“The idea to offer the chance to proven refugees in Australia to go bush and do this work in return for a permanent visa is worth backing,” he said. “If they do the right thing by the country and prove their commitment then we should embrace them in return.”
There are about 17,000 refugees who came by boat to Australia years ago on two visa classes, Temporary Protection Visas, which last three years and do not have a direct path to permanent residency rights, and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas.
Neither the SHEV nor TPV let people stay in Australia permanently. The SHEV allows recipients to apply for other classes of visas that can lead to residency after they have worked in a regional area for three and a half years, but that incentive appears ineffective.
Home Affairs data obtained by the Refugee Council of Australia under a freedom of information request found only about a third of SHEV holders were in regional areas earlier this year, which it argues is because the lure of residency is too distant to be a good incentive.
The council wants refugees who go bush to be given residency after one year, which Mr Hill and Mr Drum said was too short, naming two years as a preferable requirement.
Mr Drum said the agricultural sector needed workers urgently and the government ought to look at proposals incentivising everyone from the unemployed and school graduates to move to the regions.
“If we can look at a labour force of people here on TPVs then that also merits a genuine look,” Mr Drum said.
“I think they appeal to me because they’ve been here seven to nine years already, they’ve been proved to be genuine refugees, and we would know by now if they’re going to be unlawful in their day to day activities,” Mr Drum said. “So it may be an opportunity where we send them to a region for a couple of years [and] they have to live there for 24 months before we offer an opportunity to stay here.”
John Alexander, the member for Bennelong in Sydney, said the proposal “seems like a reasonable idea”.
“We should be seeking willing participants in agriculture wherever we can,” he said.
The fruit and vegetable industry has previously pushed for a scheme that would allow unskilled people to work in the sector and be given a path to residency, which could include refugees, but has not won government support.
“At the moment we’re happy to look at any option and talk through it with the [Refugee Council of Australia] more but we don’t think it’ll solve all our problems,” said Tyson Cattle, a spokesman for industry group AUSVEG. “But again it could be a piece of the puzzle that helps.”
Fruit and vegetable picking and packing is physically demanding work that primarily relies on younger workers. There is no public data on the age of SHEV and TPV holders but government data compiled by the Refugee Council shows people aged 25 to 34 are by far the largest age group who seek asylum today.
The Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Migration is expected to issue an interim report this week.
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Nick Bonyhady is industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based between Sydney and Parliament House in Canberra.