Work is the answer to refugees’ problems – employers can help

The Refugee council’s CEO Nick Hardwick backs Personnel Today’s Real Asylum
Debate campaign and calls for urgent government action

Ask anyone working on social exclusion issues what the single most important
factor is in helping people escape dependency, poverty and dislocation and they
will tell you it is work.

The position of refugees in the UK is no different from this. Yet there
still exist multiple barriers to education, training and employment, to the
detriment of not just these refugees, but also to the rest of society.

And, the first barrier – believe it or not – is that asylum-seekers are not
allowed to work for their first six months in the country.

Most asylum-seekers and refugees are highly skilled professionals,
successful in their own countries and, as the Home Office’s study The
Settlement of Refugees in Britain, 1995 put it, "the skills level of
refugees in fact exceeds that of the general British population".

Despite this, the unemployment rate among refugees is unacceptably high.
Latest research puts it at 70 per cent or more – far above the national average
for any disadvantaged group in the UK.

It can be explained by the fact that refugees, from the moment they arrive,
face an array of obstacles on the path to work.

We welcome and fully endorse Personnel Today’s groundbreaking campaign to
get the Government to implement a skills data- base and reduce red tape for
asylum-seekers and refugees seeking work, and hope that its impact will be far
and wide.

My message to the new Government is that what refugees, employers and the
economy all need urgently is a staged progression from arrival to employability,
to employment and then to integration.

Clearly, some of the obstacles asylum-seekers and refugees face in getting
work are down to racism – or are they a consequence of the heated, but not very
illuminating, debate on asylum? Indeed, in recent months both the police and
the CBI have expressed their concerns that the ill-informed and inflammatory
talk about immigrants and refugees is harming our society.

The warm reception Kosovan refugees received when they were evacuated here
in 1999 shows what can happen when the British public is informed of whom
refugees are, what they are fleeing from and why we have a duty to help.

At the moment this kind of leadership, which must come from politicians of
all parties, is noticeably absent.

Of course, racism is not the only reason some employers are wary of
recruiting refugees or asylum-seekers. On top of the problems they share with
other excluded groups, such as living in unemployment black- spots or lacking
access to social networks, refugees and asylum-seekers also face unique
problems. Months of living on £36- worth of vouchers a week exacerbates their
exclusion through the poverty and indignity of the system.

Refugees and asylum-seekers may not have UK work experience or their
qualifications may not be recognised here, so some employers may be reluctant
to take them on.

At a more fundamental level, refugees simply may not be familiar with the
work culture in the UK. I know from speaking to the many refugees on my own
staff that the culture of selling ourselves to potential employers in job
interviews is alien to many other parts of the world.

The Refugee Council works with organisations such as the BMA to make it
easier for refugee doctors, for example, to take medical exams here so that
they can practise in the UK.

We also provide job market orientation courses at our Training and
Employment Section in Clapham, south London.

The lack of proper support to asylum-seekers dispersed outside of London
means that most will find it hard to access English classes. The result is
refugees learning English and getting into work many months later than should
be the case.

Historically, refugees coming here have rebuilt their lives and contributed
to the UK through their work. Today’s refugees are no different in that they
want to work, have plenty of skills to offer and can make a real difference to
our society.

Nick Hardwick is chief executive of the Refugee Council

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