Small Towns, Big Returns
Refugee resettlement gives regional economy a boost while welcoming Karen families from Myanmar as valued and respected members of the community.
For the small town of Nhill, with a population of less than 3000, some 350 km from Melbourne, Australia, these numbers tell only part of the story. ‘Win-win’ is how locals talk about the settlement of the Karen refugees in their community. The Karen have found jobs and a refuge –and the town has received an economic and social transfusion.
In 2010, the first Karen refugees from Myanmar arrived in Nhill, casual labourers who were recruited to fill workforce gaps faced by Nhill’s biggest employer, local poultry producer Luv-A-Duck, a multi-million dollar Australian business.
Unable to recruit the poultry workers needed to facilitate a plant expansion from the local population, Luv-A-Duck’s then-General Manager, John Millington, turned to AMES Australia, the country’s national settlement agency, for help. AMES offers employers a free recruitment service and a wide range of job- ready workers. Millington made arrangements for a group of Karen refugees to visit the Luv-A-Duck plant in Nhill, and hired four workers.
Today there are more than 50 Karen working at Luv-A-Duck and on local farms servicing the plant. Over 170 Karen and their families have successfully settled in Nhill. Through a well-planned recruitment and resettlement process, the Karen now comprise almost 12% of the local population (2015), including significant numbers of working age adults and families with young children.
New resident Kawdoh Htoo, a father of three was one of the first Karen to settle in Nhill. Life in the small Australian community was “very different” at first for the former refugee from war-torn Myanmar, but Htoo reflects overall on a positive experience: “I miss my home [Myanmar]. I miss the jungles and rivers. But life is good here. I like living in Nhill. It’s a good place for my family.”
Reversing the economic tide
Hindmarsh Shire Chief Executive Tony Doyle elaborates: “In retail, shops close affecting the viability of the whole town. There is an impact on the ability of schools and hospitals to be funded and provide services. It affects business at all levels. ”
“The Karen settlement has been really good for us,” says Doyle. “By allowing Luv-A-Duck to grow, it has increased the company’s demand for more labour and essentially protected us from population decline.”
The Karen have provided a local employer with an unskilled workforce which has in turn allowed employment participation to grow enormously in the region, stimulating the local economy and feeding back into services and retail shops at the community level in what Doyle calls “a flow on effect.”
However, the impact of the Karen settlement on Nhill goes further than the usual economic indicators. Doyle describes the social and economic impact of the Karen as “extraordinary.”
“To see the way the community embraced and opened their hearts and minds has broadened everyone’s thinking,” says Doyle. “We are all enriched because of the exposure to another culture and it has made Nhill a better place to live.”
Hindmarsh Council has made the resettlement and integration of the Karen part of an overall economic development strategy for the town. “We could double the number of Karen if we had housing and jobs,” Doyle said. The Council plans to lead by example by ensuring it employs Karen in its own municipal administration.
Getting to know one another
While employers like Luv-A-Duck are the driving force in attracting and recruiting immigrants to small communities, they need the entire community’s involvement to help make small towns welcoming places for the newcomers, encouraging them to stay.
“We learnt very quickly that it was important that the partners and kids of the workers were involved. We knew that they [the Karen] had to be looked after, engaged and connected to the community or the whole thing would fall over,” said former general manager, John Millington. Millington reached out to an older neighbor for help: “I told her I needed a ‘grandma’ for the Karen…. It was important because she is a person who knows everyone and everything that goes on in town.”
That senior resident became a lifeline to the newcomers, looking out for them on a daily basis and connecting them to neighbours and community members who wanted to get involved.
Preparing the wider host community for the newcomers was an important next step. Luv-A-Duck management provided background information on the Karen and their refugee experience. They explained the company’s recruitment challenges while reassuring people that local Nhill workers would have first option on the jobs. Luv-A-Duck staff were included in discussions about the proposed resettlement. This contributed to a positive environment in which to facilitate relationship-building between the locals and newcomers.
On the other side of the equation, Karen families were supported through local community programmes that made sure the partners and kids of the workers were looked after. A mentoring programme was set up. “People bent over backwards to help and we had 15 to 20 volunteers in no time. We were very fortunate that this community was prepared to help them,” said Millington.
A ground-breaking economic impact study into the Karen resettlement in Nhill, titled ‘Small Towns Big Returns’, carried out by AMES and Deloitte Access Economics, found the resettlement of the Karen had had positive, sustainable impacts on Nhill and the surrounding area. “The resettlement of the Karen in Nhill has had a specific and sizable economic impact on this agricultural town. It has eased a capacity constraint on local production and at the same time boosted demand for local service provision. This has resulted in a four per cent-plus lift in regional production in 2013/14, and since 2010 contributed $41.5 million to Gross Regional Product,” said lead author and Deloitte Access Economics Director Matthew Wright.
What’s more, the study found the increase in the supply of labour had “the further indirect effect of increasing demand for labour to meet the needs of the growing Karen population.”
The study identified the following success factors:
- the availability of employment and accommodation;
- strong leadership in the host community;
- a welcoming host community;
- support for the new families;
- management of the degree and complexity of ‘cultural adjustment’ on both sides; and
- newcomers prepared to adapt to a new environment.
Over five years, 70.5 full time jobs were created, representing a 3 % increase in total employment across the district, and $41.5 million was added to the Gross Regional Product. Alongside the economic success story, significant social outcomes have included the arrest of population decline; revitalized local services and increased government funding; and an increase in social capital across both communities.
The situation has been a win-win both for the Nhill locals and the Karen newcomers who have so successfully embraced their new environment.
Kim Moyle, owner of Halfway Motors who works with a Karen employee, agrees: “It is important for Nhill’s future …. [The Karen] are conscientious, kind and polite, they work hard and they’re happy.”
On a personal level, Millington’s relationship with the Karen led him and his family to visit the Mae Sot refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border to attend the wedding of a community leader. They were smuggled into the camp at night and experienced first-hand the life of a displaced refugee.
An estimated 150,000 Karen living in camps on the Thai-Mynamar border are seeking refuge, after fleeing their country to avoid being persecuted by the Myanmar government. Australia has made a home for close to 7,000 of them.
Making it Work for You:
- Find champions and volunteers from the community who are willing to spend time and welcome the newcomers, helping them better integrate into their host community.
- When preparing newcomer information and outreach for members of the local community, make sure to include material about the social and economic benefits of the resettlement to the whole community.
- Develop strategies for taking the pulse of newcomer well-being. A positive resettlement process hinges on understanding and responding to the needs of newcomers.
For this Good Idea contact:
Laurie Nowell, AMES Australia
+61 9938 4031 or +61 (0) 498 196 500