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The Culture and Heritage that Refugees Leave Behind

Culture of RefugeesReading Time: 2 minutes


Culture of Refugees


By Katy Cottrell, Sona Circle

When refugees are forced to flee their countries for their safety, they are also forced to leave behind their homes, jobs and many of their personal possessions. But what is sometimes overlooked, is the loss of the unique culture and heritage of their home country. Sometimes this can lead to cultural bereavement, where in addition to other traumas that refugees face, they must grieve the loss of their native culture.

Researchers from Georgetown University interviewed refugees to find out what it was that they missed most about their former lives. This research highlighted the rich and unique culture that once connected the communities that these refugees came from. For example, one Palestinian man spoke about how he missed sharing Friday evenings with his neighbours, where they would ‘get together and chat, and their stories wouldn’t stop until the middle of the night’.

It is understandable that some refugees may experience a culture shock when arriving in countries such as the UK, where interactions between neighbours tend to be briefer and bonds less strong. Other refugees from Syria spoke about frequenting the markets in Damascus where Syrian food, handmade crafts and jewellery are sold or drinking coffee whilst listening to storytellers and poets who, prior to the conflict, would recount ancient tales in local cafes.

These are just some examples of the cultural heritage that refugees have often been forced to leave behind.

When refugees arrive in their new host country, there is often a strong pressure to conform to this country’s culture at the expense of maintaining their own traditions that have always been integral to their lives.

Researchers have described two processes of integration when refugees (and migrants in general) begin living in a new country: assimilation and acculturation.

Assimilation is when a minority group gradually and eventually loses all the cultural markers that set them apart as an individual group, instead of adopting the culture of a larger group. This integration process is often associated with poorer mental health and psychological well-being and lower self-esteem.

In contrast, acculturation is thought to be a more positive process in which a minority group is able to maintain their cultural traditions and co-exist with the dominant culture.

This is why it is important to celebrate and be respectful of refugee’s cultural traditions and heritage. Many refugees seek to share their home country’s culture using music, food and fashion, and you can show your support for this by supporting refugee-led businesses. For example, Anqa Collective is an online marketplace where you can shop for clothes and other products that have been made by refugees and are often inspired by the culture of their home countries. Similarly, Migrateful is a charity that provides cooking classes (currently online) that are led by refugees so they can share and celebrate their culture through cuisine.

Overall, it should not be overlooked that culture is an important part of all of our identities, and when refugees are living and integrating into a new host culture, they can enrich this society by bringing various parts of their heritage with them.

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Frozen Present: A Story of Resilience of Refugees in Malaysia

Refugees in MalaysiaReading Time: 2 minutes


Refugees in Malaysia


By Chiara Fabbro, Sona Circle Contributor (Insta: @Chi.fabb)

Zhara, Malika and Hussain are three young siblings. They live in a small flat in a 15 storey building in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. They are Hazara and come from Afghanistan, but they had to flee their home country as Hazara people are still facing ethnic and religious discrimination and persecution.

The three siblings are alone. In Kuala Lumpur, Hussain provides for his sisters by working in a bakery. He is 18, the eldest. A quote from a post he put up on social media reads “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.” His commitment and resilience are beyond moving.

Malika, the youngest, is really good with languages and often acts as an interpreter from Farsi to English for the others. She teaches English in kindergarten, in the local community centre for Afghan refugees, to kids aged four to five. ‘They are cute, but also a bit naughty’, she says laughing. She has the most infectious and sweet laugh you could imagine.

Zhara is a beautiful young woman, with a more reserved personality than her sister. She cooks delicious Afghan dishes that remind her of home and dreams of one day becoming a doctor.

In reality, Zhara, Malika and Hussain will need to fight for a chance to a bright future. Malaysia didn’t sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and it, therefore, doesn’t recognise the refugee status. Yet there are over 160,000 registered refugees in the country, and many more unregistered.

These are mostly Rohingya refugees who escaped from Myanmar, but other nationalities are present too – Syrian, Yemenis and Afghans amongst them. They aren’t allowed to work and cannot attend state schools, while the cost of private schooling is too high for all but a handful to afford. They rely heavily on UNHCR-issued ID cards for status. Under Malaysian law, they are liable to arrest or deportation, but showing this card provides some protection.

Since the refugees aren’t allowed to work legally they have no choice but to work off the books, with very low wages and no protection. Even worse, if they are found working by the police, they can be arrested or sometimes have to bribe them in exchange for turning a blind eye.

