Europe is currently experiencing a dramatic and unprecedented influx of refugees. By the end of 2015, the EU as a whole received over 1.2 million first-time asylum claims (IOM, 2015), and according to the UNHCR there are now well over a million refugee asylum seekers in the EU.
A small but significant sub-group are highly qualified professionals who, having been displaced, often find themselves in low-skilled, minimum-wage jobs for which they are over-qualified. Prior educational attainment varies by country of origin, but in the case of Syria, the largest single source of refugees, around 6% of these are university graduates, a large majority with prior professional experience before being forced to flee. This means that among this national group alone there are over 5,000 professionals who might be able to contribute key professional skills and experience to their host countries. Best current estimates are that among all national groups about 15,000 people fall into the category of highly-skilled refugee professionals.
Their skill sets and professional experience often count for little, as host countries in an alarming number of cases fail to utilise the potential of much sought-after qualified personnel. The integration of highly-skilled refugees into the labour market is crucial in order to avoid their long-term dependency and marginalization and to create a positive image in the eyes of the public.
Highly-skilled refugee professionals can make an invaluable contribution to host societies if given the chance to do so. They can be part of the solution to challenges such as demographic ageing or lack of specific skills. There are growing skills shortages throughout the EU: in the healthcare sector alone, the European Commission projects a shortage of around 3 million health professionals by 2020. In current debates around immigration, the issue of how to best optimise the employment potential of skilled refugees is strikingly under-investigated. We therefore have a poor understanding of the particular difficulties faced by this group, and what is required to ensure their successful transition into relevant professions – a transition that would benefit a large number of parties across Europe. It might also benefit countries of origin of refugees hugely, should they be able to return.
There has been very little research to date into highly-skilled refugees and their employability challenges. Our baseline data collection to inform the toolkit preparation suggested professional intercultural communicative competence (PICC) – a concept that is at the core of this toolkit – as a critical component of their employability. Our working definition of PICC is key intercultural communicative skills, knowledge, attitudes, behaviours, and critical cultural awareness related to the process of successfully entering the professional sphere after a period of forced displacement. A key challenge for universities, charities, NGOs and employment agencies is to help highly-skilled refugees acquire the communicative, interactional, and intercultural competence they need to re-enter the job market in their professional sphere in the new host country.
A number of initiatives are taking place across Europe to support the integration of refugees into their new countries. Such initiatives include the provision of face-to-face language support delivered by universities, vocational and training organisations, local and international NGOs and activist groups, as well as online resources for refugees and those who work with them. For example, the European Commission has extended its free Erasmus+ Online Linguistic Support (OLS) to the benefit of around 100.000 refugees over 3 years (available at https://erasmusplusols.eu/ols4refugees/). The Council of Europe has developed a toolkit in seven languages designed to assist organisations, and especially volunteers, providing language support for adult refugees (available at www.coe.int/lang-refugees). Free resources created internationally include a set of on-line resources created by the UNHCR for teachers working with refugees (available at http://www.unhcr.org/uk/teaching-about-refugees.html). However, highly-skilled refugees are a specific adult target group that is currently not well served by education providers. This is where the Critical Skills for Life and Work toolkit comes into play.
By offering a set of accessible and innovative resources, our aim is to improve and extend the offer of high-quality learning opportunities that are tailored to the needs of this specific target group. The toolkit marries the key skills, knowledge and competences identified by research into professional development with research on what constitutes intercultural and interactional communicative competence in language learners. The toolkit was co-constructed in collaborative development projects with and by learners, refugees, the language teachers who work with them, and researchers in partner countries. It is, therefore, firmly grounded in the needs of each of both learners (refugees) and teachers, and draws heavily on their experiences and ideas to show ways forward for others like them.