On 19 April 2017, Renaisi hosted an event to launch RISE, our employment service for refugees. Working across ten boroughs in North and East London, RISE is funded by the Big Lottery Fund and European Social Fund ‘Building Better Opportunities’ programme.

RISE is being delivered in collaboration with a wide range of partners and supporters in order to reach and provide effective support to participants. For this reason, our event aimed to bring together people and organisations from across sectors to build new relationships, share knowledge and information, and explore how, collectively, we can enable more refugees to find and stay in rewarding employment.

Hosted at Amnesty International UK’s Human Rights Action Centre, the event brought together 100 participants from local authorities; employment, training and recruitment service providers; voluntary and public sector service providers; refugee community organisations and employers.

The event featured a range contributors who addressed some of the major barriers to refugee employment, and how they can be overcome; as well as opportunities for a more positive and proactive approach to supporting refugees. Tom Davies, Priority Campaign Manager of Amnesty International UK ‘I Welcome’ campaign, outlined the global challenge posed by the international refugee crisis, and what action is needed to welcome and support refugees into the UK. Renaisi’s Director of Employment

Services, Laura Busfield, gave an overview of the RISE service and how it is designed specifically to support refugees’ employment journeys.

During two plenary sessions, panelists then addressed specific barriers and opportunities in more detail:

  • Anne Thomas of Mind in the City, Hackney and Waltham Forest outlined the mental health and wellbeing support Mind is providing through RISE
  • Joni Cunningham of Redbridge Institute for Adult Education explained the importance of a London English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) strategy and provision for overcoming the major barrier of language
  • Helen Walker of TimeBank explained the value of TimeBank’s in-work mentoring support for refugees, and how volunteers are key to its success
  • Roberta Siao from Mazí Mas, a catering company that employs refugee and asylum seeker women, highlighted the positive impact this has on both employees and the businesses
  • Charlie Fraser of The Refugee Entrepreneurship Network and Chris Gale of Ben and Jerry’s described how the organisations are working together to deliver the ICE Academy – an initiative to support entrepreneurialism among refugees

Key insights

The subject area is complex and broad, and it was not possible to address it in full in during the time available. The findings below represent some of the key issues to emerge during the event. They are intended to generate discussion and provide ideas, rather than constitute an exhaustive analysis of the issues.

We must challenge the narrative of refugees as victims

The discourse surrounding the refugee crisis tends to characterise refugees as victims. While this can help generate empathy, it is disempowering, and contributes to misperceptions about refugees that hinder their employment. To increase refugee employment, we must recognise that they are assets for employers, communities and local economies, possessing valuable skills, abilities and attitudes. In this way, we can better support them to realise their potential, both as individuals and their impact on society.

We must celebrate positive examples of refugee employment

Misperceptions about refugees are a major barrier not only to their employment, but their integration into society as a whole. A stereotyped view of refugees as victims and in need is prominent, hindering their participation in discussions and decisions that affect them. We must recognise that refugees are employed in diverse roles and professional positions, and promote this reality to help overcome negative and unhelpful misconceptions.

More collaboration between organisations is key

There is not enough engagement between different organisations – service providers, charities, public sector organisations and employers – that are interested in or already providing employment related support to refugees. This means opportunities to strengthen support risk being missed, and greater awareness and understanding of the value of refugee employment is hampered. More collaboration between organisations could lead to better employment support as well as help address negative perceptions.

We need more engagement from the business community

There are a few notable examples of businesses taking positive action to address the crisis – such as Ben and Jerry’s, Starbucks and Oliver Wyman. However, low understanding of refugee issues and misperceptions about their ability to work were perceived to be a major barrier to refugee employment. Part of the solution to this is increased awareness of issues including the legality of employing refugees and legal documentation, as well as of the positive contributions refugees can make to businesses. However, it also demands greater and more visible leadership from major businesses and other big employers, which have the ability to influence wider employer cultures in the UK.

One positive message to emerge from the event was that there is a great appetite among many of those whose work touches on the issues for further collaboration– and lots of scope for positive action.

Renaisi aims to create more opportunities to do this over the coming months. To stay informed, sign up to Renaisi’s emails.