It’s a limbo – similar to asylum seekers awaiting a decision in Europe, the difference being, here it will last until Malaysia changes its policy relating to refugees.

The chance of relocation to a third country that could provide asylum is very slim. The USA is the main country of resettlement for this group and the chances of this happening have become increasingly slimmer in recent years due to the policies implemented by the Trump administration.

This is an everyday reality for tens of thousands of refugees in Malaysia, barely allowed to exist, let alone fight for a better future.

They are trapped between a painful past and a bleak tomorrow, far from home, they rely only on their incredible resilience, in a present that feels like it’s frozen.

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Lift the Ban Campaign: A Campaign Lobbying for Asylum Seekers’ Right to Work in the UK

A Campaign Lobbying for Asylum SeekersReading Time: 3 minutes


A Campaign Lobbying for Asylum Seekers


By Katie McAdam, Sona Circle

After seeking protection in their host country, asylum seekers must face an arduous journey to gain refugee status and the right to paid work in the UK. Unable to access the services and freedoms enjoyed by refugees, asylum seekers are in an uncomfortable limbo. As of March 2020, 60% of all pending asylum applicants had been waiting for over 6 months for a decision on their status, According to the UK Home Office.

During these extensive waiting periods, asylum seekers are reliant on state Asylum Support of £5.60 per day to cover all living costs (except housing). With inadequate resources, though asylum seekers may have emergency humanitarian protection they face the great threat of absolute poverty.

In response to the UK’s current asylum policy, the Lift the Ban campaign launched to repeal the employment bar on asylum seekers.

Their campaign aims to reduce the maximum one-year employment bar to 6 months after their claim if no decision is made. Additionally, they aim for all asylum cases to be equally prioritised instead of using the government’s ‘shortage occupations list’, which fast-tracks the applications of limited roles.

Lift the Ban was initially founded by NGO, Refugee Action, and has attracted the backing of a large coalition of over 200 partner groups. These partners are largely based in the third sector, including Amnesty International, the Trussel Trust and Sona Circle Recruitment. This network has collaborated to share expertise and resources in order to produce a prominent campaign which has received considerable media traction with both social media and the traditional press.

Lift the Ban believes giving asylum seekers the right to work in the UK, would lead to significant economic advantages.

In an era of austerity and current financial uncertainty due to coronavirus, government spending is increasingly stretched. Allowing asylum seekers the right to work would be more cost-efficient for the UK government and would go as far as generating revenue.

Indeed, Refugee Action has calculated that for every asylum seeker earning the UK national average wage, the government would receive an extra £5,745 per person per year in taxable income.

This revenue is almost three times the amount government currently pays per individual in asylum support. The combination of increased revenue and reduction in government benefit payments would allow improvements of existing asylum related social services.

Apart from the clear economic benefits of lifting restrictions, the easing would also cause vital societal improvements. With over 37% of asylum seekers university-educated, the UK is denying itself access to a well-trained workforce on its doorstep.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, these restrictions are particularly detrimental.

Refugee Action has stated that around 1 in 7 asylum seekers have a background in health and social care. Due to bureaucratic delays, around the nation from Glasgow tenements to London suburbs, qualified asylum seekers must, therefore, stay at home willing and unable to aid the NHS.

Health is also tied to employment on an individual basis as it impacts the wellbeing of asylum seekers. With many asylum seekers leaving well paid, highly skilled jobs in their home countries, months spent economically inactive reliant on state benefits is a real difficulty.

Being unemployed for a lengthened period leaves asylum seekers prone to mental health problems, with the NHS reporting a doubling of susceptibility to mental illness. This likelihood is elevated amongst asylum seekers who are already vulnerable to mental health conditions due to experiencing trauma in their home nations. An improvement in the wellbeing of asylum seekers would not only see individual improvements but also decrease the need for NHS mental health provisions.

This need for systematic change is gathering momentum even at the highest echelons of government.

Indeed, in 2018 the Home Office commissioned a report on the right to work policy and in 2019 the incumbent Home Secretary, Javid agreed to examine asylum reform. It is clear thanks to the campaigning of Lift the Ban we are becoming closer to a fairer and more beneficial system.

However, the onus remains high on swift reform as the longer asylum seekers remain unemployed the more potential is unutilised and the lesser their future employment prospects. Instead of wasting limited public funds on ineffective benefits, we could be enabling economic growth and social change.

