UK: Talent going to waste

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Jun 17 12:55:25 UTC 2008

Talent going to waste

Having fled persecution, war and even torture back home, highly
qualified refugees face huge obstacles finding work in the UK

 Rachel Pillai, Monday June 16 2008

Anyone would think that Pearl Thevanayagam has a great deal to
contribute to this country, with qualifications from the US and Sri
Lanka, and 10 years experience as a successful reporter. But think
again. Since fleeing Sri Lanka in 2001, Pearl has not been able to
find relevant work in the UK. Despite actively seeking employment
since she gained refugee status in 2001, she has struggled to get her
qualifications and experience recognised. Now, after countless
knockbacks on the basis of her "limited experience", her morale is at
an all-time low and she has been forced to take up low-paid, casual
work to support herself – a far cry from her successful career in

Pearl is not alone. A staggering 36% of refugees are unemployed in the
UK - almost six times the national average, despite many refugees
holding professional skills. The government (pdf) has long recognised
this problem as a waste of human resource and a major barrier to
refugee integration, but refugee employment rates have remained
stubbornly low and refugees continue to face a number of barriers to

Many of these barriers centre around the fact that refugees often need
to acquire new knowledge and skills before they can find employment.
For most, this includes improving their English language skills and
trying to enrol on a language course as an important first step.
However, in many parts of the country there is limited provision and
long waiting lists for language classes. For others, who are fluent in
English, they soon discover that many employers disregard
qualifications and experience from overseas, and that they either have
to move into a completely new areas of work or go through a long and
expensive process of re-qualifying. For most people, refugee or
otherwise, this would prove a thoroughly demoralising process because
identity and status are often tied to professional standing. Add to
this, however, the trauma of having fled a country, lost a home, been
separated from family, or even tortured, and it is difficult to
imagine how anyone could surmount such barriers.

To address these issues, government interventions to date have largely
focussed on improving the individual and personal characteristics that
negatively impact on refugee employment. For example, the Strategic
Upgrade of National Refugee Integration Services (Sunrise), allocates
refugees a case worker to provide advice and guidance once they have
received refugee status, and Time Together Mentoring provides a
volunteer mentoring scheme to help refugees gain experience of the UK
workplace. Both initiatives have already helped many refugees access
advice, job search, training and language provision.

However, alongside this focus on individual and personal
characteristics, there has been comparatively less policy intervention
to address some of the structural and systemic barriers that refugees
face to employment, such as discrimination and restrictive policy
measures. For example, research (pdf) by the Institute for Employment
Studies has highlighted a high level of anxiety among many employers
over the employment of refugees. Other evidence has argued that the
introduction of the "five-year rule" in 2005, which reassesses a
refugee's status at the end of five years based on a review of
conditions in their country of origin, effectively removes a refugee's
longer-term security and prevents personal investment in education and

These kind of structural barriers may be harder to address, but they
are no less significant as continuing obstacles to refugee employment.
Policy interventions and employment strategies need to focus on both
individual and structural barriers in order to improve the employment
opportunities for refugees. Employment strategies, such as local work
experience and language training, need to be developed alongside
broader, systemic responses, such as qualification recognition and
effective action to address the anxieties of prospective employers.

Refugee Week kicks off today. It will highlight the contribution of
refugees such as Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Paul Hamlyn and
Michael Marks. In this way, it will also highlight how refugees like
Pearl do not just seek refuge, but the chance to rebuild their lives,
gain employment and realise their potential. With the current
government trying to stave off a future skills crisis, increase
employment levels and make the UK more competitive, it is highly
questionable whether we can afford to waste such potential.

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