Dr Augustine Stevens is an example of why the Government needs to act to
make it easier for refugees to find employment in the UK.
He is a former Minister of State for Education and Cultural Affairs for
Sierra Leone with more than 15 years of parliamentary experience. He was also
deputy head of Sierra Leone’s Economic and Technical Cooperation Unit and is an
experienced lecturer who taught at the University of Illinois in the US for 10
In 1997 he arrived in the UK and was given refugee status after he was
forced to flee his country because of the civil war.
But despite his impressive CV it took him a year-and-a-half and more than 50
job interviews to find employment.
Dr Stevens was eventually offered a post by the Refugee Council, where he is
team leader for employment and support.
"I came here in 1997 because of the continuing war in Sierra Leone.
Because of my background I did not expect it too difficult to find employment
"I pursued teaching positions but I could not secure any more than two
hours a week. That was not enough to feed my family and keep me off the
benefits system I longed to leave," he said.
Dr Stevens, who has a doctorate in philosophy and political science,
suffered 18 months of frustration as he attended interview after interview,
being told he was either over qualified or did not have the necessary UK
He said, "I think there were are some cultural difficulties. For
example, in the US fundraising means selling cakes to raise small amounts of
money, whereas grant-raising is for large-scale projects.
"While at the University of Illinois I helped raise $1m for the
university but I was not able to say that I had fundraising experience."
On another occasion Dr Stevens was asked whether he had mediation skills and
so he outlined his role as a mediator during conflicts in his own country as
well as in Chad and Western Sahara, only to be told that this was not relevant
because he did not have UK experience.
"There are cultural differences that recruitment and personnel people
should be sensitive to when they are interviewing refugees," he said.
He applied for a huge variety of jobs including a position as a minicab
driver, which he could not take because he had no passport and consequently
could not get a driving licence.
Dr Stevens finally secured his job with the refugee council after working
for another voluntary sector organisation and he now helps other refugees try
and overcome the obstacles he faced in his search for employment.
He is convinced that there are many thousands of skilled refugees who could
make a real difference to the skills shortages in the UK. "We have
refugees with experience in construction, medicine, health services, teaching,
catering, the hospitality sector and tourism," he explained.
Dr Stevens believes that details of asylum-seekers’ occupations should be
included in their application forms and the Government should invest in a
skills audit so there is a database available to employers revealing the range
of skills in the refugee community.
Another development that Dr Stevens would like to see is the creation of a
permission-to-work document that includes details of refugees’ qualifications
and experience – one of the aims of Personnel Today’s Refugees in Employment
"There needs to be something to give employers confidence to consider
an individual fairly and remove the concerns that some employers have over
having anything to do with refugees."
The Refugee Council plays a key role in helping refugees become more
employable and offers training in business information, accounting, health and
social care, IT and childminding as well as English language tuition.
By Ben Willmott
Policy makers hear campaign aims
Personnel Today took part in a high level policy-making forum on the
economic and social implications of free movement of staff within the European
The magazine’s Refugees in Employment campaign was highlighted at the
Institute for Public Policy Research’s influential seminar in London last week.
Editor Noel O’Reilly and deputy editor Catriona Marchant outlined the aims
of the campaign and contributed to the policy debate.
The forum was attended by academics, government policy makers in the Home
Office and Foreign Office, the CBI, TUC and the Number Ten policy unit.
Sandra Pratt, principal administrator for the immigration and asylum unit at
the European Commission presented a paper on common EU policy in this highly sensitive