Accessing the talent pool

Skills shortages are driving many recruiters to think of new sources of recruits. At the same time, many employers are going to greater lengths to attract, retain and develop a more diverse workforce. They do so because of the business and cultural benefits diversity can bring, or because they have a strong ethical philosophy of fair and equal treatment for all. However, there is a group of potential employees that has been neglected by many of these recruitment initiatives – refugees.

There are an estimated 350,000 refugees in the UK.

The words ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ are sometimes used interchangeably and emotively in the media, but from a prospective employer’s point of view the distinction is crucial as refugees are people who have made a claim for asylum in the UK and have received a favourable decision. They then have permission to work and full employment rights. Despite this, refugees find great difficulties obtaining work and their unemployment rate is around six times the national average. Many refugees in work are also employed in jobs that do not make use of their skills and training, such as qualified doctors having to work in lower-level healthcare roles, as it can be hard to validate their credentials. Language barriers can also inhibit the roles non-native speakers move into.

Some employers, however, are now taking positive steps to recruit and employ refugees. Until recently, there has been a shortage of good practice examples of how employers can recruit and integrate refugees in to their workforce. Much of the attention to date has focused on lurid media stories, or to the potential barriers facing employers, rather than the success stories.

But research carried out by the independent Institute for Employment Studies has looked at the experiences of 10 employers who had set up recruitment or training initiatives to employ refugees in a cross-section of business sectors. The study was commissioned by the Employability Forum, which works with a range of organisations to support the integration of refugees into the UK labour market.

The 10 employers interviewed by IES researchers included food manufacturer Noon Products, bus operator Travel West Midlands, Angel Human Resources, fit-out and refurbishment specialists Interior plc and Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue, along with a national hotel chain, a plant hire company, a warehouse depot, a recycling plant and a confectionery manufacturer – each with total workforces ranging from 90 to 5,000 employees. Their experiences have highlighted a range of measures that employers have successfully taken to recruit refugees, and how they have overcome some of the potential difficulties.

The IES research found that the key barriers for employers were difficulties reaching refugees through their usual recruitment methods, difficulties in checking documentation and low levels of English language skills.

In areas with relatively high proportions of refugees, some employers said that they found traditional recruitment channels effective, including the local paper and job centres. This is the experience of West London-based Noon Products, which has around 1,000 employees of whom two-thirds are refugees, including Tamils and Somalis.

Word-of-mouth recommendation from current employees has also helped to promote recruitment in the local communitiy. And another factor has been Noon’s willingness to address the issue of the poor English language skills of some of the new employees.

Since early 2002, Noon had been providing English classes for its staff on company premises, organised by Uxbridge College and funded by the West London Learning Partnership. Employees who participate are then in a better position to benefit from training programmes and progress through the company.

But for some of the other employers in the survey, it proved necessary to embark on specific recruitment initiatives targeted at local refugee communities. In many cases, this involved the participation of an outside body – often a local organisation working with refugees. A plant hire company facing skills shortages in the West Midlands employed an outside consultant to work with the Refugee Council to attract potential recruits. Of 20 refugees interviewed, eight were successfully recruited.

The bus operator, Travel West Midlands, set up a programme in 2003 to provide refugees with the skills to enable them to succeed in their applications to be bus drivers, including job-related English and driving tuition. So far, two programmes have been run, with 10 participants.

The English language courses were based on the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programme, but were customised for bus drivers. The induction programme involved a lot of company resources and there were difficulties in retaining all the participants over a four-month period as some individuals could not afford to stay on benefits for this length of time. The company looked at streamlining the programme to encourage retention.

The  problem of checking the documentation of refugee job applicants – including evidence of permission to stay, job qualifications and references – has been a barrier to recruitment. Larger companies are more likely to be able to allocate the HR resources required to keep up to date with the documentation required, for example trawling relevant websites, but this is beyond the reach of most small employers without a specialised personnel function.

Many employers said that would like the Government to provide a clearer step-by-step guide for employers. In response to this and to other concerns, the Government has said it is working on improving the guidance it offers and, providing recruiters take due care, they will not be unduly penalised if mistakes are made.

One of the most successful measures undertaken by three of the employers was that of setting up a work placement scheme, to allow refugees to gain a first foothold in the labour market and to provide employers with first-hand experience of a sector of the labour force that they may not have previously considered recruiting from.

Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service (OFRS) is committed to improving the diversity of its workforce and is involved with the Oxfordshire Employers Race Equality Network.

Refugee Resource, a local voluntary organisation, contacted the network seeking employers who were willing to provide refugees with basic workplace training.

Initially, OFRS provided an eight-week placement for three refugees, one of whom was subsequently taken on in a paid post. Following this success, OFRS went on to interview other refugees on Refugee Resource’s books to recruit people to cover short-term positions, such as maternity leave cover, rather than using agencies as before.

Fit-out and refurbishment specialists Interior plc (a division of the Interior Services Group(ISG)), worked with the Refugee Education and Training Advisory Service to develop a six-week work placement scheme for refugees awaiting the documentation to allow them to take up paid employment. This first placement was in the accounts team at head office. According to ISG’s director of HR Anne Copeland: “The aim of the placement is for the individual to get to grips with the environment and the whole office culture in this country, and start to settle. Then when their papers do arrive, they are in a position to go out and look for a job with some kind of work experience in this country on their CV.”

The employers say the benefits of recruiting people of refugee status include their high calibre, commitment, productivity and strong work ethic. And some employers have expressed their own commitment to creating a diverse workforce drawing on all sections of the community. At OFRS, for example, all staff are put through a diversity training programme, and efforts are being made to promote the integration of refugees in activities both inside and outside the workplace.

From the example of these employers there are a range of good practice tips on how to work with this group:


Refugees are not easy to reach. Isolation and lack of English language skills mean that they may not respond to normal recruitment channels. Those employers who have had most success have used intermediaries, ie, refugee support groups and have taken advantage of any successes to also recruit by word of mouth.

Employers may also struggle to make sense of the documentation which demonstrates the refugee has the right to seek and hold employment in the UK. The Home Office is taking steps to simplify the documentation to clarify that permission to work has been granted. But in the meantime, the employers who had worked with local refugee organisations to recruit refugees said that the initial checking of documents was carried out by organisations, such as the Refugee Council, and this helped to overcome concerns about recruitment.

The Employability Forum’s website  has a factsheet for employers on permission to work, and can put employers in touch with other sources of advice.


This may be a barrier to entry. Many employers commented that a lack of language skills was something which put refugees at a serious disadvantage. Overcoming this problem often requires some intervention on the part of the employer to secure appropriate training to enable refugees to succeed in their new job – often through working with local refugee support groups and colleges.

Work experience

If direct recruitment seems too big a step, or if the skills gap seems too great, employers can still help refugees in their community through providing work experience and job placements. This may end up being a positive means of recruitment, and even if the job is not entirely suitable, valuable experience will have been gained by the refugee and the employers.

For more on refugee employment issues, go to and search on ‘refugees’

Employing refugees and asylum seekers

  • Individuals granted refugee status or Exceptional Leave to Remain will receive a letter from the Home Office which confirms their right to employment in the UK.

  • Asylum seekers will either present an endorsed Standard Acknowledgement Letter (SAL) or an Application Registration Card (ARC). The SAL is issued to asylum seekers in acknowledgement of their asylum claim. It will be endorsed on the reverse if permission to work has been granted.

  • New applicants are more likely to present the Application Registration Card (ARC) which carries a photograph. An individual’s employment status is clearly specified on the card.

  • Asylum seekers do not need to ask for permission to work before undertaking voluntary work.

  • The concession which allowed asylum seekers to work if they had waited for six months for a decision on their application was withdrawn in July 2002. Those who applied after this date will not have been granted permission to work. However, those who had already received permission to work in the UK are still eligible to do so.

For further information contact the Home Office helpline for employers on 020 8649 7878

At-a-glance resources for the successful employment of refugees

Useful organisations

Useful contacts

When employing refugees a number of issues about documentation, qualifications, and social support may arise and the following organisations may be useful to employers.

National Insurance numbers

Refugees often experience difficulties in obtaining National Insurance numbers.

National Insurance registration helplines

0845 9157006 or 0845 9155670

Recognition of overseas qualifications

NARIC (the National Academic Recognition Information Centre) in Cheltenham oversees the recognition of foreign qualifications in the UK. The UK National Reference Point for Vocational Qualifications (UK NRP) is based within the same organisation and provides a service on request.

Contact details: 01242 260 010

Bank accounts

Refugees often experience difficulty in opening bank accounts. A letter from an individual’s employer can help, as can direct contact with the branch.


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