By Zoe Allen, Sona Circle
Refugees already face an extensive range of barriers when looking for work in the UK, from low proficiency in English to lack of social connections and difficulty accessing services, to outright discrimination.
This leads to the rate of unemployment being four times higher than the UK average for refugee communities.
However, it only gets worse. Refugees and people seeking asylum have been disproportionately negatively affected by the employment crisis which has resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic, many being placed on furlough, losing their jobs, and facing financial hardship.
We review recent research to reflect on how the barriers that refugees face to accessing employment and services have been impacted by the challenges of the pandemic, as shown in the figures below from the Breaking Barriers May 2020 Client Needs Assessment.
How has the pandemic impacted refugee employment and employability?
1. Changing needs: Like everyone in the UK, the needs of refugees and people seeking asylum have changed dramatically during and after the pandemic. 45% report that their needs have changed during the pandemic and Breaking Barriers found that training and housing support were the top priorities going forward.
2. Access to services and training: In the Breaking Barriers survey, 82% reported support with services relating to employment, training and English lessons as one of their top three needs. This highlights that refugee communities do not just need direct access to jobs, but support with employability skills, training for work in the UK and support to improve English language skills.
This issue is made even more complex by how difficult Covid-19 makes it to provide and access training like this, especially when only around half of the refugees surveyed had access to a laptop.
3. Increased unemployment: Refugees were disproportionately affected by employment issues during the pandemic; 36% were furloughed, compared to 27% of the UK population as a whole, and 32% of respondents who had managed to secure employment prior to the crisis – despite all the barriers that face refugees – lost their jobs as a result of Covid-19.
UK wide unemployment rates are expected to rise from 4% to 10% after the height of the pandemic – much lower figures than those we have seen from this report for refugees.
4. Isolation and social connections: Social isolation is a key barrier already faced by many refugees in the UK, as people seeking asylum often arrive alone, with few (if any) social connections in the UK. Therefore, when the whole of the UK had to go into lockdown, this issue was made much worse for refugees.
In the Breaking Barriers report, relief from social isolation was flagged as a top need for refugee communities, alongside the need for employment and financial support.
Without the opportunity to build social connections in the UK, refugees cannot integrate into the UK and will, therefore, struggle further to access employment opportunities once they are available.
5. Wellbeing and mental health: As above, refugees have been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, with unemployment and social isolation exacerbating the issues refugees already face in the UK. They are therefore even more susceptible to the effects on mental health and wellbeing caused by these hardships.
As refugees are already much more likely to suffer from mental health issues than the UK-born population, this is likely to lead to an extreme mental health crisis amongst refugee communities.
6. Compounding work and skills gaps: Gaps in work history is another barrier that stops refugees accessing employment opportunities in the UK. Many refugees already have gaps in their work history by the necessity of the long journey to flee their home country; if refugees were unable to work during the pandemic, this is only compounded.
This may be even worse for people seeking asylum who cannot work but may have had their asylum claims delayed because of Covid-19.
However, research shows that 45% would have been essential workers during the pandemic, based on previous work experience. This has fuelled an ongoing campaign to allow asylum seekers to work as soon as they arrive in the UK; you can read more about the Lift the Ban campaign here.
7. Financial impact: The Breaking Barriers report also notes that many refugees live in low-income households, so will be harder hit by redundancies and further barriers to employment. Many households also experienced increased expenditure on weekly shopping during lockdown, due to stock shortages in supermarkets.
Financial support was reported as a key need for refugee communities. Alongside immediate financial relief, employability and employment support will only become more important to prevent and alleviate poverty in refugee communities.
How will this progress?
We can only guess at how this situation will progress as the UK financial and employment landscape changes as the pandemic progresses. What these statistics from the Breaking Barriers report show, however, is that refugees and people seeking asylum are already being disproportionately affected by the issues that affect the UK population, as refugees already had higher rates of unemployment than the UK average.
The possibility of a second UK-wide or further localised lockdowns leading to further redundancies and furloughs is likely to put further pressure on refugee communities, and make the need for employability and employment services for refugees and young people seeking asylum even more desperate.
What can we do to help?
We must provide dynamic and adaptable employability solutions to help refugees overcome the barriers that have only been increased by the pandemic.
At Sona Circle Recruitment, we partner with companies to provide paid internships and apprenticeships to refugees, helping to combat an elitist internship culture and the recruitment practices that currently exist. If you know of a company that would be interested in hiring from the skilled and dependable refugee workforce, they can get in touch with us here.
By wearing a #EqualTee you are standing in solidarity with any group in society that has been unfairly treated or discriminated against. This goes further than refugees and asylum seekers, it includes the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ+ rights, gender equality and BAME rights.