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4 Ways to Support Refugees in your Community

4 Ways to Support Refugees in your CommunityReading Time: 3 minutes



By Aanya Bhandari, Sona Circle

Migration isn’t easy. Accepting change isn’t easy. Starting a new life isn’t easy.

Refugees face a wide range of challenges when it comes to integration and acceptance within their communities. It is no secret that xenophobia and racism are two of the most pertinent issues that plague societies around the world today.

Adding to the various difficulties that refugees face are growing anti-refugee and anti-migrant sentiments, which have profound implications for refugees’ social welfare and mental health as they migrate to, and settle in new host communities.

The current political climate and emerging policies on immigration in various western countries have propelled refugee resettlement programmes into the everyday consciousness of the public through news and social media, like never before.

Researchers have observed that refugees are often unwelcome in many communities as a result of the “rampant Islamophobia, racism, and anti-immigration rhetoric.”

The rise of populist, nationalist governments has boosted hate speech and xenophobic rhetoric. From Hungary to the United States, political actors in power have resorted to anti-refugee and anti-immigrant stances that promote fear and distrust of foreigners. In some cases, leaders are expressing a complete denial of any need to respond to the world refugee crisis, by insinuating that most asylum seekers’ claims are bogus and tearing down the basic notion that people have the right to flee for safety.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees embark on long, perilous journeys every year, for the opportunity of a ‘new beginning’, only to be greeted by the stigma of their past which has slowly crept into their hopes of a new life with a clean slate.

Mental health is often stigmatised amongst the general population.

This is extended to a much larger degree towards the refugee communities which have often experienced traumatic events due to political, religious, environmental or social events. The trauma of these events often precedes the event itself that causes millions to flee from their homes, communities and countries every year.

While many of the required changes are at a macro-policy level, individuals who form a part of the general population have the power to bring about many small changes, which combined, can have a great impact.

By acting together, we can change the historical trend of systemic oppression, discrimination and intolerance towards refugees and immigrants.

So, what can we do on an individual level to show our support and change the narrative of refugees and asylum seekers within our communities?

1. Embrace diverse cultures

A small change in attitude can go a long way. An appreciation for different cultures, cuisines, fashion, languages, skin tones, and even physical appearances can help us understand so much more about the world we all live in. As human beings, we all have many similar shared values and ethics. If we can learn to embrace diversity then understanding and empathy for others will follow naturally.

2. Support refugee businesses

By contributing to refugee businesses such as those supported by The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (TERN), you could help support refugee integration. This could be as simple as buying bread from a refugee owned or supported outlet such as Breadwinners. You may not realise it but by doing these little things, you’re helping someone feel like they are a valued part of a community, showing that the community is as much theirs as it is yours.

3. Employ refugees

Employing refugees is great for businesses. Aside from adding new skills and diversity to your business, it also creates a healthier work environment as different cultures and ideas working side by side produce the best results.

If you would like to learn more about the benefits of hiring refugees and how best to integrate the refugee workforce in your business, get in touch with Sona Circle who are able to work with your human resource team to hire from the skilled and dependable refugee workforce.

4. Work together

No two refugees have the same experiences. Each individual has needs and requirements which are based on their unique characters and experiences. It is therefore essential that we all collaborate and cooperate to understand the different ways in which we can best support refugees and asylum seekers in our communities.

This is why we partner with many diverse partner organisations which all have one thing in common, a shared commitment to supporting the skilled and dependable refugee workforce.

And, always remember, as the old Chinese proverb goes “a journey of a thousand miles, begins with a first step”.

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A Guide to Apprenticeships for Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Workplace ApprenticeshipReading Time: 3 minutes



By Zoe Allen, Sona Circle

What are apprenticeships?

Apprenticeships are training programmes designed to prepare you for a career in a particular trade or profession. Importantly, they include practical, on-the-job training, and you are paid whilst you complete your apprenticeship.

Apprentices also have to spend at least 20% of their time (i.e. usually one day a week) completing more academic training for their profession, usually in a classroom setting, and often at a local college or university.

Apprenticeships vary in length between 1 and 6 years, depending on the profession you are training in.

Can I do an apprenticeship as a refugee or whilst an asylum seeker?

In the UK, refugees (those granted settled refugee status) have open access to the job market and so can legally take part in any apprenticeship. However, the rules are a little different for people seeking asylum (who have not had their claim accepted).

