Employment is an integral tool for tackling refugees’ social and economic exclusion, says Matthew Powell – CEO of charity Breaking Barriers

I met the first refugee I ever supported at a cafe in Holborn, London in December 2014. Jamal was 56 years old and from Iran. He had arrived in the UK more than 15 years ago with his wife and young son in the face of political persecution.

Despite being in the UK for so long — he was fluent in English and his understanding of the culture was great — it was evident that his awful experiences all those years ago were still inhibiting his ability to find a job.

A lack of self-confidence, self-worth and a belief that he was capable of flourishing — and like many other refugees, a significant gap on his CV due to the lengthy asylum-seeking process — contributed to making it difficult for him to find a job.

This re-affirmed my belief that employment is a crucial part of the integration process. After all, this was the entire premise of Breaking Barriers, the charity I was setting up based on research I conducted while studying a master’s at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

I had always considered myself entrepreneurial, always thought I would set up and run my own business. This is probably what gave me the belief and desire to pursue the concept of the charity, which provides employment training and placement for people who have arrived in the UK as refugees. Now I call myself a social entrepreneur, someone who looks to come up with creative solutions to systemic social issues.

The narrative is that there is a humanitarian crisis abroad, but there is a humanitarian crisis on our doorstep

The numbers are stark: an Ipsos MORI survey carried out for the Greater London Authority in 2010 showed employment rates for refugees in London were 31 per cent, compared to 61 per cent for the general population and 59 per cent for the British, black, Asian and minority ethnic (BME) population.

The majority of refugees who were unemployed had been looking for work for more than a year. Those who were employed were primarily working in low-skilled, low-paid and often dangerous jobs despite high levels of education, work experience and what I would later find out was a real determination to work.

Take the story of Milad, a 29-year-old man from Damascus, Syria. He had a great life in Syria. He had always dreamed of becoming a dentist. The day he graduated with a degree in dentistry from university he was, like other Syrian men, called up to military service under Assad’s regime.

As part of this military service, he would have been asked to kill and torture people he loved and who shared his vision of democracy and peace. Milad had to flee Syria and risked his life on a nine-day boat journey across the Mediterranean, knowing there was a strong possibility he would die en route.

His family was also forced to flee. His brothers are now in Sweden, Saudi Arabia and Germany. His parents are in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Breaking Barriers employees Milad to share his story in schools. He works at Starbucks on weekends. Do people really think he risked his life and chose to leave behind his home, career, possessions, family and friends simply for a better life?

Life for many refugees in London is pretty bleak. One of the Syrian refugees Breaking Barriers supports once described his life in London as living “in one hell having escaped from another”.

The comfortable lives on benefits that some people assume refugees are after is far distant from reality

Don’t get me wrong, he is extremely grateful for the refuge Britain has given him, that’s without question. But when homelessness and mental health issues are rife, and many struggle to feed themselves and their families, the comfortable lives on benefits that some people assume refugees are after is far distant from reality. The narrative is that there is a humanitarian crisis abroad, but in reality there is also a humanitarian crisis on our doorstep.

All refugees share the same structural barrier to employment: they do not fit into traditional recruitment processes. This results in disproportionately high levels of unemployment. From my experience, despite being desperate to work, they are likely to be long-term welfare dependent. Society needs to do more to find a way to accommodate these people and find routes for them into jobs.

Simply put, there is both a social and economic case to do so: social inclusion and a reduction in welfare. There’s a business case too. When in work, marginalised groups have much larger retention rates than those of the general population.

Marginalised individuals often possess a determination, work ethic and resilience that they have developed due to the difficulties they have faced throughout their lives.

Additionally, refugees have above average education, with the majority having had successful careers in their countries of origin. Businesses need to take advantage of these skills and experiences. I have no doubt that when given more opportunities, refugees wouldn’t just succeed, they’d thrive.
Breaking Barriers is hosting a photography exhibition, sponsored by Mishcon de Reya, displaying portraits of London-based refugees and telling the stories of how they fled persecution or war and have now found freedom in the UK.

When: 11 – 18 July
Where: The Archivist, 2-10 Hertford Road, London, N1 5ET
More info: facebook.com/BreakingBarriersUK

A selection of the photos and interviews also appear in the 2016 third quarter issue of Positive News magazine. Please subscribe to get a copy of the magazine and support our constructive journalism.

Image: Breaking Barriers