In sickness and in health: we must do more to allow refugees to work

By Gideon Maltz and Maia Bix
as published in OECD Forum on June 20, 2020

When Karina fled violence in Mexico and sought asylum in the United States, she didn’t arrive empty handed. She had a Master’s degree in psychology and seven years’ experience working with survivors of human trafficking at a counseling center in Mexico – deep professional expertise that could have been put to valuable use at one of the many organisations in the United States that provide help victims of trafficking. Instead, her career has been put on indefinite hold and she works a lower-skill job full time to make ends meet – because the process of re-credentialing, or obtaining equivalent professional credentials has proven to be impossibly difficult and expensive for Karina.

Over the past few months, there have been countless stories of refugee medical workers around the world who have been eager to give back to the communities that welcomed them but cannot practice. Across most OECD countries, refugee doctors looking to re-credential face years-long wait times (that still sometimes result in non-recognition of their credentials), expensive national examinations for licensure, and years of residency training. And, if their original undergraduate and postgraduate degrees are not recognized in their new home country, they might need to spend years regaining these certifications. This is a process that is prohibitive for all but a few refugees, and consequently, refugees with medical backgrounds tend to end up in drastically lower-skilled jobs upon resettling.

In response to COVID-19, a number of governments – among them the United KingdomFranceGermanySpainChile, and several state governments in the United States – have temporarily relaxed restrictions on foreign medical professionals, including refugees, so that they can serve in overwhelmed hospitals. These measures have been a boon to the affected individuals and even more so to the communities they are now able to serve, but they also serve to highlight the broader, systemic challenges that so many refugees face upon resettling in a new country.

It’s not just refugee doctors and nurses that face significant barriers to working in their countries of asylum. It’s engineers, teachers, and social workers like Karina. It’s plumbers, beauticians, and even tree-trimmers. Vast swathes of the job market in many OECD countries are subject to occupational licensing rules that require extensive certification. To take one example, qualifying as an electrician in the UK takes thousands of dollars, strong English-language skills, two to four years of combined studying at a college or training center, and on-the-job training.

The challenge is that these occupational licensing regimes typically make very little accommodation for refugees, who may have significant relevant professional expertise in their countries of origin. In the United States, for example, there is no unified national standard for re-credentialing in any profession or trade, and it is typically left to professional licensing boards in each state to assess foreign qualifications. Within and across most European countries, re-credentialing processes are similarly inconsistent and suffer from insufficient coordination. Language barriers, relevant authorities’ lack of familiarity with refugees’ home countries, and even prejudice may also play a role in keeping refugees out of regulated professions. Finally, many refugees may have practiced trades without formal qualifications in their country of origin, and there is a dearth of consistent processes for validating their skills across OECD countries.

Far too often, the result of all of these factors is that refugees’ credentials are not recognized, no matter how capable or experienced they are. This forces refugees to choose between going through an expensive and onerous qualification process all over again – or, far more frequently, take a job below that for which they are qualified (OECD research shows that, as a result, approximately 60% of refugees with tertiary education in the E.U. are working jobs that they are overqualified for).

It’s in our best interest to ensure refugees are economically integrated and to harness the talent and expertise that they bring. Even when we are not in the throes of a pandemic, we are better off when refugee doctors – and social workers, and electricians – can work in their professional fields. Governments should take a hard look at their re-credentialing processes and lower unnecessary barriers that prevent refugees from practicing their professions. The European Qualifications Passport for Refugees (EQPR) programme, a scheme to assess refugees’ academic credentials and professional qualifications, is an important step in the right direction, but is limited in its scope and scale. More can, and must, be done – because, in times of crisis and of calm, we know that societies and economies are stronger when refugees can work.

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