Breaking down barriers: How to work with refugee talent
By Jo Faragher on 09 March 2023
It’s now been just over a year since Russia invaded Ukraine, and the UK (and other countries) welcomed thousands of refugees into their homes and workplaces. At a time when many businesses are struggling to find enough staff, being able to tap into an often highly-skilled pool of talent has proven useful, but misconceptions around refugees from any countries still abound. At the same time, we hear announcements from the highest level of government about “stopping the small boats” and limiting immigration, so it’s not surprising that many people make false assumptions about people’s motives for coming to our country to work.
Charity RefuAid has been supporting refugees since 2016, and was created primarily in response to an influx of people due to the conflict in Syria, explains Steve Duffy, head of employment programmes. “Our aim is to support anyone who has been forced to flee their home or seek sanctuary, and the primary way we do that is to help them return to their career or studies,” he says. “These are the crucial cornerstones that allow everything else to fall into place – where people can settle in and feel they have a stake in society.” The charity starts with the premise that being a refugee is “a circumstance rather than an identity”, placing emphasis on the skills, qualifications and cultural diversity of thought a refugee can add to a business.
RefuAid supports refugees in three key ways: with intensive language support, which could be general English or particular support they need with professional language; with re-accreditation and finance, offering up to £10,000 interest free if someone needs to transfer their professional accreditations or qualifications, or if they need to get a driving licence for work; and with employment itself. “There are still multifaceted barriers to getting employment here in the UK,” he adds. “The most common is not having UK work experience, or having gaps in their work experience. They don’t have the professional networks a domestic candidate might have so spend a long time looking for work and sometimes end up on benefits. They’re often overqualified and underemployed.” RefuAid’s employment programme helps them overcome these barriers by supporting them with employability through mentoring, interview preparation or learning about UK business culture.
Handling the process
Those coming in from Ukraine do not face the same level of challenges as some refugees, however. Those who secure a visa under the government’s Ukrainian Sponsorship Scheme have a three year leave to remain, so they do not have to go through the asylum process like some nationalities (during which they can’t work). “All of that delay is bypassed for Ukrainians,” adds Duffy, “but they are arriving with trauma and disruption that is fresher, and may be staying in someone else’s home, which itself throws up challenges. They still lack UK work experience and are subject to many of the misconceptions around refugees.” He adds that many employers, even larger ones, still lack a broad understanding of the rules around refugees’ right to work. Through partnerships there is financial support and a growing number of employability opportunities – several have offered jobs to RefuAid’s clients.
Karim Alhamo came to the UK in August last year, and has been working with Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB), an NGO, in securing employment as a graphic designer here. “Although it was a challenging phase and there were plenty of other candidates, employers were extremely professional, supportive and they established a great communication base with me,” he says. He had to communicate via Zoom and complete some small tasks to show his capabilities, but overall the process felt normal, he adds. Where the transition has been challenging has been in terms of sourcing documents and departure permits from various government departments. “The mania stuck with me until my plane took off from Queen Alia Airport in Jordan,” he adds. “I had to visit so many governmental institutions, it was not a pleasant picnic for an expat, let alone standing in long queues, and was no better at the other end when I reached my country’s embassy.” Just getting his passport took more than three months. “In the meantime, I had to cope with the stress and fear of what might happen if the process took more time than expected, what if the employer lost their patience or interest because of that long wait, or simply my embassy decided not give me back my renewed passport.”
Karim says the process taught him “never to celebrate anything too early”, and at the start he needed to work informally without a contract or permit to protect him. “My entire job security was based on maintaining a good relationship with employers, so if they knew about my intention of leaving them, or my UK stay did not go well, this relationship and this peace would be destabilised forever, even if I was working for more than three years of loyalty.” TBB helped him with the interview phase, coordinating meetings, improving his CV and LinkedIn profile. The organisation also worked alongside the Home Office to help Karim’s employer sponsor him through the Displaced Talent Mobility Pilot, which was launched by the government in 2021.
The scheme uses the Skilled Worker visa category to ensure refugees have the right to work in the UK. Natasha Catterson, a partner at law firm Fragomen, explains: “By building a scheme around an existing category, it creates simplicity for employers; they essentially follow the exact same visa process for displaced talent as they do for sponsoring any other candidate.” Organisations need to have a sponsor licence from the government for this and satisfy themselves that the role they are looking to fill meets the minimum skill and salary requirements for this visa category. Candidates must also meet the English language requirement.
She adds: “The real benefit of the pilot is that it seeks to address the administrative and legal barriers that refugees and other forcibly displaced job seekers might face as they go through this visa process. Critically, the applicants receive priority processing free of charge and case management support to overcome challenges such as accessing passports or travel documents, employment references, and tax records. There is also more flexibility regarding where they submit their applications, for example, whilst the application should still be submitted overseas, they do not have to apply from their country of nationality or a location where they hold residence rights.” The Skilled Worker Visa is a five-year visa, after which time the employee may qualify to submit an application for indefinite leave to remain. They will also have access to safeguards in the event that they lose their job to ensure they are not returned to a country where they may face danger,” says Catterson.
Duffy at RefuAid urges businesses to stop seeing employing a refugee as an act of charity or a favour. “The resilience and grit these people have shown just to get here is one of the top traits companies look for in good candidates. Refugees also bring skills from other cultural contexts, diversity of thought, as well as language skills and cultural nuances that could be useful if they need to work in another country,” he adds. Karim couldn’t agree more: “Employing refugees is not just a nice way to do business. It brings a lot of benefits to the organisation, as [psychiatrist] Viktor Frankl stated – ‘When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves’ – and people from meagre means usually understand resilience, they understand teamwork, gratitude and hard work better than anyone else.”
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