Who I can be: Reflecting on the lives of professionally-qualified refugees in the UK

A recent article in the Guardian magazine profiled the lives of six refugees in the UK who had been professionals in their home country – including a lawyer, engineer, government adviser, academic, and doctor. They are now unemployed, or working stacking shelves or as a cleaner. The comments which followed broadly divided into those which lamented the wasted human capital and skills, and those which (sometimes in more robust terms) pointed out that there was no automatic right to a previous profession and lifestyle, and that many highly qualified UK citizens were similarly under- or unemployed.

What is generally lacking in the article and what follows is any indication of what, if anything, might be done about it, and the longer term consequences for these people. The circumstances of professionally-qualified refugees is something I have written about in the journal International Migration, so the stories are all too familiar. Clearly, speaking English is a prerequisite, and while apparently not an issue for most of the people interviewed, it is a problem for many, exacerbated by the withdrawal of free ESOL classes by the previous government. Nearly all overseas qualifications can be mapped onto their UK counterpart, and universities, employers and professional bodies can make decisions on whether they are equivalent. It will however be the case that some qualifications will not be transferable, such as law studied under a very different legal system.

What was clear from our research was that refugees (unsurprisingly) lacked appropriate job-search skills for the UK market. Despite qualifications and experience, the style, content and language of their CVs and applications were often unsuitable and would be discarded by employers. We argued that there was a need for the relevant professional bodies to engage with the issues and offer specialist support not available through the generic job centre or voluntary support organisations. It would help meet skills shortages, and arguably should be a core activity of organisations who benefit from charitable or chartered status and therefore have a public interest or educational duty.

Finally, and while not arguing for special treatment, it is a fact that for many people in these kinds of careers, their profession is their key identity. The loss of of this identity, even more than status and material wealth, has profound effect on their feelings of self-worth and well being. Failing to appreciate this could have long term consequences for these individuals and their families.


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