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Refugees can fill the skills gap 

03 November 2017

They must be allowed to make a valuable contribution in the UK, says Vasantha Gnanadoss


Plugging the gap: Dr Dilzar Kader, a paediatrician from Kurdistan, who was one of the first doctors to be employed under the Government’s Refugees into Jobs pilot scheme, in 2002, examines a boy with suspected appendicitis

Plugging the gap: Dr Dilzar Kader, a paediatrician from Kurdistan, who was one of the first doctors to be employed under the Government’s Refuge...

MANY of the refugees who come to this country — perhaps 30 per cent — hold professional qualifications, and many have professional experience. They include Abdul Karim, a neurosurgeon from Syria, who, with his family, found a temporary home in an empty vicarage in Surrey (Features, 16 June), as well as doctors, dentists, nurses, lawyers, teachers, and IT engineers.

These skills are needed in the UK; so, when refugee professionals are enabled to practise here, they help to reduce shortages. This is quicker and cheaper than training new professionals to fill the gaps. Furthermore, refugee professionals themselves become natural members of a more integrated UK society. It is a “win-win” situation. The Church should be putting its weight behind such initiatives.

There is, of course, a history of professionals’ being recruited overseas to offset UK skills shortages. Such recruiting is often criticised for depriving services in other countries of vital human resources. But, in the case of refugees, sadly, that deprivation has already been enforced; so there should be no such objection to enabling them to fulfil their potential in this country.

Fifteen years ago, the possibility of refugee professionals’ fulfilling their potential and, at the same time, meeting the needs of society was recognised as a “virtuous circle”. For relatively small investment, refugee professionals could be equipped to reduce shortages of qualified people, but also to support themselves and pay taxes, instead of depending on benefits. Also at that time, the Home Office regarded employment as a key way to integrate refugees, and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) welcomed the Refugee Council’s work on refugee professionals.

The Refugee Council has sustained this work through its Building Bridges programme for refugee health professionals living in London. Jamal held a postgraduate degree in pathology and had many years’ experience, but the stigma associated with refugee status had shattered his confidence and he needed help from Building Bridges to find work as a biomedical scientist in the NHS.

Farkhunda was forced to flee Afghanistan when the Taliban closed down education for women. She completed her medical studies in Pakistan, but, after joining her husband in Britain, she found that her qualifications were not recognised. Building Bridges helped her to repeat parts of her training and achieve registration by the General Medical Council. Many other examples are recorded in annual impact reports.


SINCE about ten years ago, however, the Government’s mood has changed, perhaps as a result of the economic crash and the policy of austerity which followed. I was told recently that the DWP is now often a hindrance, pressing refugee professionals to accept low-paid jobs rather than steering them to training events that would help them to apply their skills here.

As concern about refugees has risen high on the UK agenda, there have been news reports of fresh regional schemes to assist refugee professionals. For example, Fatema is one of 38 refugee doctors on a course this year in Glasgow, which is funded by the Scottish Government. It provides the doctors with advanced English lessons, medical classes, and placements with GPs or hospitals.

Youssef is a doctor who had to flee Syria and ended up in Middlesbrough without friends, family, or a career. But, thanks to a pilot scheme run by the North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Trust this year, he passed the General Medical Council’s exams and was able to start applying for jobs. The scheme involved 11 doctors and one pharmacist, from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan, and the Congo.

Churches, deaneries, and ecumenical groups, along with other faith communities, have responded in various ways to the refugee crisis. Relief work for those suffering in Calais, assisting local authorities to play their part, setting up community sponsorship schemes, finding accommodation, befriending — all these continue to be important. But they all reinforce a view of refugees as vulnerable people who need help. That is true, but it overlooks the parallel truth that refugees are people with much to offer, and that sensible investment in refugee professionals will bring cost-effective benefits to society as a whole.


SEEKING a way to get the Church started on strengthening the “virtuous circle”, I drafted a motion designed for debate in the General Synod. The first step was to ask Battersea deanery synod to send it on to Southwark diocesan synod.

The purpose of the motion is to encourage each diocese to work with the Refugee Council or other agencies to provide the financial and other support required for at least one refugee professional to receive the advice and training necessary for accreditation in the UK.

I checked the wording with the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams, who has been a leading voice on refugee policy both within the Church and more widely, and with Dr Stephen Nickless of the Refugee Council. As the Council’s website puts it, the aim is that refugee professionals are helped to “requalify to UK standards and secure employment appropriate to their professional qualifications”.

The motion was passed by Battersea deanery synod in June, during Refugee Week. Consideration of the motion by Southwark diocesan synod has been held over until March 2018. While I am still working for a debate at the General Synod, I am also suggesting that dioceses take up the idea as soon as possible. Among readers of this article, there will be some who are in a position to start the process in their own synods. I shall be happy to provide them with the wording of the motion and my background paper (vasanthignanadoss@yahoo.co.uk).


Vasantha Gnanadoss was a member of the General Synod from 1990 to 2015.

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