the broader community.

Despite a strong desire among humanitarian migrants for economic participation, my analysis of a recently released longitudinal survey found that after one year of resettlement, only six percent of humanitarian migrants were in paid work. While length of residence in Australia and English proficiency improved the odds of employment, education levels and employment experience prior to coming to Australia did not. A considerable proportion of humanitarian migrants hold post-school qualifications and have work experience prior to coming to Australia, yet these personal resources do not improve the likelihood that they will obtain employment. This indicates that current hiring practices under-value the capabilities of humanitarian migrants. Similarly, while humanitarian migrants report high self-sufficiency and self-reliance, these personal resources do not translate into improved employment prospects.

An employment rate of six percent among a population with high aspirational and personal resources, as well as capacities in the form of post school qualifications and overseas work experience, is unjustifiably low. It suggests that many of these humanitarian migrants face unequal opportunity within the Australian employment system and discrimination from prospective employers.

Discrimination against ethnic minorities in Australian workplace recruitment practices has been found in other empirical studies, including a comprehensive evaluation by Graham Hugo of the labour market experience of humanitarian migrants.[4] While Hugo’s study showed that there was improvement over time and generations, some groups continue to experience high levels of unemployment even controlling for a range of factors such as language barriers. Despite the evidence, most employers deny that their practices are discriminatory. They see lack of ‘cultural knowledge’ and ‘Australian-ness’ as legitimate reasons for excluding migrant minorities from the job market.[5] In other words, cultural difference, or a failure to assimilate, have become a basis for denying economic participation and inclusion.

Despite increasing evidence, this systemic exclusion of migrant minorities is not acknowledged by policy makers, and public discourse is dominated by claims that particular migrant groups fall short in sharing Australia’s cultural values and are prone to adopt non-functional behaviours in their new country. Blaming individuals or minority communities for failing to participate and assimilate into mainstream society obscures systemic problems. By obscuring these problems instead of engaging with them, policy makers risk creating exclusionary spaces among humanitarian migrants and producing a fragmented and divided society.


*This post is based on a longer article:

Losoncz, I. (2015) ‘Goals without means: A Mertonian critique of Australia’s resettlement policy for South Sudanese refugees’. Journal of Refugee Studies, Available here.

[1] Jupp, J., Nieuwenhuysen, J., & Dawson, E. (Eds.). (2007). Social cohesion in Australia. (pg. 9) Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Losoncz, I. (2015) ‘Goals without means: A Mertonian critique of Australia’s resettlement policy for South Sudanese refugees’.

Journal of Refugee Studies,;

Losoncz, I. (2015). ‘Aspirations, capabilities and blocked pathways: Refugee resettlement in Australia’. Paper presented at the Human Development and Capability Association Conference, Washington D.C.

[3] The Hon. Laurie Ferguson MP and Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services, Opening of the Settlement Council Of Australia’s First National Conference, 28-29 May 2009, Theo Notaras Multicultural Centre, Canberra.

[4] Hugo, G. (2011). Economic, social and civic contributions of first and second generation humanitarian entrants. Canberra: Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

[5] Tilbury, F., & Colic-Peisker, V. (2007). Skilled refugees, employment and social inclusion: A Perth case study of three communities. In V. Colic-Peisker & F. Tilbury (Eds.), Settling in Australia: The social inclusion of refugees (pp. 108-127). Perth: Centre for Social and Community Research, Murdoch University.

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