If you have been in the UK for 6 months without your asylum claim receiving a response, you are eligible to apply for and start an apprenticeship. This is also the case if you have appealed against a rejection of your application and, after 6 months, you still have not received a reply to your repeal.

This is different from other forms of paid work; if you want to take up any other form of work, you have to wait for 12 months without a response before you can apply for a permit.

If you are seeking asylum and thinking of applying for an apprenticeship, you should discuss this with your case handler.

What are the benefits of doing an apprenticeship as a refugee or an asylum seeker?

Apprenticeships teach you tangible, hands-on skills that are designed to make you job-ready as soon as you leave the programme. This means that you are more likely to be able to secure a steady income quickly and easily.

If you have not had a job before, or do not have experience with skilled work, then hands-on training that allows you to earn while you learn might be perfect for you.

If you are still developing your English skills, it might suit you better to complete a training course with less written work and reading, and more practical work. Working as an apprentice is also likely to include one-on-one or small group training, which is ideal to help you improve your spoken English skills and form social connections in the UK.

As above, a big benefit is that if you are seeking asylum you can start an apprenticeship (and start earning an income) 6 months earlier than you can apply to start any other form of paid work.

Where can I find apprenticeships?

At Sona Circle Recruitment we have partnered with apprenticeship provider WhiteHat to advertise apprenticeships to refugees on our website. You can take a look at the apprenticeships currently available here.

There are also many other ways you can find apprenticeships that work for you or operate in your area. You can visit the website of your local college, university or training centre to see if they partner with local companies to offer apprenticeship training.

There are also a lot of searchable apprenticeship boards online, such as the government’s dedicated site, or on the UCAS website. If there is a particular company you are interested in working with, you can contact them directly to see if they offer an apprenticeship programme.

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Refugees in Business and Entrepreneurship

Refugee Business EntrepreneurshipReading Time: 3 minutes


Refugee Business Entrepreneurship


by Katy Cottrell, Sona Circle

Historically, refugees have had great success in business and entrepreneurship around the world. From Michael Marks, a Jewish refugee who became the co-founder of Marks and Spencers in 1884, to Jan Koum who fled to the United States from Kiev and later became the co-founder and CEO of Whatsapp, refugees have used their hard work and a wide skill set to innovate and prosper in business.

Hamdi Ulkykaya, Chobani

A great example of this is Hamdi Ulkykaya who in 2005 founded the food company Chobani, which is the number one selling strained yoghurt in the United States. As of 2019, Ulkykaya was worth $2 billion and was named one of the most important entrepreneurs of the past decade by Inc. magazine.

However, prior to this success, Ulkykaya was forced to leave Turkey due to the oppression that the Kurdish minority group faced. Based on his own experiences as a refugee, Ulkykaya has demonstrated how to be successful in business whilst also protecting vulnerable people. In 2015, he announced that he would donate the majority of his wealth to help refugees around the world.

Additionally, within his own business, Ulkykaya ensures that a minimum of 30% of employees are immigrants or refugees. In order to hold other businesses to a similar standard, Ulkykaya set up the TENT foundation which encourages businesses to support refugees by hiring them and integrating refugee-led businesses into supply chains.

Mursal Hedayat, Chatterbox

Mursal and her success in the tech industry is another example of a former refugee thriving in business. Despite being forced to flee Afghanistan with her mother and sister early in life, Hedayat was named one of the Top Most Influential Leaders in Tech by the Financial Times and a Leading Innovator Under 35 by MIT.

This is thanks to her success in co-founding Chatterbox, an online language and cultural training programme which harnesses the skills and knowledge-base of refugees by employing them as teachers. So far over 6,000 Chatterbox classes have been taught since 2018, simultaneously helping learners develop their language ability and refugees build up their confidence and professional skills.

The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (TERN)

In order to support refugees, so that they can replicate similar success in business to Hamdi Ulkykaya and Mursal Hedayat, the Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (TERN) provides assistance to refugee entrepreneurs in the creation and development of their businesses. TERN currently supports 210 refugee entrepreneurs and has alumni who have gone on to have great success in their field.

Fatma Albaiti, Meet Me at Fatma’s

For example, Fatma Albaiti is a TERN alumnus who set up Meet Me at Fatma’s, a London-based Yemeni pop-up brunch. These events have routinely sold out and been popular with Londoners for providing delicious food as well as educating people about Yemeni culture. TERN assists refugee-led businesses through mentoring, and providing access to resources and business networks.


