By Aleem Ali, CEO of Welcoming Australia.
If we are to believe certain politicians and media outlets, Melbourne’s social challenges are caused by people born beyond our shores. From so-called “African gangs” to the escalating housing crisis, recently arrived migrants, international students, refugees, and people seeking asylum are easy targets for lazy and divisive politicking.
The stark reality is vastly more complex and unfair. Australia’s migrant population drives economic growth while being overrepresented in rental exclusion and the risk of homelessness.
A new report, The Billion Dollar Benefit, highlights the economic potential of refugees and migrants. It presents five solutions that would add billions to Australia’s economy while providing sustainable job opportunities. Melbourne’s “untapped potential” is evident in the overqualified transport, hospitality, and service industry workers who keep the city running. Similarly, international students are touted as Victoria’s most significant export, contributing $6.9 billion in revenue in 2021, with 2023 expected to eclipse this result.
Beyond economic considerations, Australia is lauded as a multicultural success story with high levels of social trust. Migrants, refugees, and people seeking asylum contribute significantly to the country’s rich cultural landscape and community cohesion.
There are many prominent Melburnians with migrant and refugee backgrounds — lawyer and writer Nyadol Nyuon, anti-racism campaigner Mohamed Semra, champion runner Joseph Deng, cancer scientist Tien Huynh, science broadcaster Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, and chef and social entrepreneur Hamed Allahyari being just a few examples.
Despite their significant contributions, migrants, refugees, and international students are frequently subjected to unjust criticism and scapegoating for our nation’s various challenges. If this insult wasn’t enough, they are also disproportionately more vulnerable to food insecurity, homelessness, and discrimination in the rental market.
To invoke psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous analogy, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.” In this case, “If the only tool you have is scapegoating, it is tempting to point the finger at migrants and refugees.”
Peddling fear of the “other” might be a convenient tactic of demagogues and click-bait media, but it is neither honest nor helpful. The housing crisis will not be solved by finger-pointing or knee-jerk reactions. Beyond blame, we must work together to find solutions that benefit everyone.
In reality, the underlying problems are varied and complex: there is no single “housing crisis”. There is a nationwide lack of affordable housing. There is an urgent shortage of social housing. There is a rental availability and affordability crisis. There is rental exclusion based on discrimination and racial profiling. There is growing mortgage stress. There is an imbalance between gentrification and public planning.
These multiple problems require a diversity of solutions. Examples include increasing the supply of social housing, repurposing and rezoning disused buildings and land for residential use, stricter regulation of rental pricing, and greater awareness and enforcement to tackle unlawful discrimination in renting.
We need diverse ideas, approaches, and tools to tackle the housing crisis. We also need a diversity of people. Government, developers, community organisations, homeowners, renters, and people experiencing homelessness need to come together to create a fair and equitable housing system that meets the needs of all people.
At Welcoming Australia, we aim to advance communities where everyone can belong. Whether it’s rapidly growing Melbourne, or rural communities grappling with population loss and economic decline, we have learnt that the best solutions are discovered and developed via a whole-of-community approach. When it comes to migration, we must change the narrative of deficit to one of strength and enrichment.
We must also do more than value migrants solely for contributing to the economy, or when they’re publicly recognised as a “success”. When times are tough, as community members and residents, they deserve the same support and safety net as everyone else. The City of Melbourne demonstrated this principle when the Federal Government abandoned international students as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Through advocacy, food vouchers, vaccination support, community hubs, and employment pathways, Melbourne demonstrated why it is currently ranked as Australia’s best student city, and fifth in the world.
Housing is a human right, not an optional extra. Secure, safe, affordable housing is foundational to belonging. Belonging is vital to both our own wellbeing as individuals, and to the health of our neighbourhoods, our cities, and the nation as a whole. It asks: Does everyone feel valued, connected, safe and able to participate meaningfully in community life?
Our current housing trajectory places all of this at risk. It also risks fueling a growing divide between “us” and “them”, where the richness of cultural diversity is pushed to the fringes.
To solve the housing crisis, we must come together. If we fail to do so, we may be left with only our own self-interest to blame.