I am sitting in the office of a refugee support and advocacy organisation in north-England to interview a refugee about her experience. The focus of our conversation is not on why Faith fled her country or how the charity helped her integrate in the UK. Instead, we talk about how she started working as a caseworker for one of the main refugee third sector organisations. When Faith walks into the office, people might think she is a client waiting for an appointment. They might initially be surprised when she sits down on the other side of the desk as they fail to recognise her as the professional worker that she is.
Stories about refugees and employment tend to highlight the significant obstacles in accessing the labour market (Kone et al. 2019). Lack of recognition of qualifications and home country work experience, short-term interventions by job agencies and language barriers all contribute to unemployment and deskilling. Many professionals end up in manual jobs in factories, catering or care. Refugees are overrepresented in so-called ‘3D jobs’; those that are Dirty, Dangerous and Degrading. Or they find work in 'ethnic niches', segments of the labour market with an overrepresentation of certain ethnic groups, such as the taxi industry or Ethiopian and Afghan restaurants.
In my Identities article, ‘A window of opportunity? Refugee staff’s employment in migrant support and advocacy organizations’, I present the findings of my research into a very distinct employment 'niche' for refugees: the niche constituted by organisations that have asylum seekers and refugees as their client group. Based on interviews with refugee staff in the UK, the Netherlands and Austria, I argue that the concept of 'ethnic niche' fails to capture the particularities of the employment opportunities offered by the refugee third sector.
For example, staff composition and recruitment is not dominated by one ethnic group. Some of my – mostly highly educated – research participants became voluntary interpreters first when their language skills were recognised by the caseworkers that they met as clients. Others, like Faith, had a history in charity work in their home countries and actively sought out this employment opportunity.
As she explained in our conversation:
'When we got our refugee status, we were helped by a caseworker at Refugee Council. She was from Nigeria and had an MA in Development Studies like me. When I saw her doing that job, I asked her how she got there. Because you know, when you move here, all you're told is that your qualifications don't count and that you need to be doing care work. It really affected me to think that my professional experience with a humanitarian organisation and my degree would go to waste. Honestly when I got home that day, I went straight to the websites of Refugee Council and Refugee Action. And every single day I checked out their vacancies.'
Unlike most 'ethnic niches', the role is coveted because case work is recognised as a skilled job.
However, as the interviews revealed, the window of opportunity that employment in refugee third sector organisations offers also comes with traps. Refugee staff like Faith worried that while their employers valued the intercultural competences and experiential knowledge that refugee case workers can draw on in the contact with the clients, they viewed them as “less professional” when boundaries between them and their clients were blurred because of shared ethnic background or asylum histories. They were frustrated with being mistaken for interpreters or felt the burden of having to interpret on top of their regular case load.
Finally, while refugee case workers have managed to move from being clients to being case workers, they often get stuck in frontline positions and rarely get promoted to managerial roles. These traps need to be recognised and addressed, so that one day Faith can walk into the office and head straight for the director’s room. With no one lifting an eyebrow.
Kone, Z., I. Ruiz & C. Vargas-Silva. 2019. Refugees and the UK labour market. Oxford, UK: COMPAS, University of Oxford. Available at https://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/ECONREF-Refugees-and-the-UK-Labour-Market-report.pdf.
Blog post by Sara de Jong, University of York, UK
Read the full article: de Jong, Sara. A window of opportunity? Refugee staff’s employment in migrant support and advocacy organizations. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1533192