Why hiring Ukrainian refugees sets a precedent for a fairer future

UK employers have rushed to source Ukrainian talent displaced by war, keen to help them rebuild their lives, as well as access their skills in a tight labour market. Could this usher in a fairer future for all refugees, writes Mursal Hedayat?

On 24 February, we woke up to news that Russia had invaded Ukraine. Coming from Afghanistan and working in the refugee sector, I had often evoked the hypothetical spectre of a European refugee crisis to help those willing to listen to understand that catastrophe has no borders - that national crises can befall us all. It's impossible to imagine the horror of seeing ordinary people bombed in a nearby country.

But terrible moments often bring kindness to the surface. Groups across the Western world have rushed to provide Ukrainian refugees with necessities and the business community in particular has been very helpful.

Many companies have decided that the best strategy for helping refugees long-term is to hire them. Organisations across Europe are mobilising to help Ukrainians rebuild the careers they lost virtually overnight.

Dozens of job boards have sprung up to connect employers with refugee talent, notably from Adecco, the Manpower group and TalentPools.io. The relocation service Jobbatical now offers free consulting to firms relocating Ukrainian employees to Spain, Estonia, Portugal, the Netherlands, or Germany. More than 50 major international corporations including Amazon, Airbnb and Uber have united to form the TENT foundation, which pledges to support and hire displaced Ukrainians. A similar coalition of companies planning to hire Ukrainian refugees has formed in the UK with involvement from Marks & Spencer, Asos and Lush.

This should be wholeheartedly celebrated. Refugees can't rebuild their lives with charitable donations alone. For refugees forced to abandon their professions along with their possessions, finding work is often the first priority after finding safety.

But without a helping hand, this is a hard task for most refugees. Lacking networks, confidence and knowledge of what opportunities are out there, refugees have historically been marginalised in the labour market.

Opportunity for employers

As of January 2022 there were 130,000 refugees in the UK and a further 80,000 waiting on the outcome of asylum claims. However, until now, actively seeking to hire displaced people has been a wildly uncommon practice. Ethical considerations aside, this is a wasted opportunity in the middle of 'the Great Resignation'.

Estimates vary from study to study, but the level of higher education in the worlds' refugee population is generally placed between 12%-20%. In many cases, this is higher than the native population of their countries of refuge. The TENT foundation also found that 73% of the employers they surveyed reported higher retention rates for refugee hires compared to other employees. There's a wealth of refugee talent to tap into across a variety of industries.

In 2016, I founded Chatterbox, a company that hires refugees to deliver corporate language training. Using our technology, refugees can deliver online learning for professional language learners.

We are consistently blown away by the quality of untapped talent in the refugee community. At the moment, Chatterbox only hires refugees from professional backgrounds with degree-level qualifications. Yet against this bar, many of our language coaches are hopelessly overqualified.

On our platform, a Syrian software engineer coaches Arabic learners, a Venezuelan linguistics professor coaches Spanish learners, and a Congolese medical doctor coaches French learners. Infusing their diverse professional histories into their language instruction, they are able to make learning both more relevant and inspiring.

Differences in treatment

It's rewarding to see so many companies realise the vast human potential residing in the refugee community. But it's also a source of sadness for an Afghan refugee like me to see the contrast between how European refugees from Ukraine are treated, compared to those from other places.

Despite the UN convention mandating that we treat refugees equally wherever they are from, state-sanctioned discrimination is rife today. The British government has, thankfully, created a special visa programme for Ukrainian refugees to safely enter the country - as of the end of May at least 65,700 visas had been granted. There's also a programme for UK citizens to be paid to offer their spare bedrooms to house them - an inspired idea, with plenty of grassroots support.

But the same government refuses to open similar safe passages for refugees from 'other' countries and even threatened to deport the predominantly non-European asylum seekers to Rwanda, a country with a dismal human rights record. The first of these deportation flights was prevented by the European Court of Human Rights.

These policies show institutional racism at its most ugly. But the business community can choose to be fairer, and more practical. The techniques businesses are using today to source brilliant Ukrainian hires could usher in a fairer future for all refugees.

In recent months we have seen job adverts state that they are open to hiring Ukrainian refugees and will sponsor visas. Is there a reason why these programmes shouldn't be opened up to the many talented refugees from other backgrounds? If HR and recruitment departments can take extenuating circumstances into account when considering Ukrainian candidates, then they can - and should - do the same for refugees of any nationality or race.

I'm hopeful that the corporate sector can make a tangible impact. By employing refugees from countries like Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria, we also send a signal as to the values we should hold as a society.

This current wave of hiring-as-social-impact is a golden opportunity for us to set a standard we can be proud of.