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The road to refugee integration: the employment challenge

Ami Saji, Refugee Policy Intern

What are the challenges facing refugees when it comes to getting a job, and how can education overcome them?

Social integration rests heavily on social networks and personal relationships. As people meet and get to know one another, they may gain a sense of belonging and inclusion, which in turn improves their ability to participate in society. With UK policymakers focused on improving social integration outcomes, a key question that arises is what can be done to help immigrants and refugees in rebuilding their social networks.

For many immigrants and refugees who are eager to participate in the local labour market, employment has served as a means to connect with their new community. By working alongside their new community members they can slowly start to build their social network and become better acquainted with their new surroundings. Through the income earned through their job, they may also be able to achieve economic stability that will allow them to better participate in society.   

However, access to employment in the UK comes with heavy barriers for immigrants, particularly for refugees. In 2014, the employment rate for refugees aged 20-64 was 52%, whereas for UK citizens of the same age it was 75%. Even over time, the employment gap between citizens and refugees persists; looking at refugees who have been in the country for more than 10 years, their employment rate is roughly 57%. Certainly, it could be argued that these lower employment rates are due to refugees having a lower job seeking rate than their UK counterparts, or being weaker matches to jobs available in the UK labour market. However, refugees in similar EU countries have more success getting work and the employment rates for refugees and the total population tend to converge over time. What does this mean for refugees in the UK? Why do they face such relatively pronounced barriers to employment?

The Challenges

Untangling the reasons for poorer employment outcomes is difficult. Refugees do not all have the same job search experience as the intersection of the various dimensions of social (dis)advantage are context specific. However, through the research conducted by academics, experts, and service providers, it is possible to identify policies that are likely contributing to the relatively weak employment outcomes of refugees in the UK.   

 1.  No national strategy to support refugee job seekers

The UK currently relies on NGOs, community-based organisations, charities, and social enterprises to provide refugee-specific employment services. Many of these service providers are doing what they can to support refugees who enrol or participate in their services, but the lack of a nationally coordinated strategy makes it difficult to secure the funding and resources needed to provide on-going and high-quality support. Coordination and standardisation of services are difficult under an ad hoc system, so access to and quality of employment services is likely to be an issue, as well as successful translation of training and education refugees have obtained abroad.

But a national strategy could set the normative approach to employing refugees. If the national government is able to advocate for and support refugee job seekers, it would help to minimise many of the socially constructed barriers to employment.

 2.  No national strategy on English language learning

The UK does not have a nationally coordinated strategy on English language learning either. As a result, the same funding, resources, coordination, and standardisation issues identified above also apply when it comes to learning English. With many job opportunities requiring English language proficiency, refugees who come with little to no English are particularly disadvantaged in the labour market. Additionally, refugees who are looking to improve their English skills to achieve upward mobility may also find it difficult to access and participate in appropriate learning opportunities.

 3.  Weak social services support and provisions

A refugee’s journey to a new country differs from most other immigrants. They gain the right to residency for meeting specific conditions outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention:

A person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail him or herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.

Therefore, it is likely that refugees require strong social protection in order to adjust to their new home. In the UK, resettled refugees are provided support through a 12-month integration programme funded by the Home Office and implemented by NGOs and housing/support organisations. However, this group has a very low employment rate, suggesting a need to re-evaluate the current social services being provided to see if they are impacting this poor outcome. Non-resettled refugees (those who were granted status through asylum) also receive very limited support while their application is being processed. For example, a single individual receives roughly £5 per day to cover everyday expenses. The hardship of managing one’s life under such uncertain conditions likely impacts their well-being and employment-relevant factors, which in turn could impact their employment outcomes.

 4.  Very limited working rights for asylum seekers:

In the UK, asylum seekers with applications pending must wait a minimum of 12 months and qualify for a job on the government’s shortage occupation list in order to be granted the right to work. In practice, though, very few asylum seekers are able to meet this occupation-based condition and have to wait to work until their asylum claim is approved. By contrast, asylum seekers in Sweden only have to wait 1 day and only have to show proof of identity and that an asylum claim has been submitted.  In the context of such long-term exclusion from the local labour market, refugees in the UK face increased health-related and skills degradation issues, which likely spill over into their ability to find employment.

Looking to the Future

Improving employment outcomes of refugees will not be an easy task for the national government. However, carefully examining and understanding the various factors that are likely overlapping and influencing a refugee’s ability to obtain meaningful employment is a necessary next step. And with Parliament engaged in active discussions about social integration and refugees, now is truly an opportune time to move forward in this direction.

Finally, responsibility for improving employment outcomes also rests on the community-at-large. After all, we are the employers, the co-workers, the neighbours, and friends of refugees in the UK and we can make a difference in helping job seeking refugees find meaningful employment. With the national government and the community working together to improve refugee employment outcomes, they will ultimately have a better opportunity to contribute to the country that they have chosen to call their new home.