One in every 113 people on the planet is now a refugee. Around the world, someone is displaced every three seconds, forced from their homes by violence, war and persecution.
By the end of 2016, the number of displaced people had risen to 65.6 million – more than the population of the United Kingdom. The number is an increase of 300,000 on the year before, and the largest number ever recorded, according to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.
How many refugees are there in the UK?
According to UNHCR statistics at the end of 2016 there were 118,995 refugees, 46,784 pending asylum cases and 64 stateless persons in the UK.
The vast majority of refugees stay in their region of displacement, and consequently are hosted by developing countries. About 86% of the world’s refugees are living in developing countries, often in camps. Turkey is the biggest refugee hosting country in the world. It is currently giving sanctuary to 2.5 million Syrian refugees, while Jordan and Lebanon host 1.7 million between them.
By the end of 2016 the UK had resettled 5,706 Syrian refugees.
The UK hosts less than 1% of the world’s refugees. Yet an opinion poll in 2002 showed that the public thought the figure to be around 26%. Reporting and commentary about asylum seekers and refugees is often hostile, unbalanced and factually incorrect. Hostile and misleading media coverage fosters and re-enforces public antagonism towards refugees and asylum seekers. When interviewed about the negative climate for them in Britain, asylum seekers and refugees said they felt that public misconceptions, rather than lack of sympathy, were the main barrier to a better perception of refugees. A Sudanese woman said, “The word refugee is a label. As soon as you say the word, you put a bad picture in someone’s mind. There is confusion about who is genuine and who isn’t. People think you come here just to claim benefits but they don’t see we had better lives at home. We had jobs, status, qualifications which aren’t recognised here.”
The reality: An economic and social asset under-utilised in Britain
Although it is important to guard against an impression that only successful refugees deserve our support, there is no doubt that the skills and experience that many refugees have provided have enriched our culture. According to CARA – Council for Assisting Refugee Academics:
18 refugees have become Nobel Laureates,
16 refugees have received knighthoods,
71 Fellows or Foreign Members of the Royal Society were refugees,
50 Fellows or Corresponding Fellows of the British Academy were refugees.
Many asylum seekers and refugees are well-educated and highly qualified, and almost all have some level of education (Department of Work and Pensions, 2003). A survey in 2001 of more than 200 refugees in the UK found that over half had completed a first degree or higher when they arrived in the UK.5 This statistic increased to two thirds when subsequent study in the UK was taken into account. Almost half of the refugees spoke advanced English and half spoke and wrote in two or more languages. Barriers to employment and gaining recognition of qualifications and limited work experience in the UK are major barriers to integration of refugees.
A Home Office study shows that people born outside the UK (including refugees and asylum seekers) are significant contributors to the economy. It is estimated that they pay 10 per cent more into the treasury coffers than they take out.
More than 1,000 medically qualified refugees are recorded on the British Medical Association’s database, but as few as 69 are employed in the health service. It costs £2,500 to allow a refugee doctor to practice in the UK. It costs £250,000 to train a doctor from scratch. Many refugees have academic or teaching qualifications. 754 refugee teachers are registered with London-based agencies alone (Refugee Teachers Task Force, September 2004).
When refugees leave their former homelands, their countries often lose a dynamic section of the workforce. As an Ethiopian refugee said, “The refugees of today are the Prime Ministers of tomorrow. Measures could be take to train these people to take their ideas back to their country to encourage foreign investment.” It is often difficult and costly for refugees to have their qualifications recognised in the UK, or to afford the costs of finishing their interrupted education here. While the UK has shortages in many professions, including doctors, nurses and teachers, there are qualified and experienced refugee professionals who cannot practice their professions because of the expense and bureaucracy involved.
As a human rights expert said, “The lesson of history is that immigrants and refugees can bring significant benefits, economic and cultural. While public debate on this issue is yet again dominated by proposed legislation to impose even tighter restrictions, it is a lesson that appears to have been lost.”
In addition to understanding why refugees need to be offered sanctuary, we need to recognise their contributions. Instead of asking what they take from Britain, our homes, our jobs, our benefits, we need to ask what they have given us back and added to our country. The list of the famous is only one side of the picture. All those fleeing in fear for their lives should be given the opportunity to reclaim a future. Giving them support and opportunities will enable the refugees of tomorrow to enrich our society as the refugees of yesterday have done before them.