If you are able to, it’s great to support refugee-led businesses. There are many ways in which you can show your support for businesses that are founded by refugees. For example, you can broaden your culinary horizons by visiting different restaurants, or by exploring different cultures via refugee-led music and entertainment events (read more about it here).

Another essential way to show your support is by encouraging your organisation to employ refugees. In this way, you can help to create truly life-changing opportunities for refugees and support them with further integration in their adopted home country. If you’re wondering how to start these conversations at your office, get in touch as we’d love to help. Check out some tips here.

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Ode to London: The Melting Pot

Brixton LondonReading Time: 2 minutes


Brixton London


by Katie McAdam, Sona Circle

For millennia, London has welcomed people across the globe to live together in the same city.

Central to London’s development was the influence of early Roman, Viking and Norman traders. In more recent times, the city has accommodated many; from the famed Windrush generation to EU migrants.

However, forced migration has also been as influential in shaping its streets. Generations of refugees have been hosted in the city, which can trace its roots to the Middle Ages, with Huguenots seeking freedom from religious persecution. These various patterns of immigration to the city have each left their own unique influence. Migration continues to form a huge part of the city’s impressive history and dynamic present.

With every one in three Londoners born abroad, the city is truly international. Due to this multiculturalism, London is considered to be a melting pot, whereby native Londoner’s mix with those of many backgrounds but are all united by the city’s common culture.

The city’s ethnically diverse population draws many to settle in London. What makes London so significant; is this cosmopolitan nature.

Due to its international outlook, and wealth of opportunity, the city has been branded as a global centre, attracting many to migrate here.

Access to internationally renowned universities such as the London School of Economics, University College London and Kings College London, help improve Londoners’ employment prospects and broaden their horizons in both the public and private sectors.

London is the nation’s nerve centre. The city boasts world-leading opportunities, particularly in the financial, legal and media sectors. With the success of various generations of migrants, many are hopeful they too can thrive in the city.

Indeed, the capital’s status, particularly its cultural presence, is defined by the contributions of an ethnically diverse population.

With each nationality that moves to London, each adds their own unique flavour to the city’s melting pot. London’s renowned culinary scene owes greatly to the contributions of immigrants. Bengali curries, Chinese dumplings and Turkish kebabs are as much of a London staple as the British Sunday roast.

The capital’s diverse cultural makeup makes for a vibrant cultural calendar. The annual Notting Hill Carnival has its origins in the Afro-Caribbean community and is one of London’s most beloved festivals.

A testament to London’s successful micro-culture is the influence it has on shaping the rest of the nation.

Indeed, many British innovations can often be traced to the capital. However, London is not the only diverse city in the nation, with similar cities adding to the UK’s multicultural tradition. Birmingham, Leicester, Manchester and Bradford all present a model for ethnic diversity which echoes the success of London.

With its vibrant past, vast opportunities and multicultural community, London’s melting pot status will continue to attract migrants to the city. London’s heritage of welcoming migrants and particularly refugees has created an atmosphere which encourages further ethnic diversity.

In an international city, London has evolved with the contributions of its rapidly changing demographics.

London does not just welcome migration, but is defined by it.

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5 Great Initiatives Supporting Refugee Integration in the UK

Refugee IntergrationReading Time: 3 minutes



by Katie McAdam, Sona Circle

Settling into a new country can be very daunting for many refugees. Language barriers, new cultures and lack of social connections make integration a difficult process. Integration is vital not only for improving local community relationships but also for reducing the problem of social isolation among refugees.

Those who are socially isolated experience a lower quality of life and have less access to services and employment. Various initiatives, from small community groups to international projects have emerged to foster the integration of refugees. Below are five great initiatives supporting refugee integration in the UK.

1. Migrant English Project

Overcoming language barriers is one of the most effective integration methods. Refugees with adequate language skills are more likely to access services, obtain employment and be able to form social connections.

Community language groups such as the Brighton based Migrant English Project, help refugees to practice their language with locals in an informal setting. By chatting with locals, refugees acquire not only the language but social connections within the community. The volunteer’s wealth of local knowledge is also helpful to advise refugees on legal, housing and health matters.

2. Integration of Refugees Through Sport (IRTS)

Integration can take a more activity-based approach and act as a fun way for refugees to connect with their communities over a common interest. Sports initiatives such as the European wide IRTS, have been particularly popular initiatives.

