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Invest in refugees, Synod motion proposes

21 June 2019


EVERY diocese in the Church of England should pay for at least one refugee with a professional background to secure accreditation in the UK, a diocesan-synod motion to be debated at the General Synod next month suggests.

Noting that a “significant proportion” of the refugees who come to this country are already professionally qualified, a supporting paper from the diocese of Southwark argues that enabling them to put their skills to use would both ease labour shortages in this country and boost integration and community relations.

While churches have already responded to the refugee crisis, their initiatives “all reinforce a view of refugees as very needy people who require help”, the Vicar of St Mary’s, Battersea, Canon Simon Butler, says. “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.”

The motion commits the Synod to “encourage each diocese, in collaboration with the Refugee Council or similar specialist organisations, to provide the financial and other support required for at least one refugee qualified from a wide range of skills to receive the advice and training necessary for their accreditation in the UK”.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reports that refugees are much more likely to be over-qualified than other migrants: almost 60 per cent of employed tertiary-educated refugees in the EU are over-qualified for the jobs that they occupy — more than twice the level of the native-born, and also well above the levels for other migrant groups.

Just over half (56 per cent) the working-age people who came to the UK to claim asylum are in employment, compared with 76 per cent of UK nationals.

Asylum-seekers who are waiting for their claim to be processed — sometimes for years — are forbidden to undertake paid employment or tertiary education if over 18. In a background note, the Archbishops’ Council’s secretary-general, William Nye, writes that “the paucity of provision for English language and inculturation teaching is the most significant barrier to enabling any refugee to retrain and return to employment. ”In other European countries, language education commences on arrival.

Many churches offer English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes. Started by the Revd Heike Prentice with three Afghani families in 2015, English for Women at Chelmsford Cathedral has grown to support women from other 30 nationalities, with the  support of the diocese’s Mothers’ Union.

On Thursday, the Revd Bill Braviner, Priest-in-Charge of St Peter’s, Stockton-on-Tees, said that the church had met dozens of asylum-seekers through its ESOL Café, and their participation in other aspects of church life. 

“A number attend worship and seek to explore and develop their Christian faith. Others who come to ESOL Café are of other faiths or none — our aim is not to use ESOL as a way to recruit worshippers,” he said. “We run ESOL because of our faith and our desire to help asylum seekers to become integrated members of our community with the ability to contribute to society here.”

It was “heartbreaking”, he said, “when we meet the many many people who have a great deal to offer in terms of skills and abilities, but who are forced into a life of boredom and a feeling of uselessness when they could be making a great contribution to the community. Many of them have quite good English, and spend their time at ESOL Café helping those who do not. 

“I have met doctors, accountants, chefs, engineers and many others through our work with refugees and asylum seekers. It seems crazy to me that as a society, we keep them on benefits when they want to work and would bring great benefits to our community through the work they could do, not least by paying taxes rather than taking benefits.” 

In 2009, the General Synod voted for a motion calling on the Government to allow asylum-seekers to work (News, 20 February 2009): a position echoed by the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Dame Caroline Spelman MP, last year (News, 26 October 2018).

“It is not that people do not have skills: it is having those skills accredited and accepted in this country,” the refugee co-ordinator for the Church of England, Nadine Daniel

The Refugee Council estimates that the cost per person helped through its Building Bridges programme was less than £2000 a year, on average. It is estimated that there are 117,234 refugees living in the UK: 0.18 per cent of the total population.

This week, the Institute for Public Policy Research published a report warning that funding for the provision of English-language courses had fallen by more than half since 2010.

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