Let’s build bridges to reach refugee skills

Harnessing the skills of the entire workforce – including asylum-seekers and
refugees – relies on the co-operation of MPs, employers and employment bodies
in overcoming current political and cultural obstacles

Tottenham is the most diverse constituency in Europe. With over 150
different languages and large African, Eastern European and Turkish
communities, it probably has the highest number of asylum-seekers in the

As MP for for the North London constituency, at a busy Friday evening clinic
there can be up to 40 people coming to see me for advice about immigration
matters, access to asylum support and employment. Many request advice on the
jobs market, assistance with gaining access to training or help with the
transition from voluntary work to paid employment.

I am keen that we harness the talents and develop the skills of refugees and
asylum-seekers to enrich the lives of all in the community. London has always
been privileged in attracting communities from all over the world, and their
contribution has helped make the capital the dynamic and rich city it is today.

The findings of the Personnel Today survey on employer attitudes to
asylum-seekers and refugees (News, 20 November) are borne out by my
constituents’ experiences. These include caution on the part of employers
regarding Home Office red tape, fear about asylum-seekers’ long-term
employability, and prejudice against certain ethnic groups.

Anecdotal reports also suggest gaining employment is even more difficult
since 11 September.

Recent Home Office estimates put the number of young, single, male
asylum-seekers at 65 per cent of the total in the UK. There are a
disproportionate number of such young men in Tottenham and other London areas.
They generally have a good level of English, speak other languages and are very
available for work.

A Somalian constituent of mine, who speaks eight languages, was snapped up
by an advice bureau and is now looking forward to paid employment within months
of arriving in the UK.

It is important, however, to recognise that a minority of asylum-seekers and
refugees face difficulties in gaining employment due to a poor level of English
and inappropriate skills and qualifications.

For people from rural villages, the transition to a big city like London is
not easy. And if they are from a war-torn country, it is likely that their
education was disrupted at an early age, leading to a low level of written
attainment in their native language. This makes learning English difficult and
often increases the tendency for them to interact almost entirely within their
own ethnic groups.

It is essential that English language and other courses are available to
those more disadvantaged asylum-seekers and refugees. Other recommendations,
which many in refugee community bodies have made, include a new Home Office
work permit document. This would boost the confidence of employers and
potential employees.

I would also like to see employment centres taking a more focused approach
to asylum-seekers and refugees, so that problems in gaining access to
employment might be identified early and resolved. For example, it would be
beneficial for employment centres to have greater powers to verify people’s

Increased opportunities in voluntary work before an individual’s status is
uncovered by the Home Office, would also be helpful.

I welcome David Blunkett’s receptiveness to these possibilities which could
provide a bridge to employment for individuals as soon as they are granted
permission to work.

Countless opportunities exist for us to harness the workforce, which exist
sometimes latently in areas like Tottenham. It is only through the co-operation
of organisations involved – the Home Office, employers, employment centres and
job-hunting asylum-seekers – that the barriers will be overcome. I welcome
Personnel Today’s role in this process and hope that as a result of the
campaign we will see that vital solidarity begin to develop.

By David Lammy, a barrister and MP for Tottenham

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