IRTS helps fund various local groups to run sports clubs which connect refugees and their communities through sports such as football and table tennis. These projects improve both refugees’ mental and physical wellbeing, as refugees can keep fit whilst making new friends.

Bonding over a shared interest also allows local people to find common ground with refugees and decreases the likelihood of stigmatisation towards refugees. When integration is based on having fun with others, it feels less clinical and more like community spirit.

3. Refugee Survival Trust’s Glasgow

Befriending schemes help refugees to build deeper connections with the community on an individual level. The Glasgow based Refugee Survival Trust’s Glasgow Welcome programme matches refugees with a partner whom they meet up with to explore cultural sites in the city.

Touring local sites allows refugees to learn about the city and feel more connected to their host community. As the programme occurs fortnightly over six months, this enables refugees to develop a closer relationship with their volunteer.

4. Culture Kitchen by Culture Connect

Food-based projects are a delicious way to bring people together and is something universally enjoyed. Newcastle based Culture Connect is a volunteer-run charity which regularly hosts the community lunch programme, Culture Kitchen.

Most of the volunteers are refugees and asylum seekers who find a great sense of purpose in cooking for their communities. The scheme gives refugees the opportunity to share their culture through good food. Additionally, the lunches provide refugees with a social space to chat with locals.


Ensuring that refugees have the skills and knowledge about their adopted communities early on in the process is vital for successful integration. UN-led LINK IT focuses on relocation of Syrian refugees to the EU. LINK IT fosters integration throughout a refugee’s relocation journey in offering both pre and post-arrival assistance.

The initiative’s pre-arrival orientation provides refugees with practical information so that they have realistic expectations of life in their host nation.

After arrival, employability focused information sessions help refugees’ transition into the local workforce. This support is twofold in the community with local services such as police forces, social work and health workers are given tailored information on how they can best support refugees.

The refugee experience does not end once they have received their status from their host country.

Refugees face a process of settling into and developing their lives in a new environment. Integration with local neighbours greatly improves a refugee’s wellbeing and prospects. In order to maximise refugee potential in our communities, we need to create beneficial conditions through adequate support.

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The Perilous Journey Refugees Face

Reading Time: 4 minutes



Chiara Fabbro (@chi.fabb), Sona Circle Contributor

Imagine for a moment…

It is night, pitch black, although by now your eyes have gotten used to the darkness. You’re in the middle of the sea, on a rubber dinghy, and around you a large expanse of water. You’re driving the dinghy. You have no experience at doing this, but someone had to do it so you are taking turns with two others. You can feel the salty water splashing on your hands and on your face as the dinghy makes its way forward in the choppy sea. At the beginning it felt nice, still in the warmth of the day, but it’s been almost two hours now, you are soaked and shivering. Your hand on the throttle is completely numb.

The smugglers asked you for a thousand euros each to make the trip. The dinghy is so packed, there are 50 of you on board, and it feels very flimsy. You can swim but you wonder how many of the others can. There are a few elderly people and several children, some of them very little, also a baby. You’re all wearing life jackets, which makes you feel a bit safer. At least if anything happens, you’ll all float until a rescue boat finds you, right?

What you don’t know is that many of the life jackets are fake; they are made of a cheaper material that will soak up the water, instead of floating. They will actually make you drown faster.

The only noises now are the waves crashing and the high-pitched whine of the engine. Everybody is silent. There was some chatter at the beginning, someone prayed at some point. Now just silence. You are all cold and scared. You don’t even know if you are going in the right direction anymore. Your mind is battling so many thoughts, as you try to stay calm and focused. You remember the last phone call with your mum. You were worried about her safety and she was so scared about this crossing. You had a hard time convincing her it was a good idea, pretending to be convinced yourself.

You had heard so many stories about this over the past few weeks, a family you met had tried to cross but they had almost sunk. People were desperate. Another couple told you of their first attempt, they had made good progress at the start but later they were approached by another boat which forced them to stop. It was terrible, they said, everybody was screaming, the men on the other boat took their engine and left them to drift away with the current, back towards Turkey. In both cases they were eventually rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard, and back to the start.

That’s why everybody was saying it was better to make the journey at night, less chance of being seen. However at this point, you’re not sure if it really was a better idea anymore, you’re starting to seriously worry that you won’t make it.

