Last week I spoke at an International Refugee Rights Conference in Toronto about how skilled migration offers a potential solution for hundreds of thousands of refugees. Here's what I said...
Millions of refugees around the world today are stuck in places where they are not legally allowed to work to support themselves or their families. Their talents are being wasted while they struggle to survive in circumstances most of us could not imagine. Many will not be able to go home for years, or even decades. And only a select few will ever have the chance to make it to another country where they can legally work.
As I shared in this blog, I work for Talent Beyond Boundaries, an organisation which started operating just over two years ago. TBB aims to open up economic migration pathways for refugees and stateless people.
TBB has spent the last two years building our presence in Jordan and Lebanon, and we are now working with corporates in Australia, Canada, the UK and elsewhere to open up labour mobility pathways for refugees.
I could summarise what I've learnt working on these issues in four basic facts:
- Labour mobility is a tried and tested solution for refugees
- Refugees have skills that are needed in the global economy
- Employers want those skills
- To make labour mobility work for refugees, we need to remove the barriers
This is not theory
Labour mobility as a solution for refugees has been thoroughly tried and tested in history.
In the 1920s around 450,000 Nansen passports were issued by the League of Nations to refugees and stateless people, helping them to move freely for work.
After World War II many countries created work placement schemes targeting refugees.
Australia's economy flourished as a result of a program that assisted 170,000 displaced persons to resettle in Australia for work between 1945 and 1949.
There were similar numbers in Canada and throughout Europe.
These schemes were by no means perfect. Among their limitations were their tendency to prioritise young and able bodied “men” (yes men), leaving older, infirm or sick people to languish without a solution to their displacement.
The Refugee Convention and the emergence of UNHCR’s global resettlement program helped to address that injustice - enshrining protection for all refugees, and focussing third country resettlement places on those most vulnerable and in need of assistance.
However, in practice refugees have been largely excluded from many of their rights – particularly work rights.
So, while resettlement remains a critical solution for vulnerable refugees, labour mobility offers a different opportunity – with significant potential to expand refugee protection.
Collecting the data
10,000 refugees and stateless people have registered on TBB’s Talent Catalog – mostly from Syria, Palestine or Iraq.
Over 3,000 of the candidates on the catalog have post-secondary education. And they speak over 15 languages - with English, French, Turkish and German being the most common.
There are around 200 professions on the Talent Catalog. The top professions are engineers, healthcare professionals, IT and computer professionals, professors, teachers and accountants – all occupations that are in high demand around the world.
The global economy needs these skills, and companies want them too.
ManpowerGroup runs an annual survey of companies around the world about talent shortages. The latest survey showed 40% of employers globally are having trouble filling positions, the highest talent shortage in over a decade.
In Japan a staggering 86% of companies struggle to fill positions locally. And companies in emerging market economies are also struggling – in Argentina, for example, 59% of companies can’t fill roles locally.
These skills gaps have real consequences for our economies and societies. For example, in Australia we are heading towards critical shortages of nurses, aged care workers and secondary school teachers.
We know companies are willing to hire refugees from abroad to fill these roles. TBB is currently working with 38 companies to hire refugees in a range of sectors – eg. skilled trades, technology, healthcare. And a number of multinational companies like Starbucks and WeWork are showing leadership by setting refugee hiring targets.
Lifting the barriers
But to enable refugees to access these work opportunities overseas, we need to lift the barriers that stand in their way.
A critical barrier is that refugees are often invisible to employers, and they don’t have access to information about international employment opportunities. TBB is helping to address this through our Talent Catalog, engaging with employers and helping refugees to access recruitment opportunities. And we hope other organisations will start to do this work more too.
But many of the other barriers are administrative – and they are in the hands of governments to sort out.
- It can take a long time to immigrate for work - in some countries 18 months! This makes it incredibly difficult for to job match refugees and employers.
- Refugees and stateless people need greater flexibility when it comes to identity documentation and passports. It can be a challenge to obtain these documents from a government that is persecuting you, and it's even harder when you're stateless (see my blog on statelessness here).
- Refugees have often experienced a gap in employment as a result of displacement, and they are rarely able to legally gain work experience where they are. They should not be penalised for this.
- Language requirements in some countries can be prohibitive – and refugees don’t often have access to language training where they are. An easy way to help prepare refugees for skilled migration would be to provide English/French/German etc language training in places like Jordan and Lebanon.
TBB is starting to work through creative solutions to these barriers with governments - particularly Australia and Canada. All we need is flexibility, and a bit of political will.
Refugee crises in the past have been largely solved through labour mobility. We can do that again.
Thanks to the Canadian Council for Refugees for putting on a great International Refugee Rights Conference last week!