Win-win’ in the UK as highly skilled refugees find work

A junior doctor wears a protest badge during a strike outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London, Britain February 10, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville

In a deprived town in northern England, reeling from the death of its fishing industry, a handful of ambitious professionals have arrived with a mission – to improve residents’ health.  The Lincolnshire Refugee Doctor Project (LRDP) – which aims to help refugee doctors join Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) through training, language courses, and volunteer placements – welcomed its first cohort to Grimsby in October. “I’m yearning to work as a doctor,” Ahmed Hashim, who arrived in Britain this year and is one of about seven refugees on the program, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. While a variety of social enterprises seek to find refugees jobs, from handicrafts to cafes, this project is one of a handful trying to get them into careers that match the qualifications they gained back home. For the refugees, it offers a chance to pursue the career they trained for. For the state-run NHS, it goes a small way to plugging almost 100,000 staff vacancies, exacerbated by funding shortages and poor working conditions.  When war broke out in Syria, Iraq-born Hashim, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, had to flee to Jordan as soon as he completed his medical degree in 2013, putting his childhood dream to become a doctor on hold. Hashim has yet to practice medicine, but he is excited to be back in the classroom. “Even though I couldn’t practice when I was in Jordan, I didn’t see myself doing anything else – this what I do, this is what I trained for, this is my passion,” he said.  Due to a growing and aging population and cuts to social care, the NHS, which provides care for free at the point of delivery, has been struggling to cope with record demand. Many doctors and nurses have quit, retired early or switched to a part-time schedule. Towns like Grimsby, with a population of about 88,000, struggle to compete for doctors, who often tend to favor working in bigger, busier city hospitals.  The program, during which the refugee doctors spend three days a week in the classroom with two days free to work or volunteer, is “a win-win for all,” said Andrew Mowat, clinical program director of LRDP and a retired doctor. “They bring hugely different experiences of their journeys – professional journey and I also mean journey as a refugee,” said Mowat. According to Mowat, it could take the refugees up to two years to pass the General Medical Council’s vetting tests to practice. “That means that they will be much more empathic towards patients if they understand suffering and pain and distress.”


It is often hard for refugees in Britain to find work, particularly well-paid jobs that they are qualified for, according to research by the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford. Recently arrived refugees, lacking the local contacts of other jobseekers, often rely on public agencies and job centers to find lower-paid work, the study found, and earn on average 284 pounds a week – about half that of UK-born workers. “Being out of the labor market might also affect your way of perceiving yourself in society,” said Zovanga Kone, a COMPAS researcher. “This could lead to more severe consequences, such as mental health problems.”  The struggle to find a job that matches his qualifications has made Usman Khalid, a refugee from Pakistan living in London, feel at times “sad and upset.”  He has a Master’s degree in business from Pakistan, is studying for a Master’s in marketing and communications in Britain, and has taken on various internships and contracts within the charity sector, but says it is very competitive. “Being not very familiar with this society and not growing up in this society is sometimes a bit of a challenge … different jargon, different expressions … the employer may think sometimes this person might not be suitable,” he said. Khalid is among almost 240 refugee professionals who have registered with London-based Transitions, a decade-old social enterprise that works to find them skilled jobs in fields such as architecture, engineering, and business services. 

In the past six months, it has found jobs or returner placements for 60% of its current pool of candidates, despite challenges like gaps on their resumes as a result of fleeing their homes.

“Typically, they will have an 18 months’ gap – sometimes much longer than that – and it’s very difficult for them to explain to employers that they were in a lorry, trucking across Europe,” said Sheila Heard, founder of Transitions.  “(Professional refugees) are left at the mercy of whatever recruiter or piece of software sees their Afghani Master’s, which usually means that sets off alarm bells, and it gets a rejection.”  Often employers are unaware that refugees have the right to work in Britain and that professional bodies will help assess qualifications from around the world, she said. Rather than purely hiring refugees out of a sense of moral duty or charity, it makes business sense, said Heard.  “There are so many studies to say that if you have diverse teams, you’re going to be a healthier, more profitable, more engaged organization with better retention – and of course you have better access to global skills,” she said. ($1 = 0.7794 pounds)


By Sarah Shearman

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