This is the story of thousands of people every year, trying to cross the stretch of sea between Turkey and Greece, to seek asylum in Europe. Many people attempt this journey multiple times, as they are caught and sent back. Some lose their lives, too many. This is just one leg of a perilous journey so many are forced to make as they are forced out of their home country. They are fleeing war and bombings, the fear of snipers in the streets of their home town, oppression for speaking up against a certain regime or persecuted for their religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

In the absence of a safe and legal path to seek asylum, the only option they are left with is to put their lives in the hands of the smugglers, and at the mercy of the sea. They risk their lives in the search of safety. Isn’t this ironic?

“…like a wave that never breaks”, that’s how they teach you how to recognise a dinghy on a night vision telescope during spotting training.

In autumn 2019, I joined Lighthouse Relief as a volunteer in the emergency response team on the Greek island of Lesvos. The NGO assists boat landings on the North shore of the island. It involves looking out for incoming dinghies to alert search and rescue vessels. It is a crucial job to reduce the risk of fatal incidents during the last part of the crossing, made so dangerous by the conditions, the inexperience, and the rocks. It also involves providing first response and support to people arriving on the shores, which is so important after such a terrible journey, with emergency blankets, food and tea, dry clothes and warm shelter for the night, along with first aid whenever necessary.

In March 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic hit this corner of the world, the situation in Lesvos was critical. Turkey opened its borders and there was a big increase in the number of people attempting to reach Europe. Simultaneously, there was a surge in attacks on migrants and NGOs perpetrated by extremist groups. This forced many humanitarian organisations to suspend their operations.

The situation now post COVID-19 is even harder due to the restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the virus. My thoughts go to the migrants who are forced into even more precarious conditions and to the locals and NGOs who are trying to manage the situation with humanity and courage. The work of organisations like Lighthouse Relief will continue to be much needed, until Europe provides a legal and safe way to seek asylum. Until then, sadly, people will keep on entrusting their hopes for a safer life to a flimsy dinghy, like a wave that never breaks.

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Are Refugees and Asylum Seekers’ Allowed to Work in the UK?

Reading Time: 3 minutes



by Katy Cottrell, Sona Circle

The terms ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ are often confused by many people and have incorrectly been used interchangeably.

Though to many people, these terms may seem like they mean the same thing, there are important distinctions between refugees and asylum seekers which have implications for their legal right to work.

To clarify any misconceptions, we have created this quick guide to explain who can and cannot legally work in the UK.

Firstly, what is the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker?

Asylum seekers are those who have fled their home country as a result of war, persecution or any other factors harming themselves or their family, however are still seeking international protection.

If an asylum seekers’ claim is accepted by their host country, they are then classified as a refugee which provides them with the rights agreed upon in the 1951 refugee convention.

Do refugees have the right to work in the UK?

The short answer to this is yes, absolutely.

Legally, refugees are allowed to work in any profession and at any skill level, and they are also protected against workplace discrimination in the UK.

Are asylum seekers allowed to work in the UK?

Unlike refugees, those who are still seeking asylum are, for the most part, not legally allowed to work in the UK.

However, there are some exceptions.

For example, asylum seekers can apply for permission to work if they have waited for over 1 year for a decision on their asylum claim, and they themselves are not responsible for the delay in decision making.

This however, is still restricted, and asylum seekers who have been given permission to work for these reasons can only apply for jobs on the UK’s Official Shortage Occupation List.

Are asylum seekers allowed to do apprenticeships in the UK?

In general most asylum seekers are not allowed to start apprenticeships in the UK, though there are some exceptions.

Those who have lived in the UK for 6 months or longer with no decision being made on their claim, and those who are under the care of children’s services may be able to start an apprenticeship.

If asylum seekers cannot work, what can they do with their skills and time?

Although asylum seekers are not legally allowed to work, in 2013 the Home Office updated their guidance, stating that asylum seekers are allowed to volunteer regardless of the status of their claim.

Asylum Seekers can contribute and develop their skills by volunteering in both the public and non-profit sectors.

Is anything being done to give asylum seekers the right to work?

Asylum seekers inability to work in the UK has become a topic of debate thanks to Refugee Action’s Lift the Ban Campaign, which aims to give asylum seekers the right to work.

This campaign is rooted in the fact that asylum seekers are given just £5.39 per day to purchase food, sanitary products, and clothing from the UK government.

What Refugee Action has found through their campaign is that asylum seekers want to contribute to their host country and provide for themselves and their families rather than relying on the government.

If you’re interested in this campaign, you can find Refugee Action’s petition here. For more information about hiring refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, visit our website where you can also get in contact with us.