A working solution

Refugees can boost economies - if only they are given the chance to work. Jessica Holland lays out the business case for seeing refugees as a benefit, not a burden

In the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2014, Aline Sara was in Beirut struggling to find a tutor to help improve her conversational Arabic. Formal courses were too expensive for the recent graduate, and focused too narrowly on the written dialect.

The search sparked an idea. Lebanon is home to at least 1 million Syrian refugees – among them doctors, engineers and teachers – but legal barriers mean few can work. What if Sara connected Syrian refugees to Arabic learners for hour-long video chats to improve their conversational skills? Engaging refugees as tutors would offer them a way to earn money – and also give language students an opportunity to hone their Arabic with native speakers. 

Natakallam – which means ‘we speak’ in Arabic – launched in 2015. To date, it has enabled more than 60 refugees in 11 countries to tutor 1,500 students, while universities including the US’ George Washington, Northeastern and Tufts connect their students to the platform.

Tutors receive $10 an hour, paid via a local NGO if they are unable to obtain an official work permit, and a further $5 paid by the student goes towards Natakallam’s running costs.

By the end of this year, Sara hopes to provide 100 refugees living in Lebanon with full-time work.

“People all across the planet are excited to feel like they’re contributing to supporting displaced people,” she says. “A lot of us feel helpless, and it’s a tangible, direct solution.”

“This waste of talent is senseless in a world where many employers have trouble filling skilled positions”Around the world, more than 22 million people have fled across borders to escape spiraling conflict, persecution and poverty. Many will spend years in exile – and a significant number will never return home. In Dadaab, the world’s second-largest refugee camp, established in Kenya in 1992, second- and third-generation refugees are being born in tents.

In many host countries, a combination of legal restrictions, cultural factors and language barriers conspire to block refugees’ access to job markets. In some countries – such as Lebanon and Jordan, which have borne the brunt of the fallout from the war in Syria – work permits are limited in order to protect already scarce employment opportunities for native citizens.

The result is that refugees can spend years in limbo, unable to earn a living and with eroding skillsets, dependent on aid handouts or illegal jobs to survive. Too often they are painted as victims, very rarely as degree-holders, or professionals, or as people with diverse knowledge and skills to share.

“This waste of talent is senseless in a world where many employers have trouble filling skilled positions,” says Sayre Nyce, executive director of Talent Beyond Boundaries. Launched in 2016, the US-based social enterprise operates a global database of refugees’ professional profiles that can be browsed by employers in developed nations. When a match is made, the refugee is able to migrate to a new country with a job already in place.

The scheme is being piloted with refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, and the goal is to have relocated 10 to 30 people to jobs in countries such as Canada, Australia and Morocco by end-2018.

“There is broad consensus that refugees need additional safe, legal ways to move and rebuild their lives,” Nyce says. “To us, it seemed natural that someone should be creating a pathway to help refugees put their skills to use in companies and countries that need them. We as a global community can do more to recognise refugees as assets with expertise to offer.”

In high-income countries with ageing workforces and particular skill shortages, allowing more refugees into the workforce can be of benefit. Sweden and Germany have welcomed a high number of migrants in recent years, compared to other European countries, and in both cases GDP has continued to grow, while unemployment rates have held steady or fallen.

In poorer host countries, the path is more complex. Giving refugees open access to the labour market in nations with high unemployment, for example, could trigger unrest. Innovative, government-led employment schemes are being piloted, but can be slow to take root. The Jordan Compact, for example, signed in 2016, pledged more refugee hiring in Jordan in return for grants, low-interest loans, and special trade deals with the European Union. Progress has been made, with 38,516 permits issued to refugees by February 2017, according to Ministry of Labour data, but it falls short of the 200,000 permits promised originally.

A similar deal was struck in Ethiopia, which is home to more than 700,000 refugees, mostly from South Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia. In September 2016, the government made a deal with the UK, EU and the World Bank to give employment rights to 30,000 refugees, in return for funding for two industrial parks which would create 100,000 jobs overall.

“This at an early stage,” says Nicholas Grisewood, a specialist in crisis migration at the International Labour Organisation, “but it’s a big step forward.”

This type of scheme offers economic wins for both the native community and refugees — but there are still problems to be ironed out, according to Heaven Crawley, chair of international migration at Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations.

In Jordan, for example, domestic labour was one of the work permit categories opened up to refugees. But Jordanian households, Crawley says, prefer non-Arabic speakers working for them, and Syrian women often don’t want to work as domestic labourers.

“You have to understand the particular dynamic,” she says. “The key is to get people into the mainstream labour market. People need to be given support and retraining and recognition of their qualifications, so they can enter the labour market on the same terms as everyone else.”

Ideally, she says, leaders would invest in programmes —“whether they’re in Uganda or the UK” — that bring together diverse groups of unemployed people, including refugees and others, and trains them together. This type of initiative “can serve that dual purpose, of bringing people together, challenging stereotypes, and building relations, as well as providing employment. There’s much more value added,” she explains.

“Big corporate banks being more willing to lend to refugees, that would be a huge thing”Companies and social startups are also attempting to bridge the divide. LinkedIn created a programme in 2016 to connect refugees in Sweden with internships and jobs, and a longer-running scheme in Canada called Immigrant Access Fund has lent $17m to 2,700 immigrants, including refugees, since 2003. The loans are backed by the government and by private donors, and allow the recipients to train, get licenses and set up businesses.

In the UK, a social enterprise called TERN is helping a small annual cohort of refugees become entrepreneurs, by giving them mentoring, access to loans, and – as of this year – part-time employment with ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, paid at the London Living Wage, while they complete the programme.

“Gaining access to credit and traditional entrepreneurial capital is very difficult for refugees,” says TERN cofounder Charlie Fraser. “Big corporate banks being more willing to lend to refugees, that would be a huge thing. It’s on us to convince them.”

The idea of TERN was born in 2015 when Fraser, then a student, helped deliver aid to refugees on the Greek island of Cos, and later Calais in France. He felt the media painted them as “victims, burdens or even threats,” and learned that unemployment rates among refugees in the UK was much higher than the national average of 4.8 per cent. Together with two cofounders, he realised entrepreneurship could provide “a route around the barriers that refugees face in getting into the labour market.”

In October 2016 the trio launched a pilot programme with three refugees: a Zimbabwean fashion designer, a Syrian app designer working on a mobile-credit platform, and a Syrian software developer who created a platform for media verification.

A second cohort of 15 completed the programme this summer; a third, of 25, will start in the autumn. Financial consultancy Oliver Wyman has invested £50,000 ($64,500) so far in enterprises launched by TERN, and a further £10,000 has been funnelled towards product development from grants.

“The much bigger aim,” Fraser says, “is to change the conversation about refugees. It’s a great challenge for my generation.”

It’s a complex and time-consuming process, figuring out to get the world’s tens of millions of refugees into steady work. But there are encouraging signs that the international community is starting to take the problem seriously. Policy frameworks are being put together painstakingly, but in the meantime, the refugee crisis remains as urgent as ever.

“This isn’t a short-term problem that needs a temporary fix,” Crawley says. “This is permanent. This is how life is going to be from now on. There is nothing that is going to happen that will end refugee movement. So it’s not just about putting a sticking plaster on ‘the problem of the refugees’, it’s about creating opportunities for all.”