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Ex-refugees at Strasbourg meet tell of discrimination in finding work

News Stories, 27 September 2012

Participants earlier today in Strasbourg at the Colloquium on the Right to Work for Refugees.

STRASBOURG, France, September 27 (UNHCR) Former refugees attending a seminar in Strasbourg today told of the obstacles and discrimination they face in finding work in Europe despite having expert qualifications and the legal right to employment.

"In theory, recognized refugees should have unrestricted access to the labour market in their countries of asylum. In practice, the obstacles are very high," said Olivier Beer, UNHCR's representative to the Council of Europe.

The refugee agency and the Council are co-organizers of the "Colloquium on the Right to Work for Refugees." The day-long Strasbourg gathering, the first of its kind in Europe, is aimed at raising awareness among European governments about the problem and encouraging them to take action in order to facilitate the economic integration of refugees.

Robert Katianda, a 53-year-old refugee from Democratic Republic of the Congo with a degree in business administration and an impressive CV, told participants that he had relentlessly sought work suitable for a professional when he first arrived in Germany in 1996 after fleeing his homeland for political reasons.

"All my 500 job applications [over a two-year period] were either rejected or remained unanswered," said the exile, who held a high profile financial job in Kinshasa and taught accountancy at a university in the Congolese capital.

In the end, he had to settle for unskilled labour. Today he works as a technician and maintenance man for a provincial opera company. "My current work impoverishes my intellectual capacity," said Katianda, a father of two who also works in his spare time on integration issues for his local municipal council.

Keli Kpedzroku, who fled persecution in Togo in the 1990s, said he struggled with the language and faced many obstacles finding employment in his early years of exile in Germany. He decided to invest in costly courses to make himself more marketable, including a 10-month media training course for beginners even though he was a trained journalist.

"It was a way to regain my dignity. I did not want to be seen as a parasite living off society," said Kpedzroku. But despite, this the 64-year-old revealed that he had never been able to find a full-time job since arriving in Germany. He now works part time for the church on fair trade issues and for a gold leaf company.

The experiences of Katianda and Kpedzroku, both now German citizens, are typical for refugees in Europe. Although there are no reliable figures for the numbers of employed and unemployed refugees in Europe, UNHCR believes that most of the continent's 1.5 million refugees are either out of work or employed in positions for which they are over-qualified.

"Paradoxically, many European governments have a need for a highly skilled workforce, but the qualifications that refugees bring to their asylum countries remain largely untapped," said Beer, adding that it was in the economic interest of European countries that refugees find work and no longer depend on social welfare.

"For the host country, it is an opportunity to benefit from refugees' skills and experience and we need to think further and creatively about how we can capitalize on this potential," said UNHCR Europe Bureau Director Daniel Endres. "We advise governments to include refugees as an explicitly-targeted population in state-funded integration programmes and to involve refugees in the design, development and rolling out of these programmes."




UNHCR country pages

Life in Calais' Jungle

An estimated 3,000 refugees and migrants live in Calais on the northern coast of France. Most fled conflict, violence or persecution in Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Syria and need international protection.

The situation in Calais has highlighted the need for greater responsibility and coordination between European countries and a robust implementation of the Common European Asylum System.

UNHCR has called upon EU member states to address the current gaps in asylum and reception. A collective and far-reaching European response is required, based on the principles of humanity, access to protection, solidarity and responsibility-sharing, both within the EU but also with countries outside the EU.

*Names changed for protection reasons.

Life in Calais' Jungle

Cold, Uncomfortable and Hungry in Calais

For years, migrants and asylum-seekers have flocked to the northern French port of Calais in hopes of crossing the short stretch of sea to find work and a better life in England. This hope drives many to endure squalid, miserable conditions in makeshift camps, lack of food and freezing temperatures. Some stay for months waiting for an opportunity to stow away on a vehicle making the ferry crossing.

Many of the town's temporary inhabitants are fleeing persecution or conflict in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. And although these people are entitled to seek asylum in France, the country's lack of accommodation, administrative hurdles and language barrier, compel many to travel on to England where many already have family waiting.

With the arrival of winter, the crisis in Calais intensifies. To help address the problem, French authorities have opened a day centre as well as housing facilities for women and children. UNHCR is concerned with respect to the situation of male migrants who will remain without shelter solutions. Photographer Julien Pebrel recently went to Calais to document their lives in dire sites such as the Vandamme squat and next to the Tioxide factory.

Cold, Uncomfortable and Hungry in Calais

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

France is one of the main destinations for asylum-seekers in Europe, with some 55,000 new asylum applications in 2012. As a result of the growing number of applicants, many French cities are facing an acute shortage of accommodation for asylum-seekers.

The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

The former meat-packing plant is home to about 100 asylum-seekers, mostly from Chad, Mali and Somalia, but also from Georgia, Kosovo and other Eastern European countries. Most are single men, but there are also two families.

In this dank, rat-infested empty building, the pipes leak and the electricity supply is sporadic. There is only one lavatory, two taps with running water, no bathing facilities and no kitchen. The asylum-seekers sleep in the former cold-storage rooms. The authorities have tried to close the squat several times. These images, taken by British photographer Jason Tanner, show the desperate state of the building and depict the people who call it home.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

Out in the Cold in CalaisPlay video

Out in the Cold in Calais

Despite the sub-zero temperatures, migrants and asylum-seekers continue to flock to the northern French port of Calais in a bid to reach the United Kingdom across the English Channel. Some are from conflict zones and UNHCR wants to make sure they have access to asylum procedures.