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World Refugee Day: Why it’s important to employ refugees

To mark World Refugee Day, HRM looks into why organisations need to hire more refugees and how this can have a positive effect on your entire workforce.

With worsening conditions in countries like Syria and Iraq, Australia’s refugee population, which currently sits at 34,503, can only be expected to grow in the near future. One of the biggest difficulties faced by refugees is finding work. Despite having skills much needed in Australia, refugees face a Catch 22 situation of needing Australian work experience to find employment, but requiring employment to gain experience.

Recent research shows that after 18 months in Australia just 17 per cent of refugees are placed into the workforce and in the long-term, less than half of skilled and qualified refugees were able to find work that matched their skills and expertise. With statistics like this, organisations with a mission to get refugees into the workplace, such as Settlement Services International (SSI), are more important than ever before.

Why hire a refugee?

Given the traumatic circumstances that refugees are fleeing from, they often bring levels of resilience and perspective that their co-workers do not have.

Violet Roumeliotis, SSI’s CEO explains: “Refugees are typically strong and resilient people who are determined to make the most of their opportunities. These people are survivors. As well as bringing in new talent, hiring refugees introduces new ideas and perspectives that can enrich any workplace.”

But what effect might hiring refugees have on the broader workplace? Roumeliotis says businesses such as Allianz, with diverse workforces, have seen increases in productivity, growth, and staff retention.

“Research suggests that refugees tend to be motivated to integrate quickly, both by improving their English and gaining employment. With existing skills and experience, and the motivation to learn and succeed, refugees represent significant potential assets to businesses.”

“The advantages of diversity have been well documented, from community representation, to generating innovation, increasing motivation and helping tap new markets both domestically and abroad.”

Barriers to overcome

Although many refugees are often over qualified, they are faced with the barrier of their skills/qualifications not being recognised in Australia.

The NSW Refugee Employment Support Program aims to tackle the issue of aligning refugees’ skills and qualifications with job opportunities in Australia. By the end of last year, 2,200 refugees passed through the program which provides mentoring services, such as honing their language and assisting with CVs and getting their qualifications recognised so they can become job ready.

Peter Shergold, NSW Coordinator – General for Refugee Settlement, speaking of the NSW Government’s refugee initiative, which has seen 80 refugees hired in positions in the state’s public service, says: “One of our first moves was a program whereby the NSW government would take on recently arrived refugees, not with the intention that they would make their lives as career public servants, but in six or 12 months’ time, they could, if they wanted to, seek jobs in the private sector, and they would go with references, with work skills, with that experience in Australia”.

The refugee perspective

Dana Al Samaan works in the finance team at insurance firm Allianz. A year ago, she relocated to Australia armed with a degree in finance from Damascus University, fleeing the destructive war zones and terrorism plaguing her home country of Syria.

She was one of the lucky few to find work in Australia fairly quickly, taking on her role with Allianz within her the first few months. She attributes this to Allianz’s partnership with SSI, but acknowledges that this isn’t the case for most refugees.

“This hasn’t been my experience at Allianz, but some refugees entering the workforce might find that people think they don’t know anything.”

“As a newcomer, it can be very difficult to go and find a job by yourself. Companies will always ask you to have local experience, even though we have a lot of experience overseas. I think because Australia is a multicultural country already, it should be easy for companies to hire people with a refugee background. By doing this they might just find something they didn’t expect!”

Drawing from her own experiences, Al Samaan says that having had the opportunity to study for free in Syria, she believes that the strengths that she, and other Syrian refugees, can bring to the workplace are high-calibre expertise and a strong work ethic.

“In my experience, kindness is the most important language that we can use, even if we speak in different languages. We all have different technical skills but at the end of the day what people remember about is how you made them feel.”

Image credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development 

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