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Was Peter Dutton right about literacy and numeracy among refugees? AAP/Mick Tsikas

Election FactCheck: are many refugees illiterate and innumerate?

For many people, they won’t be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English … – Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton, interview with Sky News presenter Paul Murray, May 17, 2016.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton caused instant headlines when he told Sky News many refugees are illiterate and innumerate.

Dutton was responding to comments made by presenter Paul Murray about a Greens policy proposal to boost the annual refugee intake to 50,000.

It’s not possible to fact-check the future, so we can’t say with any certainty what would or would not happen if the Greens’ refugee proposal became government policy.

However, we can test Dutton’s statement against what the evidence shows about literacy and numeracy among refugees.

Checking the source

When asked for a source to support his assertion, a spokesman for Dutton referred The Conversation to data produced by the longitudinal Building a New Life in Australia study.

This study, conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), aims to gather data over five years on close to 2,400 people and families living around Australia, who have been granted a permanent humanitarian visa in the previous three to six months.

The study began in 2013. Data from the first wave of the study are now available.

The study found of the individual study participants that:

Amongst the adult females, 67% have never undertaken paid work (24% for adult males), 44% did not understand spoken English prior to arrival (33% of males), 23% are illiterate in their own language (17% of males) and 20% have never attended school (13% of males). As a comparison, less than 1% of the total Australian adult population has never attended school.

Building a New Life in Australia study

So data from this study show that 23% of the female participants and 17% of the male participants were illiterate in their own language.

Is that “many”, as Dutton puts it? It’s a matter of interpretation, but note that this particular refugee study found that a majority of study participants were literate in their own language.

The study also found very high rates of engagement in English language classes and other kinds of study.

What do other sources say?

Most refugees in Australia do not arrive by boat. Most come via a resettlement program administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Some refugees arriving in Australia have low levels of literacy and education prior to being resettled in Australia – but many will have at least a primary school education.

The Refugee Council of Australia recognises that refugees resettled in Australia may arrive with minimal or no English and may have had a “very limited or different experience of education overseas”.

However, when selecting refugees for resettlement, government and UNHCR officers are confronted with a pool of applicants that massively exceeds the available quota. So Australia has the luxury of being quite choosy about which refugees it selects under the UNHCR program, which may favour more educated refugees.

Before these refugees even make it to Australia, some will have been through UNHCR educational programs. An education strategy developed by the UNHCR in 2012 sets out goals of increasing the literacy rates of refugee adults by 50% and expanding opportunities for educational access at both primary and secondary levels for refugee children.

Many refugees were also educated in their home country before they left. It is difficult to accurately say how educated they are because they often travel without identification documents and academic transcripts.

A note on Syrians

A big chunk of Australia’s future refugee intake may be Syrians. According to the UNHCR, the largest group of refugees currently displaced across the globe are from Syria.

A Swiss study of the educational backgrounds of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon from 2012 found that 91% were literate. About 30% of respondents had a secondary school qualification or university degrees and 61% had attended primary school. Only 9% were illiterate.

More recent OECD evaluations of refugees being resettled in Europe estimate that:

  • 15% of asylum seekers had a tertiary degree

  • 16% had upper secondary education

  • 35% had lower secondary education

  • 24% had attended primary school

  • 11% had not attended primary school.

Refugees originating from African nations, Burma, Afghanistan and Iraq have had their education disrupted by conflict.


Data from the Building a New Life in Australia refugee study show that 23% of the study’s female participants and 17% of the study’s male participants were illiterate in their own language.

That study found that a majority of study participants were literate in their own language.

It is true that refugees experience disrupted education and limited literacy prior to resettlement in Australia and may arrive with minimal or no English.

However, the available evidence suggests that many refugees – particularly Syrians – have been educated to a primary level or higher in their own language, with some educated at tertiary levels. – Georgina Ramsay


This analysis is sound. It points to the significant diversity of educational backgrounds of refugees, who can range from highly educated doctors, lawyers or engineers, through to people who have never been to school.

The number of refugees in need of resettlement (estimated by the UNHCR to be about 1.15 million in 2016) is vastly higher than the number of resettlement places available globally. That means resettlement countries are able to apply additional screening criteria in deciding to whom they will give visas.

This typically involves reviewing criteria that seek to predict refugees’ capacity to settle successfully in the new country. It looks at education, employment skills, language ability and pre-existing links to the resettlement country. This tends to favour more educated refugees in the UNHCR program.

Additionally, many studies have shown that the children and grandchildren of refugees are more likely than their skilled migrant and Australian-born contemporaries to complete university qualifications and to work in managerial and professional roles.

Finally, while refugees may well demonstrate a strong commitment to literacy and education, refugee resettlement is a humanitarian program of which protection of human life is a central component. – Lucy Fiske

Have you ever seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

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