Launch a New Deal for refugees

NS/Fabian Society Second-Term Agenda - Launch a New Deal for refugees

Small talk with your window cleaner in communist Prague could range way beyond desultory comments about the weather into philosophy, politics and what was hot on the samizdat grapevine. Like Tomas, the doctor in Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, many dissident academics and professionals were forced out of positions where they might foment revolution, and into jobs a hundred feet up. We think of this waste of talent as one of the cruellest follies of the communist state. However, the next time you walk into a fast-food joint, you will find something not so dissimilar. In Britain 2001, we have nuclear physicists driving minicabs and doctors washing pots in hospital kitchens. Many of the 116,000 refugees in Britain (1998 estimate), highly qualified people who could make a big contribution to skills shortages, are left to languish on benefits.

Yet the asylum debate focuses entirely on whether to let them in or not and where to disperse them so they will be least "burdensome". Few think at all about what happens to those granted refugee status once they are allowed to stay. Refugees can be a national asset, not simply beneficiaries of our paternal munificence. Instead of treating them as potential scroungers, policy should treat asylum-seekers as potential additions to the nation's skill base. Labour should devote a corner of its manifesto to another New Deal - for refugees.

First, the government should establish an interdepartmental employability task force, led by the Department for Education and Employment, which brings together the work and objectives of education, health and local authorities. It is right that the Home Office decides on the merits of asylum cases - as these are about international obligations and human rights, not economic needs - but once that decision has been made, the interests of refugees are better served by a department with different objectives.

At the moment, the penal function of Jack Straw's department runs through all its work. In the United States, foreign workers are given a green card, a document that has acquired mythical status in popular culture as the passport to a better life. But it is unlikely that the SAL1, the British letter that tells refugees they can stay, will spawn many screenplays. After a few leaden paragraphs that confirm all the stereotypes about cool English receptions, refugees are warned not to try to overthrow the state: "You should understand that if during your stay in the United Kingdom you take part in activities involving, for example, the support or encouragement of violence, or conspiracy to cause violence, whether in the United Kingdom or abroad, so as to endanger national security or public order, the Secretary of State may deport you." We should have a British green card; we should also have an integration programme that starts on the day a refugee is given leave to stay.

Second, we should remove the barriers to employment and integration. The Africa Educational Trust estimates that the level of refugee unemployment varies between 75 and 95 per cent. It is clear that the employment advice and support on offer is nowhere near adequate. Newly certified refugees are inundated with information from the Employment Service; but there is a difference between sending documentation and helping people understand the scale of the barriers they face. People disoriented and bewildered by a new country need personal attention and help when things go wrong. There should be a formal audit of the skills of each asylum-seeker who is accepted, followed by a clear personal action-plan.

For those with qualifications, the task force should focus on validating and converting them. Refugees are often excluded from their profession because vocational qualifications gained abroad are not recognised. There are some absurd anomalies. If you studied medicine at a South African university, you are allowed to practise here, but not if you studied in the US. The government should provide guidelines and a fund for professional bodies to standardise vocational qualifications and set out clear steps for conversion.

A personal adviser, with knowledge of a refugee's home culture, should be appointed to advise on employment opportunities, including CV layout, interview skills and realistic expectations. Employers often find that refugees undersell themselves at interview. Another major obstacle can be a lack of references. Those who have fled a war zone are unlikely to have brought them along. Virtually all employment agencies refuse to take on staff without two British referees. A New Deal for refugees could fund work placements, paying employers to train refugees and provide character references.

Third, language tuition must be revolutionised. The DfEE estimates that as many as 1.5 million people must improve their English to participate in education, work and society. Refugees should be able to choose from a more varied range of courses during the working day, evenings and weekends. In return, Britain should follow the Dutch example and make social security benefits conditional on attendance at language classes.

Though there are many initiatives afoot - for example, a "refugee doctors" scheme has been piloted - too much still depends on voluntary engagement; there is no driving political imperative. If progressives are to win the economic migration debate and define a new British identity, their internationalism must deliver something better for the annual 25,000 refugees who get permission to stay.

Mark Leonard is the director of the Foreign Policy Centre.

This is the sixth in a series of articles, prepared by the NS and the Fabian Society, on ideas for a second Labour term

This article appears in the 15 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Dotcoms will rise again