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Advocating for refugees at work: employment rights

In the first of a new blog series, our Head of Employment Programmes looks at how a little knowledge about the right to work can help you support refugees in your workplace.


Helen Mebrate

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My team at Breaking Barriers works directly with refugees to help them find meaningful employment. So I know, only too well, that a refugee who is trying to build a new life in the UK may face a lack of understanding, amongst employers and colleagues, of their status and rights.

That’s why I’m excited to kick off this new series of blogs dedicated to empowering you to support refugees in your workplace. In this post I’ll help bust some jargon and offer you a few top tips for advocating for refugees at work – whatever your role, organisation or industry.

What does ‘refugee’ mean?

Politicians, the media and members of the public often use the terms ‘migrant’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ interchangeably. But they mean very different things:

  • A migrant is anyone who moves from one place to another, often in search of better opportunities.
  • An asylum seeker is someone from outside the UK who has applied for protection under the United Nations Refugee Convention or the European Convention on Human Rights, and is awaiting a decision on their application.
  • A refugee is someone who has been granted protection, on the basis that they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group, and as a result is unable to return to that country.

Not all refugees in the UK have been granted their protection in the same way. For example, they may have received refugee status from the UK Government after applying for asylum here. Or they may have entered the UK through a Home Office resettlement scheme, having already been granted refugee status abroad.

To be able to effectively support refugees in the workplace, it’s important to be aware that each of these avenues has its own legal nuances and implications. However, refugees are normally given permission to live in the UK for five years, after which they can apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain.

Some people may not qualify for refugee status, but still be in significant need of protection. In this case, they may be granted Humanitarian Protection, or another type of leave to remain. In some cases, the period they can stay in the UK may be more limited.

Refugees and the right to work

Asylum seekers – who are waiting to hear if they’ll receive protection in the UK – are usually prohibited from working. Only a small minority are allowed to work, in a list of ‘shortage professions’ which usually require specialist training or skills.

Refugees, on the other hand, have the right to pursue employment in any sector or role. And this applies for as long as they have leave to remain in the UK. However, many people wait years to receive their refugee status, leaving a big gap in their CV.

Time out of the workplace is often piled on top of other barriers to employment. These can include refugees’ limited understanding of the UK job market or work culture, language differences, qualifications not being recognised in the UK, employer misunderstandings about refugee status, and even prejudice or discrimination.

This all adds to the risk that recruitment systems unfairly overlook CVs, employers shy away from interviewing or selecting refugee candidates, or refugees simply aren’t aware of how to access application systems. And it’s important to recognise and address these challenges in order to support refugees into work.

Refugees bring diverse skills, knowledge, and experience to their new communities. They have huge potential to contribute. But they are four times more likely to be unemployed than people born in the UK.

Together we can change this. Together we can break down the barriers and create a more inclusive work environment, where every refugee has a fair chance to find meaningful employment and build a new life.

How you can help – 5 top takeaways!

  1. Avoid mixing up ‘migrant’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ – they mean different things!
  2. Refugees have the right to work – your workplace can welcome them into any role.
  3. Gaps in a refugee’s CV may be due to delays in the asylum process – it shouldn’t count against them.
  4. A refugee who joins your team may be new to UK work culture – take some time to check-in and explain.
  5. Spread the word – help your colleagues learn more so they, too, can become advocates for refugees!

Thank you for wanting to create an inclusive environment for refugees in the workplace. The potential for businesses and employers to support refugees is limitless, but we need people like you to help.

Watch out for later instalments in this blog series – we’ll share more insights and top tips for being an advocate for refugees at work.

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