Overseas qualified skilled people are underutilised; Maria Vamvakinou, MP

My grievance this evening is about the under-utilisation of skilled and highly qualified Australians who have come here

Maria Vamvakinou Federal Member for Calwell

to live in this country under the refugee and humanitarian program, and, in some cases, also those people—especially partners of principal applicants—who have come to Australia under other categories. My grievance is about the difficult process of degree and qualifications recognition, as well is the lack of recognition of prior work experience by local Australian employers as told to me by many of my constituents.

My seat of Calwell probably has the largest constituency of Iraqi refugees in the country, and they are predominantly Christians of Chaldean extraction, and also of Assyrian and Syriac extraction, who have been settling in the northern suburbs of Melbourne: Campbellfield, Broadmeadows, Roxburgh Park and Craigieburn—all, of course, significant established growth suburbs in my electorate of Calwell. Such is the growth in the settlement of Iraqi Christians in Calwell that each month at our local citizenship ceremonies this emerging largely refugee community is very heavily represented in taking up Australian citizenship. They are characterised by many things, but one in particular is their devotion to their Christian faith. They are indeed devoted parishioners, and as a result the federal seat of Calwell is home to the Chaldean cathedral of Our Lady Guardian of Plants in Campbellfield, the Ancient Church of the East St Mary’s in Coolaroo, the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East in Coolaroo and the Holy Spirit Syriac Catholic Church in Dallas—where I had the honour of attending the weekly Sunday mass service last night, which on this occasion involved the ordination of five deacons by the pope of the Syriac Catholic Church, Pope Joseph, who was visiting Melbourne from Lebanon for the occasion.

These emerging communities—the Chaldeans, Assyrians and Syriacs from Iraq—have many needs as they work their way through the settlement process. Paramount, of course, is establishing a home, and more important to them than anything is the education of their children. But, of course, very important to them is the gaining of employment, and this is essential to their ability to achieve the establishment of a home and the education of their children. Employment, however, often means trying to find similar or comparable work to what they were doing when they were in Iraq, and the problem for a large number is that they cannot. This is a major source of their frustration and angst as they work their way through the settlement process here in Australia.

The Iraqi community can be best described as a relatively highly educated community with skills and qualifications across a range of academic professions, particularly, I have found, in the fields of maths and sciences. They are, in addition to that, linguistically competent, and many are able to speak, in addition to their native language or dialect—which is based on ancient Aramaic—Arabic and English. Many of them are very proficient in English. They are people who come here as refugees, as I have noted, having left successful careers and lives behind in Iraq. By virtue of their age when they come here, they have built expertise and experience in the professions that they have worked in. To illustrate this, I can say that I recently met a constituent from Iraq in my electorate who was the first female graduate as a dentist in Iraq. She had a successful practice there until she was forced to flee during the first Iraq war. She was the first female dentist in Iraq, and she is living in Broadmeadows in my electorate—incredible. She is one of the many Iraqis who have much to offer the Australian community, and I can tell you that they are very keen to make a contribution to this new homeland. I fear and they fear that they are being underutilised and undervalued for a number of reasons, one of which, of course, is the complexities of the qualification recognition regime in this country.

I would like to share with the chamber a couple more local stories, because I think it is very important that we tell these stories so that maybe we can begin to focus on this issue as a parliament so that we can understand it and address it if possible. I believe that we have much to gain from facilitating the employment of people such as my constituents in this country. One of my other constituents who came to see me sometime last year was an academic while living in Iraq, and his expertise was in agriculture. He had written many books, and in fact he had even advised the Iraqi government. His greatest frustration was that he could not get a job in academia here in Australia. In fact, he said to me that he felt deeply hurt at what he felt was a refusal to acknowledge the value of his academic achievements. He basically just could not understand why he could not get a job given the standard of his expertise.

There is another constituent who I have become very fond of and very close to, Mr Louis Joseph. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in science, majoring in chemistry, from Iraq in 1990. Following the Gulf War, Louis had to migrate to Turkey and applied to come to Australia under the Humanitarian Program. Upon arriving, Louis was informed that his qualification was not fully recognised as a degree, but rather a diploma. His experience in Iraq as a scientist in the field of chemistry was similarly not recognised, and he was told to restudy his degree in Australia. Louis did complete a bachelor degree in science and chemistry here in Australia. He found that he had completed in his own course in Iraq far more advanced subjects and that here in Australia he was merely repeating subjects he had already completed in Iraq. Furthermore, his Australian degree cost him $10,000 and, in his words:

Even if your degree gets recognised, prospective employers see an overseas graduate. There is a question mark over you.

As I said, I have come to know him personally. He is making an impossible contribution to the local community. I think that he, along with many of my other constituents, has a very significant contribution to make to this country. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to the people who are being brought here under the refugee Humanitarian Program to do the best we can to take advantage of the skills and the expertise that they bring with them. Many of them, in order to make ends meet, have to do menial jobs because they have to work—jobs that are far removed from the areas in which they have been trained and they have studied in. Colloquially, this is called the ‘overqualified taxidriver syndrome’. I think it is a syndrome that many of my colleagues in this place would be familiar with, especially those who have constituencies similar to mine.

The extent of the overqualified taxidriver syndrome is not known, nor its existence conclusively proven. It remains largely anecdotal, but it persists enough through anecdotes and through direct storytelling and contact with members of the community to suggest that there is an issue that we need to examine and research more thoroughly in order to avail ourselves of a much needed understanding of this. Because whether the community is of Iraqi or African or European background, the narrative about, in this instance, recognising overseas qualifications and acceptance or value of overseas work experience for people who come to Australia under the refugee Humanitarian Program is largely the same wherever you go and whoever you talk to in this country.

I am pleased to say that there has been some response, or an attempt to respond, to this from the government. We have already taken steps to try to address some of these issues. I want to commend the recently funded Melbourne Employment Forum as $20,000 has been allocated to work with migrant communities on some important job initiatives, including bringing together existing expertise to establish an independent network of migrant communities and using the forum as a hub for research and strengthening of employment opportunities. This is a beginning; by all means it is not the perfect solution, but it is a beginning. I look forward to this work continuing for the benefit of my constituents and everyone else in this country.

Maria Vamvakinou

Federal Member for Calwell

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