Celebrating projects that help refugees find work

by Jill Rutter, Head of Programme and Policy at Learning and Work Institute


22 06 2023


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Between 2001 and 2022 more than one million people arrived in the UK as asylum-seekers or through refugee resettlement programmes. Employment is key to their economic and social integration. To mark Refugee Week, we are highlighting some of the projects that are helping refugees find and progress in work.

Refugees come from many different countries and from a wide range of educational and work backgrounds. We have welcomed 177,000 Ukrainians through the Homes for Ukraine and Family Scheme since March 2022. In 2022, the largest national group granted refugee status after an asylum application were from Afghanistan, with 6,863 people granted protection in 2022. Some Afghan refugees have previously held senior positions in government, or had worked as interpreters for the army or aid and development organisations. Their numbers also included people who speak little or no English, or those whose education had been interrupted by conflict and lengthy journeys to the UK. Other significant groups granted protection in the UK in 2022 include people from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Refugees face a number of barriers to finding work or moving up in their careers. Indeed, the Labour Force Survey suggested that in 2022, just 61% of people who had come to the UK to seek asylum were employed, compared with 76% of the overall UK population. The unemployment rate for refugees was 14% in 2022, far higher than the 3.7% among the overall population. Refugees are also more likely to get trapped in low-paid or insecure work – as agency workers, as casual or seasons workers, in the informal economy  or in low-paid forms of self-employment.

Language barriers and the absence of UK work experience, qualifications or job references have been shown to disadvantage refugees looking for work. Refugees who lack fluent English may enrol on ESOL courses, usually run by further education colleges, adult education services or community organisations. L&W has produced some resources for English teachers in colleges to help them to address the integration needs of new arrivals. Civil society or faith organisations may also run ‘conversation clubs’ – informal provision that enables refugees to practice their English which is usually led by volunteers. We have also published resources to help volunteers run these sessions.

Refugees who have recently arrived in the UK may also  be unfamiliar with job-search methods such as CV writing and job-interviews or may have little knowledge about the jobs on offer in the UK. Jobcentre Plus work coaches will help them but may not be able to give them the intensity of support that they need.

In the past, money from the European Social Fund has been used to run employment support programmes for refugees, including through the Building Better Opportunities programme, co-funded by the National Lottery Communities Fund. Working West London was one employment support project funded by Building Better Opportunities. This was a partnership between four training providers and helped nearly 600 refugees across four London local authorities. Refugees received individual coaching and ESOL support from trained staff. By September 2021, 42% of refugee participants were working, 13% moved from economic inactivity to job search, and 59% were attending education or training courses.

Some civil society organisations and housing associations offer employment support for refugees. The Refugee Council has partnered with Starbucks to offer coaching and a four-day intensive programme covering interview practice and training on customer service roles. Ashley Community Housing is a housing association that provides accommodation and tailored integration and employment support for vulnerable migrants and refugees.

Some refugees have professional qualifications from their home countries, but need to have prior experience and qualifications recognised if they are to work in similar roles in the UK. Nurses, doctors, other medical professions, vets and accountants are among the regulated professions that require people who have qualified abroad take language and professional competence tests to be able to practice in the UK. Some specialist employment support projects that work with refugees support them through these process – The Building Bridges Programme for Refugee Health Professionals is one such scheme in London.

The Home Office has recently announced funding for two-year Refugee Employability Programme in England. This voluntary programme will launch in summer 2023 and will offer work coaching and integration advice and guidance. While this initiative is welcome, there is more that central government could do to boost the employment rate of refugees.

Asylum-seekers are usually barred from working in the UK, unless they have waited for more than 12 months for a decision and their job is listed in the Migration Advisory Committee’s Shortage Occupation list. Refugee organisations have campaigned for asylum-seekers who have waited for more than 6 months for a decision to be allowed to work. If the Government won’t lift the bar on working, it should take steps to reduce the time that asylum-seekers wait for a decision. Home office figures released in May 2028 show 172,758 asylum-seekers waiting for a decision, of whom 66,009 had waited more than 12 months.

In the 1990s, work coaches based in job centres received training about refugees’ backgrounds needs, with specialist refugee work coaches in some job centres. This practice could be reintroduced.

Most refugees long to work – it helps them rebuild their lives and make new connections. Refugees can contribute economically to the societies that welcome them in many ways: as workers, innovators, entrepreneurs, taxpayers, consumers and investors. Our past experiences show that for this aim to be realised, English language provision and employment support should be a policy priority.