How employing refugees can help tackle the skills crisis

Attitudes towards refugees in the UK have not always been rosy, but the Ukraine crisis led many to rethink their views. Trinh Tu from Ipsos spoke to Personnel Today about how attitudes have shifted, and how organisations can support refugees into employment. 

It’s easy to assume that public attitudes in the UK towards refugees hit a turning point when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, and many thousands began seeking asylum with families here. But more positive perceptions of employees had already been gradually rising before this year, according to Trinh Tu, managing director of public affairs at polling company Ipsos.

“Even before the crisis in Ukraine we did a study and found that 75% of the public support the principle of allowing people to take refuge, and that has now increased to 80%,” she says. “But attitudes are definitely warmer since the pandemic.”

Ipsos carried out research in June for World Refugee Day looking at global attitudes towards supporting and employing refugees – three in five Britons voiced their support for allowing more refugees into the UK from Ukraine, but were less supportive of welcoming more refugees from other countries.

Just over a third supported allowing more refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Myanmar (36%, 35% and 34% respectively) compared with six in 10 supporting more Ukrainian refugees, Ipsos found.

As a refugee herself, Tu finds the improvement of attitudes towards those seeking asylum encouraging, but regrets that this positivity is not shared across refugees from all geographies.

She says: “There is still fear among the public that most refugees are not genuine and those that settle will have problems integrating. Misperceptions about refugees also remain widespread, as is public division over which countries should have greater responsibility for refugees.”

Getting a job is a crucial element of enabling refugees to integrate with and contribute towards society, but this is not without its challenges. Despite labour shortages across many sectors, employers are often cautious about hiring refugees.

Currently, asylum seekers must acquire refugee status before they are able to work in the UK, and this is an area that could be reviewed by government, she adds. “Some of this is down to fear that we could attract people who are seeking asylum who aren’t genuine.”

“There’s a tension because we need people but it can be difficult for refugees to get work,” says Tu. “If we use the same recruitment practices their chances of finding work are low, which impacts their ability to integrate.”

There’s a tension because we need people but it can be difficult for refugees to get work.

Issues tend to arise around gaps in employment records or the fact that many refugees will either have no qualifications or ones that are not recognised in the UK. They are also unlikely to have the same networks or contacts that domestic candidates have, so are immediately at a disadvantage.

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There are a number of organisations that can help with supporting refugees into employment, however. Ipsos works with Breaking Barriers, which runs an employment academy that helps businesses run work placements for refugees, and the charity Migrant Leaders, which highlights career opportunities to disadvantaged young migrants.

“This makes a huge difference. Often managers don’t know the rules or there are misconceptions. The whole remit of these organisations is to help integrate refugees into employment,” Tu explains. “They have case workers who can match refugees to organisations and do a lot of the heavy lifting.”

Offering work experience placements has been a game-changer for both sides, she adds. “They can see what our culture is like and adapt to work etiquette, but we also get new perspectives on things from their local context.” The added bonus is the refugee candidate can fill in gaps with their work experience when seeking a full-time role.

Tu argues that more organisations could be proactive in supporting refugees into work, highlighting how this can support their goals to recruit a more diverse workforce as well as tackle skills shortages.

“Work with a partner so you don’t have to carry the full weight,” she advises. “Think about how you change perceptions, alter recruitment practices and enable refugees to join the business. It’s in everyone’s benefit for it to work.”

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