Understanding the employment barriers for refugees

Navigate the complexities of hiring refugee talent.

Employment application on a desk sitting next to a pen

The recent conflict in Ukraine has created over 6 million refugees, and this group is only a fraction of the number of people fleeing humanitarian disasters around the world. There are now over 100 million people seeking asylum after leaving countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, as well as Ukraine. As an employer, you may be wondering what you can do to help people find financial and personal stability. While hiring refugees is complex due to many structural factors, it’s not impossible—and it can benefit your organization while changing a person’s life.

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What are the barriers to employment for refugees?

Training not recognized

Although there are reputable educational institutions around the world, many companies in the U.S. don’t recognize credentials issued overseas. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 15.5% of foreign-born workers had some college or an associate degree, and 40.5% had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Despite these educational attainments, foreign-born workers are more likely to be working in service roles rather than management and professional occupations.

Furthermore, some industries operate on an apprenticeship system internationally rather than a licensing system like the U.S., meaning employers can have a hard time verifying a candidate’s experience and training. The issue is further complicated by the fact that American licensing guidelines are typically established at the state level instead of federally.

The Improving Opportunities for New Americans Act of 2020 was created to direct the Department of Labor and other government agencies and non-profits to perform a federal study on factors affecting employment opportunities for immigrants and refugees with professional credentials. With the goal of allowing these workers to fully utilize their knowledge and skills, the bill requires a report to be generated and made public one year from the date of enactment. This legislation was introduced in the House but has not advanced to a debate or vote.

In addition to the 12-month window for the publication of the study’s data, individual states would likely need to review their own labor guidelines and implement any federal recommendations. This could extend the timeframe for integrating refugee workers.

It’s important to note that these are just the challenges in the United States, which accepts a small number of refugees each year. The vast majority are resettled in European countries, which also have requirements for verifying education and work credentials and employment eligibility. If you’re already hiring globally, it’s important to be aware of these host countries’ guidelines.

Unconscious bias

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines refugees as those who crossed an international border to escape conflict, violence, and persecution. The agency has also identified a new class of climate refugees, or people who have crossed international borders to escape environmental conditions that make it difficult to sustain life. Unfortunately, many of these people face bias in their new host country due to nationality and race, religion, English proficiency, and assumptions about their ability to contribute to their community.

The urgent need to flee one country and the length of time it takes to obtain asylum protections and eventually be resettled in another can create significant work history gaps, which also feed into hiring biases. Employers need to evaluate their hiring practices and company culture to ensure they’re giving all candidates and workers the fairest possible chances to succeed. This involves creating a blind application process to remove certain identifying details that might allow for bias and instead highlight a candidate’s core skills and qualifications. In-house diversity efforts, including mentoring entry-level and international workers, can help both foreign-born and native employees develop stronger cultural understandings and make it easier for refugee workers to thrive and advance.

Lack of social networks

Research from The Adler Group indicates that 85% of jobs are filled through existing networks. Moreover, up to 75% of candidates are considered passive rather than active, meaning they’re made aware of openings rather than seeking them out. This speaks to the value of personal and professional connections—and highlights a significant disadvantage refugees encounter in the labor market.

Not only do refugees lack the opportunities to learn about job openings, but they also struggle to find references to support the applications they can pursue. This is true at all levels, from former coworkers and teachers who can vouch for a person’s knowledge and skills to friends and other community members who could provide basic character references. Refugees may have limited ways of reaching out to their previous contacts for support, and those individuals may not be able to help if they are also seeking asylum or resettlement.

Unfamiliarity with local rules and regulations

Refugees typically enter a country that borders theirs, but that isn’t always where they end up permanently. The U.S. resettlement process, which grants a refugee permanent resident status, can take up to 36 months. This means people have asylum-seeker protections in other countries for as long as three years, so they must navigate multiple sets of new social norms and labor laws in a relatively short time.

There are also some logistical hurdles to settling into a new country. While most nations permit asylees to open bank accounts, refugees often do not have the necessary documentation to do so. Their passports may have been lost or stolen in transit, or they may lack validation stamps from the host country’s immigration agency. In some countries, asylees are also required to have stable housing and a known address to be eligible for a bank account. These restrictions make it difficult to establish a life in a new country and can limit a person’s employment options if they can’t deposit funds.

In the U.S., refugees are required to pay income taxes on money earned both domestically and internationally, including investment income. Some earnings may also be taxable in other countries. However, workers may be eligible for the foreign tax credit under certain circumstances.

How distributed remote work can help

Distributed remote work facilitates global hiring, which means employers can meet potential workers where they are today and continue the employment relationship if they move somewhere else in the future. Being able to operate around the world lets you serve as an employer of record for a refugee and manage their payroll and benefits, even if they eventually settle elsewhere and never set foot in an office.

Additionally, the rise of virtual and mobile banking makes it easier for refugees to access funds and cash transfers. Refugees use mobile internet services at a higher rate than the general population and tend to purchase local SIM cards when they enter a new country, attaining viable methods to be paid by their employers.

About Oyster

Oyster is a global employment platform designed to enable visionary HR leaders to find, hire, pay, manage, develop, and take care of a thriving distributed workforce. Oyster lets growing companies give valued international team members the experience they deserve, without the usual headaches and expense.

Oyster enables hiring anywhere in the world—with reliable, compliant payroll, and great local benefits and perks.

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