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How HR can step up and support Afghan refugees

The Taliban’s reconquest of Afghanistan has created a humanitarian crisis with many thousands fleeing the country. Peter Crush finds out what HR can do to help resettlement.

The rapid and total recapture of Afghanistan by the Taliban shocked the world.

Aid agencies are already warning of a looming humanitarian crisis, but for those who have already escaped (17,000 Afghans have been rescued by the UK government since April; 15,000 since August alone), new upheaval is only just beginning.

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HR’s role in refugee integration

Since April, the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) has promised to resettle any interpreters and other locally employed staff (LES) who worked for the UK in Afghanistan.

Some 8,000 people already brought over fit this bill. However, given the ARAP typically deals with more procedural support like finding accommodation, granting access to health services and school places, it means that for many, entry in Britain marks the start of a long road trying to find settlement and support for their needs.

With the UK government pledging sanctuary for a further 20,000 Afghan refugees, and employment being an important part of settlement, many now feel HR has just as important a role to play. So, what can people professionals really do to help?

HR payroll provider Remote has just established its ‘Remote for Refugees’ programme which offers HR directors free payroll services
for paying refugee employees via its platform.

Its director of people Nadia Vatalidis says: “There’s no doubt security and stability in a new location is massively helped by the gift of employment. The HR sector can undoubtedly make a difference just by providing work.”

Already, employers like care technology provider Cera, have pledged to do just this, promising to hire up to 500 Afghan refugees over the next five years. It is also being joined by Stockport-based herb and spice supplier EHL Ingredients.

Tasneem Alonzo, joint managing director at EHL, says she is actively pursuing her local authority to be placed top of their lists once refugees have been housed.

She says: “We know inbound flights are arriving in our area, and as long as refugees can read and speak English, we are here for them.

“The role of business is as much about having a moral and ethical stance, and we feel the need to demonstrate this. We face skills shortages and have an existing multicultural team. With training and support we feel we are a perfect fit.”

Thankfully, according to charity Breaking Barriers, which works with over 25 employers wanting to provide jobs and support to immigrants and refugees, interest in employing displaced Afghans has been staggering. But, says Will Gogerty, head of corporate partnerships: “What HRDs have to remember is that committing to hire is only the first step of a long process.

"The role of business is as much about having a moral and ethical stance"

“At the moment all inbound Afghans will be asylum seekers and must formerly be granted refugee status before they can be legally employed. This means HRDs must be in it for the long term.”

One of the things experts argue can’t be ignored either is the trauma that many refugees will bring with them, and that won’t easily go away just through employment.

“It’s devastating being forced to move,” says former FTSE 25 HR director, and global diversity and inclusion expert, Yetunde Hofmann. “HR leadership here will be crucial. The inclusion side of this cannot be underestimated. Enabling this rather than giving jobs is just as important.

“Firms need to be ready to take a look at their own obstacles that may hinder refugee integration. I call it love-based leadership.”

Even small things, like creating new multi-language signage (as Alonzo said she did when Polish workers first arrived), can make a big difference. But HRDs are being implored to think even more broadly than this.

“If they can’t offer actual jobs, HRDs should really think about what other help they can provide such as training and providing soft skills development to help make them more employable,” argues Paul Corcoran, CEO at Manchester-based marketing agency, Agent Marketing.

Its Agent Academy already runs outreach programmes to disadvantaged groups, offering CV writing and interview skills, and Corcoran says he is extending this for any Afghan refugees who want to access it.

“Just giving someone a sense of how to present themselves, what to say, and how to contextualise their skills in the UK jobs market is invaluable,” he says.

“Every business should be finding ways to wrap their arms around these people.”

Corcoran argues that just by engaging with refugees, leaders can dispel some of the prejudices they might still have for them. It’s a sentiment Karen Higgins, head of sustainability at Grant Thornton, shares.

Higgins looks after the business’s Supporting Refugees Into Meaningful Employment Programme, has hired refugees directly, and supported other refugees into employment in her sector since 2018. “Businesses need to create a stand to make a better world,” she says. “But more than this, refugees are often highly skilled, resilient assets and fantastic employees.”

During the pandemic taking refugees on secondments was no longer possible. Since then, Grant Thornton has hired directly through Breaking Barriers, requesting that the charity sends details of people it thinks suit the business.

Once in, Higgins says she offers buddies, EAP support and any other resources that refugees might need.

If HRDs are serious about supporting refugees into employment, one of the best things they can do is make their businesses known as hirers to the relevant authorities and support groups like Refugee Action, The Refugee Council and Business In The Community.

“Also think of the barriers you can remove, such as putting in place policies and simple tools that inspire your clients to seek out and support refugee talent too,” says Vatalidis.

“Simple things include creating a mentorship programme that is intentionally for refugees only and providing a stipend towards travel expenses.”

The simplest help HR can provide is to be there too. “There will soon be opportunities for employers to access great talent as well as being able to further their diversity agendas,” says Higgins.

Gogerty adds: “Employment is the thing that provides the biggest sense of integration in society and HRDs have a huge role to play in making this happen. We’ve created a ‘pledge to hire’ that companies can sign up to and would urge many to consider it. Companies just need to be willing to be adaptive to refugees’ needs."


This piece first appeared in the September/October 2021 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.