Barring skilled refugees from work in the UK is a travesty that must be solved

by Emma Sinclair MBE

Published: February 24, 2023

Regardless of education or experience, getting a job as a refugee in the UK is hard.

Accessing most skilled roles requires English language tuition and requalification, the costs of which are prohibitive. As a result, we have neurosurgeons working as care assistants, marine engineers driving cabs, teachers with no students and lawyers stacking supermarket shelves. 

It has been a year since the invasion of Ukraine. And a year since RefuAid mobilised the business consortium of 200-plus large companies to help get refugees into jobs commensurate with their experience – and fast.

We need doctors, nurses, pharmacists and vets urgently in the UK but when people with those skills arrive here, it is almost impossible for them to practise the jobs they know how to do. It is a travesty that must be solved. 

When Russia’s invasion happened, Britons came together to offer homes to displaced Ukrainians. More than 8 million people were forced from their homes, and while this initiative was crucial, if we really want to support refugees in this country we cannot just offer shelter; we need to offer jobs, too.

As someone who started their own career in McDonald’s – and loved it – there’s nothing wrong with a job that simply pays the bills. However, when you studied and worked hard to forge a career you then lost through no fault of your own, the thought of never getting it back is devastating. And of course, vets, engineers and other skilled professionals are urgently needed in our workforce.

Not only do we not make it easy for people who simply want to get into paid employment to do so but there are hundreds of skilled professions where it is made so much harder than it needs to be.

Take dentists: it takes years for internationally qualified dentists to be able to sit the required conversion exams. While there is finally an effort to overhaul this system this year, in the interim overseas dentists have been stopped from working as dental care practitioners, such as therapists or hygienists, before they sit these extra exams. This means we are making it even harder for them to work in the dental profession rather than easier – and people are having to bow out of their jobs.

Many of us have heard NHS leaders including Amanda Pritchard, the chief executive of NHS England, talk about the terrifying lack of healthcare professionals in the NHS recently. Take the medical support worker role created during the pandemic with NHS England to allow overseas doctors to work once they had language exams, but before they had passed UK medical exams (providing they held valid medical degrees from their home countries).

More than 500 were hired, many of whom were refugees, but now national funding for these roles has been cut and their contracts terminated. People who have been working in the NHS providing critical care are losing their jobs. Pritchard faces calls to reinstate the role immediately. The salary is £34,000 – substantially less than doctors and consultants are paid.

In pharmacy, 142 refugee pharmacists need to convert their pharmacy accreditations from home countries to the UK but have to wait until 2026 because courses are oversubscribed. Horrifying. After years of no progress from people trying to solve this from the refugee community, it took a tweet to Gisela Abbam, the chair of the pharmacy watchdog, to get someone to pay attention.

Almost every skilled profession seems to face similar bureaucracy. It is an own goal for Britain, and something we should be ashamed of.

The journey of people who have to leave everything behind to start life with nothing is deeply personal to me. My father’s side of the family came to east London from Ukraine more than a century ago, fleeing persecution. And on my mother’s side our family includes the late Harry Balsam, one of the Kindertransport and few to survive the Holocaust from our family. It is only through their perseverance that I have had a life of opportunity. It doesn’t need to be this hard for other people.

Since the consortium launched, 117 UK businesses have partnered with the RefuAid recruitment desk, supporting 538 refugees on our language programme (including 145 doctors), helping 110 people find jobs commensurate with their level of expertise and supporting 204 Ukrainians to apply for UK visas.

The average starting salary for someone hired by the consortium is more than £32,000. Given that they will have been on universal credit, these roles provide urgent financial independence and dignity to refugees and bring much-needed skilled labour to the UK workforce.

Let’s make it easier: it’s the best possible outcome for everyone.

Read the original at: Barring skilled refugees from work in the UK is a travesty that must be solved

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