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The Refugee Challenge: Both Inside & Out of The Workplace

Updated: Jun 30, 2022

Recent events of unrest have, once again, stirred up the conversations about refugees and the challenges involved with integrating them into unfamiliar communities. Around the globe, there are approximately 65 million people who have been forced to leave their homes to escape war, violence, and persecution. Most of them have become internally displaced persons. This means they have fled their homes but are still within their own countries; others have crossed borders and sought shelter outside of their own countries. They’re commonly referred to as refugees. But what exactly does it mean to be a refugee?

Just to be clear—there is a lot of confusion surrounding the difference between the terms, “immigrant” and “refugee.” Immigrants are those who seek to leave their country looking for a better life or for better opportunities.

Refugees are those who flee their country, without choice, to seek asylum.

They often can only travel by land or by sea, and sometimes depend on smugglers to help them cross borders. They leave their family behind with the hopes that they may one day be reunited. This alone can be traumatic and last an unbearably long time, especially if they end up living in a camp.

Refugee camps run by the UN are usually intentionally temporary structures formed by short-term shelters until the inhabitants can safely return home. Settlements and long-term integration options are few and limited. So many refugees are left with no choice but to remain in camps for years, and sometimes even decades. These camps guarantee a minimum standard of treatment and non-discrimination as refugees are often victims of inconsistent and discriminatory treatment. They’re consistently obligated to rebuild their lives in the face of xenophobia and racism. Too often, they’re prohibited to enter the workforce and are forced to rely on humanitarian aid. We must look closer at the challenges faced by refugees and at the challenges faced by the organizations who strive to help them.


One thing is certain. We must seek to employ refugees within our businesses. While that may seem like a jump, it is a key challenge for any country assisting in facilitating a refugee crisis. Many employers do not see an immediate benefit from recruiting refugees or asylum-seekers, and while they seem open to supporting them through training and internships, many businesses have not followed through with hiring them.

All countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), allow refugees and asylum-seekers the legal right to work in their countries. Though there may be some administrative restrictions or waits, this relieves a great deal of red tape that might prevent refugees from finding work within host countries but even with the legal access to work, several factors may stand in the way of employing any displaced population.

The first of many is a lack of access to information about legal frameworks and conditions about employment. As a result, employers have been more likely to choose alternative candidates rather than applications by refugees or asylum seekers because of their lack of knowledge about the process. We must remember seeking refuge is not a choice but an uprooting of many people's lives and livelihoods. Countries that also prohibit asylum-seekers from partaking in internship programs or vocational schooling systems make it more difficult. Without work, millions of people are stuck living in less than favorable conditions, living off humanitarian aid at the behest of the country that refuses to allow them training or to enter the workforce even though many refugees are generally eager to integrate into the host country.

Employers may also turn away from hiring refugees because of the inability to assess the proficiency or area of expertise of the displaced population. Refugees and asylum seekers, like any population, have varied skill profiles.

Even if they have formal qualifications or experience, they often do not have any documentation to verify it, or their degrees and diplomas are not recognized by the host country. There is no systematic and comprehensive skill assessment, and language barriers sometimes add to the major obstacle of integrating refugees into jobs where qualifications are needed. One thing to note is that on-the-job language learning has been proven to be successful and highly effective in many jobs that don't require specialization. Initially limited language skills should not be a reason employers refuse to hire displaced populations.

Other factors include refugees and employees from the host country who may have varying perceptions regarding the workplace like having different cultural expectations and mannerisms. Though these situations may not be as hardline, and employees often integrate well, there will still always be the initial uncertainty. Managing expectations through a cultural orientation of some sort would be the best way to address any possible unconscious biases. Another possible solution would be to find refugees to hire through hotlines or organizations that have experience with recruiting refugees or asylum-seekers.

While the integration of people who are seeking refuge or who have obtained international protection usually goes well, it is often complicated by the experiences of forced displacement and trauma. A substantial early investment would be needed to assist refugees in developing and honing their skills, but businesses are concerned with the cost that investing could bring considering the return on their investment may not be immediate.

Government support can make a significant difference.

Innovative partnerships involving governmental organizations, businesses, immigration lawyers, and civil society can help understand the needs of the multiple groups involved and can help design appropriate systems that can be reused to help many displaced populations. Many also see investing money in this way to be more beneficial in the long run than to have refugees living in humanitarian camps.

Overall, the most important place for businesses to start is to help in reducing the amount of time it would take for asylum-seekers to integrate into the labor market. Allowing people the ability to achieve their own self-reliance within the host country brings so many benefits, and not only to the host country but more importantly, to those in need.


If your organization is hiring refugees or has refugees employed, let us help you in assisting the integration process through our training programs! Contact me here to talk about your organization's needs.

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