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Hiring refugees makes business as well as ethical sense

Refugees are a largely untapped skills source, but legislation and workplace cultures pose barriers

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Business in the Community (BITC) are calling on firms to recognise that hiring refugees is not just an act of philanthropy but mutually beneficial.

Last year the number of refugees grew by 10% to 25.4 million worldwide – the biggest jump in a single year, according to the UNHCR, and the highest number of displaced people since the Second World War. More than half (57%) come from three countries: South Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan.

BITC and the UNHCR are working together on a guide and workshop for employers looking to hire refugees, launching in the new year. Grace Mehanna, campaign director for employment and skills at BITC, told HR magazine that refugees could be key to tackling skills shortages: “We recognise that a number of sectors are struggling with huge skills gaps so we’re looking at a lot of different areas, one of which is the refugee group.”

Mehanna said that the difficulty lies in translating qualifications to the UK. “It’s really important that organisations have a recruitment process that is as accessible as possible to tackle this,” she said.

“Language skills are one of the most obvious and significant barriers. Refugees know this and really want to improve their English, but language schools are often underfunded and waiting lists can be long,” added Matthew Powell, CEO of charity Breaking Barriers, which since launching in 2015 has worked with around 100 organisations to support refugee employment.

“And the trauma refugees have faced from having to leave their home countries often means that they’re dealing with problems with their mental health. We know that employment can provide an important step in helping with both of these issues,” he said.

Tim Naor Hilton, head of services and good practices at Refugee Action, highlighted that refugees could add an extra £40 million to the UK economy, but also that immigration laws pose a barrier.

Those waiting on an asylum decision must wait for more than a year before they can ask for permission to work, he explained. Even when approval is given this is often for a restricted ‘shortage of occupations’ list, and asylum seekers are not allowed to be self-employed.

In October Refugee Action launched its Lift the Ban campaign, advocating the government make changes to such policies. It has received the backing of several businesses, trade unions, and charities.

Beyond legislation, the cultural nuances of how recruitment works in the UK can cause difficulties, Naor Hilton added. “The understanding of recruitment for a lot of the people we work with is that you highlight your skills and qualifications in an application, and you’ll be likely to get a job. But so much of recruitment is to do with who you know and getting positive references,” he said, highlighting the important role mentoring and networking opportunities can play.

While charities are still gathering data on the organisational impact of employing refugees, several have already benefitted from how “resilient, adaptable, and extremely loyal” refugee workers typically are, said Powell. Working with Breaking Barriers, IKEA for example has hired 30 refugees through its pilot customer service course.

Naor Hilton reiterated the benefits. “Refugees should have the right to work for their own sake. But for society we know that having a mixed diverse workforce where people can learn from different experiences and backgrounds is extremely powerful,” he said.

“As we deal with an increasingly unsettling time politically, allowing refugees to work is the best way to normalise them,” he added.

“These are people who bring a depth of skills, but they also desperately want to work to rebuild their lives. The business case for hiring refugees is obvious, and it’s absolutely time for companies to look at them as more than aid beneficiaries,” agreed Powell.