Amid all the hoopla about the skilled migration program and the Budget, another significant story has been buried.

The Rudd Government has delivered on its promise to abolish the Temporary Protection Visa system, under which asylum seekers found to be refugees were denied access to unemployment benefits, pensions and English lessons.

There are also small increases in humanitarian refugee intake quotas – an extra 500 paces for Iraqis in 2008/09 and 750 extra general humanitarian places in 2009-2010. See the budget figuring and explanations here.

Refugee advocate groups are applauding these changes – but otherwise remain p-ssed off with the new Government for failing to give asylum seekers the right to work while their applications are processed.

Research published last year suggests that seven out of ten asylum seekers who are already here have skills on the Government’s most wanted list – yet they are denied the right to work while awaiting the processing of their applications. Meanwhile, the Budget allocates $1.3 million to bringing an extra 37,500 skilled migrants into the country.

The research, by Melbourne University doctoral candidate Gwilym Croucher and Asylum Seeker Resource Centre co-ordinator Sophie Dutertre, involved a survey of 211 work rights and Medicare ineligible asylum seekers in NSW and Victoria in 2005.

The survey found that three quarters had occupations on the list for the General Skilled Migration Program. They included engineers, teachers, tailors, social workers, computer programmers and agricultural scientists. 45% of those with occupations on the list had skills in high demand. They included accountants, chefs, electricians, hairdressers, nurses and dentists.

43% of those surveyed had professional qualifications, and 27% were in the process of getting a Bachelor degree or higher. A third held trade qualifications. Most of those surveyed said they were willing to work in rural and regional areas.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre estimates that up to 3,000 adult work-age asylum seekers are presently prohibited from working. If the surveyed group is representative, Croucher calculates that asylum seekers presently dependent on charity for basic support could add a potential $188 million to the economy.

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis has described the result as “absurd”.

The reason, historically, is part of the package of legislation aimed at deterrence of unauthorised arrivals, together with quieting fears that refugees might take jobs from Australians.

On the other hand, other recent research by Monash University demographer Bob Birrell has suggested that skilled migrants don’t land jobs that match their qualifications because of their poor English.

Just a few weeks ago, Birrell called on the government to halt the skilled migration program and to focus on spending to give migrants already in Australia the language skills they need to impress employers.

Doubtless the same concerns would apply to skilled asylum seekers, which means it may be doubly good that TPV holders will now be able to access English lessons.

But the two sets of research together do seem to raise some questions about why the overall program is being managed as it is.