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The road to refugee integration: gender-based challenges

Ami Saji, Refugee Policy Intern

This is the third in a series of blogs about social integration and refugees in the UK and Europe. Read the first on refugee integration here, and the second on refugee employment here. 


The Female Experience

Being a refugee is one dimension that could impact an individual’s ability to gain meaningful employment. However, other dimensions of social (dis)advantage are often simultaneously at play, which ultimately could contribute to the differentiated employment outcomes among refugees. In  understanding how female refugees fare when it comes to employment, it’s important to view employment through the lens of gender. What does this look like in Europe and in the UK, then?


Unfortunately, the situation is much starker for female refugees. While the total employment rate of refugees 20-64 in the UK was at 52% in 2016, when broken down by gender it becomes 62.5% for males and 37.7% for females. This trend tends to hold in many other European countries as the reported employment rate for female refugees in the EU is on average at 45%, a rate that is lower than other non-EU born and native women, and lags by roughly 17 percentage points when compared to male refugees. Moreover, the gender gap within the refugee demographic is more pronounced in the UK; for instance, the gap in Sweden is roughly 7% and in Switzerland it is roughly 11%. Finally, the types of jobs held by female refugees is also comparatively worse; according to a report published by the European Parliament in 2016, regardless of the professional backgrounds of female refugees, most find themselves in low-skill, low-wage, and unstable employment. Thus, with gender clearly a dimension that can also impact employment outcomes, a natural question that arises is: why do these differences exist and persist?


Barriers to overcome

Understanding these lower and poorer employment outcomes amongst female refugees is certainly a challenge as the types of barriers faced by each female refugee varies and the outcomes themselves are often country-specific. However, there are certain gender-specific barriers that are often present, which can serve as an appropriate starting point when talking about the gender-based differentiated outcomes, particularly within the context of the UK.

1.  Family and childcare responsibilities:

Households with children or a family member needing care have to decide how care will be provided. For many families, this responsibility tends to fall on the mother unless they are able to find and afford care services. For female refugees, the latter is unlikely or difficult to attain. Therefore, they often have to stay at home to care for their child or family member even if they want to participate in the labour market. With this added responsibility, female refugees, even if they are a good match to available employment opportunities, may need to ensure that any job they take allows them to fulfil any caregiving duties.


2.  Physical and mental health:

Asylum seekers and refugees, particularly those who are female, are generally of poorer physical and mental health. Some of the factors contributing to this include the trauma and extreme stress they have experienced, as well as the limited access to healthcare during their journey to their new home. And with the added stressors of adjusting to their new surroundings and new life, their already poorer health can be further exacerbated, especially as the current health services offerings often lack the cultural and gender sensitivity needed to address their various health concerns. What this ultimately means for female refugees is that it can impede on their ability to prepare for, access, and hold meaningful employment.


3.  Feeling of safety and agency:

Female refugees are exceptionally vulnerable to exploitation by men. Those who become a victim of abuse can develop a range of symptoms that can persist even after they escape from the abusive environment. Many of these women, they also face additional barriers to reporting abuse and seeking assistance. As one might expect, for female refugees who have a limited sense of safety and agency, their daily life is disrupted. This in turn can hinder their ability to commit to and participate in meaningful employment, or even activities that can enhance their job seeking abilities.


4.  Education and skills attainment levels:

Many female refugees faced barriers to formal education and training, and/or held informal jobs in their country of origin. As a result, they are often pushed towards jobs that are precarious and poorly paid, as they are perceived as having limited relevant skills. Even for those who are educated and have held professional careers, they may not have the resources or financial means to demonstrate their full qualifications. Consequently, their education and skill levels are also perceived to be lower, which means that they, too, tend to hold precarious and low-wage jobs.


5.  Access to English learning and skills training opportunities:

Meeting your basic needs is a matter of survival. For female refugees, this often means forgoing English learning and skills training opportunities, and working multiple jobs or split shifts in order to secure a liveable wage. This can mean they are unable to attain the skills needed to move out of the low-wage job(s) that prevent them from learning in the first place. Moreover, they may have to focus their time, energy, and limited resources on managing their daily needs. Learning opportunities can be pushed down on their list of priorities, which can ultimately hinder their chances of gaining meaningful employment.

These barriers and the profound impact they can have help to explain how female refugees are further disadvantaged in the context of employment. After all, on top of these barriers, they also must navigate and overcome the policy-based hurdles that affect refugees in general.


Empowerment as a solution

With great challenges comes great community mobilisation. For female refugees in the UK, many community members and local organisations have stepped up to the plate to provide support and guidance to their new neighbours. These grassroot efforts, such as Bread & Roses, have recognised the unique barriers faced by female refugees, and are offering gender and culturally sensitive services that ultimately empower them to find meaningful employment. Moreover, there is a growing movement of social enterprises such as Breaking Barriers and The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (TERN) that focus on supporting job-seeking refugees by offering programs and services that adopt a whole-persons approach.

English language learning, which is critical to improving employment outcomes of refugees, is also an area that has seen great community-led initiatives. For example, one of Wonder Foundation’s partners, Baytree Centre, is actively supporting vulnerable female migrants and refugees by offering a welcoming and supportive environment in which to learn English. As one might expect, many of the women who have participated in their English learning opportunities have used their enhanced language skills to improve their employment status.


As there is community support amidst the current backdrop of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism, the national government can use this positive energy to further empower refugees including those who are female. It’s essential for government to provide policy-based solutions that will not only dismantle the barriers faced by refugees but also set the normative approach as to how the UK can and should welcome and support their new neighbours in achieving social and economic integration. Hopefully, by paying attention to these barriers and thinking of the UK as a home for everyone, refugees will be better able rebuild their lives, contribute to society and reclaim what they have lost.