Improving Access to Higher Education and Employment for Forced Migrants

Alan Thomas, Co-Chair of Swansea City of Sanctuary, argues that the huge potential among refugees represents an untapped opportunity for enriching both our society and our economy, but a great many barriers have to be overcome before refugees can realise their potential. This blog presents the rationale for a joint conference co-organised by Swansea City of Sanctuary and The Open University aimed at improving access to Higher Education and Employment for Forced Migrants. The conference is an expression of solidarity with refugees all over the world and Refugee Week 2021. It is also an important step towards The Open University becoming a real University of Sanctuary.

Swansea City of Sanctuary are part of a network of over 100 groups promoting a culture of welcome to all, especially those who have fled from war or persecution, in cities and communities of all sizes around the UK. We are very pleased to be partnering The Open University in an online conference on 14 June, on Improving Access to Higher Education and Employment for Forced Migrants. The Open University is currently working towards becoming a University of Sanctuary, and potentially has a huge role in this area.

My Co-Chair at Swansea City of Sanctuary is Amber Esther, whose experience exemplifies the need for this conference. For seven years Amber was one of approximately 900 “asylum seekers” housed in Swansea by the Home Office while awaiting the result of their claim for protection. Asylum seekers are people with hopes and aspirations, families and loved ones, skills and qualifications, but their lives are rudely interrupted.

In 2012 Amber was forced to leave a traumatic situation in her home country of Pakistan and came to UK with her two children, looking for safety. She had been a nurse and midwife in Pakistan, but soon realised that it would be too difficult to continue this profession in the UK. While waiting for a decision, asylum seekers are not allowed to work. She would need to prove a very high standard of English, her qualifications might not be recognised, her experience would become out-of-date, and she would need re-training in the British health system. Even if her claim was recognised at once, where would she find the money for the university-level study required?

In the event, Amber waited seven years before finally obtaining “leave to remain”. During this time, with her love of baking, she studied catering at an FE college in Neath, with the aim of eventually setting up her own business. After a further wait for paperwork during the pandemic, she is now on a Business Wales course for new entrepreneurs.

Another of our committee members, Funmilayo Olaniyan, came to UK from Nigeria in 2017, after a long career in teaching ending with seven years as a Head Teacher. She had already registered for a second degree, in Law, as a way of progressing further, before having to leave. Not having teaching experience in the UK would mean no chance of a headship until she had worked her way up again, and in any case as an asylum seeker she was frustratingly not allowed to work. She enrolled in a university access course at Gower College and then received one of the first bursaries for asylum seekers at the University of Wales Trinity St Davids and started studying for a law degree while still awating an asylum decision. Unfortunately, such opportunities are still few and far between.

In general, even once granted “leave to remain” it is not easy for a refugee to this country to get a job and certainly not to progress in their own profession or skill area. After months or years of living on just over £5 per day, there is often a pressing need for money – to secure housing, to send to families who may still be in very difficult circumstances overseas or to help them come to UK. Many refugees are given leave to remain only for a short period of two or three years and must save for the enormous fees required to apply to renew this leave. In Swansea, many get jobs at the Amazon warehouse well below their skill level, but this is precarious and can involve working unpredictable shifts which makes it difficult to look for other work or go on any kind of training course.

There is huge potential among refugees which represents an opportunity for enriching both our society and our economy, but which is often left untapped and becomes a human waste. There are a great many barriers to be overcome before refugees can realise their potential. 

Many of these barriers derive from immigration policy, with its notorious “hostile environment”. But, within this constraint, local and national initiatives and supportive institutions can make a difference. Education and support for access to employment are both areas where the devolved administrations have made strong in principle commitments, such as that from both the Scottish and Welsh Governments that “Integration begins from Day One”, with its implication that access to their services should be equally available to all irrespective of immigration status. Colleges and universities, as well as progressive employers, are also able to provide a great deal of support. 
Please join us on 14 June and help us to debate these matters at a moment when Swansea not only celebrates a decade of being a City of Sanctuary, but also when the Welsh Government’s Nation of Sanctuary Refugee and Asylum Seeker Plan might be realised following elections in May 2021

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