LONDON – Areej Osman spent years wondering what more she had to do to land a proper job.
She had a degree in environmental management, four years’ teaching experience in her native Sudan and a UK interpreter’s certificate. She was IT-literate, spoke Arabic and flawless English and, thanks to her refugee status, she was authorized to work in the UK.
Yet Osman, 32, had been passed over, turned down or disqualified from at least 250 jobs she applied for since gaining refugee status in 2015.
She spent last year piecing together an existence, scanning documents for a property firm on a ‘play-it-by-ear’ basis, while helping at a refugee charity and volunteering at a resource centre for the homeless. After four years’ treading water, she has only recently landed a full-time job.
“I think I can do so much better,” Osman told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, before the employment offer from the refugee charity came through. “Technically you can work here, but you can’t.”
There are around 120,000 refugees, including children, in Britain. Adults are entitled to work and the government encourages them to find employment, in part so they can to contribute to the national economy.
But refugees encounter more obstacles to getting hired than most other job seekers in Britain. Frequently, qualifications are not recognized, while employers are often unaware that refugees have the right to work.
While a few NGOs and social enterprises help some break into the job market, others spend years in underemployment limbo, the holes in their CVs widening till they abandon the search or resign themselves to driving cabs or stacking shelves. To be sure, not all refugees arrive with strong qualifications. But even those who lower their sights often find the hurdles tough to scale.
In a recent study, the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society at the University of Oxford estimated the unemployment rate for refugees at 18 per cent, three times greater than for the UK-born. Their average earnings were substantially lower than for other groups. And only about 10 per cent of refugees were employed in occupations classified as professional.
To help address this, several organisations – UNHCR, the government, the International Organization for Migration and the charity Business in the Community – released guidelines in May that aim to increase refugee participation in the labour market. ‘Tapping Potential’ sets out simple steps that companies can take to enable refugees to move seamlessly into the workforce and build skills. These include internal communication and culture, recruitment processes, mentoring, dedicated programmes and volunteering.
Absent such measures, refugee graduates will continue to waste years of their working lives languishing in the unemployment wilderness.
Samah Bushra, 35, a Sudanese social worker who became a refugee in 2012, knows all about glass ceilings set discouragingly low.
Neither her two degrees – including a master’s from the University of London – nor her work history in Sudan’s state and private sectors, nor her international experience in Norway and Uganda, nor even her public-speaking at the House of Lords, could land her a job in Britain.
“Everyone wanted me to have had work experience in the UK,” said Bushra, reciting a catch-22 that vexes refugees who have spent most of their professional lives abroad.
A one-year traineeship with Crisis, a homelessness charity, was a game-changer. Though it meant starting her career over, Bushra embraced the placement, and her employer was quick to recognise her talent.
After that, doors opened. She landed jobs in Hertfordshire, in Surrey, and at London’s Hammersmith and Fulham Council, before taking up a post at the UK's Refugee Council.
‘I lost four years, and my real work started when I worked in this [traineeship] scheme,’ she said.
Sheila Heard, who founded the social enterprise Transitions London in 2010, has been fighting such obstacles for years. It was the ‘startling success’ of an internship programme she ran for refugee graduates as a university careers adviser decades ago that provided the model for her current business – recruiting refugee professionals.
‘Once employers trust someone through an internship, 70 per cent of those interns will be retained,’ said Heard. Recent successes include the hiring of 13 refugee engineers in the UK by Arcadis, the Dutch consulting firm.
Some 40 per cent of the refugee accountancy and engineering candidates who knock on her door have already been back to university in their search for work, requalifying with UK degrees on top of those earned overseas. But “even with UK university qualifications,” Heard said, “few find relevant work”.
Biniam Haddish, 38, a power engineer from Eritrea, very nearly joined their ranks.
The universities he emailed from a library in Leeds, after gaining refugee status in 2006, told him he would have to repeat the studies he had previously completed.
“A degree from Africa is not recognised, experience is not recognised, and I don’t know why,” he said of his Eritrean engineering degree that would have been accepted in the US. Seeing no other option, he applied for a student loan and enrolled.
“I felt old, very old,” he said of his first week among freshmen at Bradford University when he was 26. Allowed to skip a year, he switched to telecom engineering and graduated with first-class honours in 2011. Then the job hunt began.
Like Osman and Bushra’s, his search ran aground on a lack of UK experience. He switched his sights to traineeships and almost secured one – only to lose it because the employer was not convinced he had the right to work.
“I was crushed,” Haddish said. “I’d applied for a hundred jobs, and this happened. This is where there is a misunderstanding – refugees have the full right to work in the UK.”
Ratcheting down his ambitions, he found a one-month placement at an electronics company in Leeds, which was extended. The glowing references he earned there, and a Google search that led him to Heard, turned his life around.
Polishing his presentation skills, Heard helped him assess which industry and type of firm to approach. Suddenly, he had three offers. In 2012, he was accepted onto National Grid’s graduate scheme – in power systems engineering, the field of the degree he’d completed eight years before.
Since then, National Grid has funded him to do a part-time master’s, is encouraging him to apply to become a chartered engineer, and is investing in him for leadership training.
“Companies think employing refugees is much more complicated than it is, that they will have to fill in 250 forms for the Home Office and find themselves in trouble if they make one mistake,” Heard said. In reality, “with a photocopy of a candidate’s biometric residency permit, it takes 18 hours to receive confirmation that a candidate is authorised to work.”
Matthew Powell, chief executive of Breaking Barriers, a charity integrating refugees through employment, says much of his work centres on convincing naturally risk-averse businesses to become work-placement providers.
“Ninety-nine percent want to, but bureaucracy, budgetary decisions, and senior management vetoes may prevent it,” he says. Once the idea catches on among key employees, however, there can be rewards.