03/04/2014 06:14 BST | Updated 02/06/2014 06:59 BST

We Must Take Full Advantage of Refugees' Skills

Refugees come to the UK in fear of their lives, having fled the horrors of violent conflict, persecution, rape or other forms of torture or harm. They are met by a complex, insensitive and fiercely adversarial asylum system that all too often lets them down and, by association, lets us and the liberties we cherish, down too.

Of course, refugees should not be mistaken for economic migrants; they come to the UK for one reason - to find safety. But once they are safe, they also expect to be able to contribute to their new society. They do not expect to live off the state while they wait for a decision on their asylum claim. If they are able, they want to work and be able to support themselves.

Asylum seekers are rarely permitted to work. This consigns highly qualified professionals; doctors, engineers and teachers to a life of enforced dependency; missing out on the chance to gain relevant work experience. Instead, they find their skills stagnating while they await a decision on their claim.

And people's problems don't end when they are officially granted refugee status, as recently highlighted by the Guardian. When someone becomes a refugee, they have full rights and entitlements, but many refugee professionals struggle to secure suitable and appropriate employment.

They encounter numerous barriers, including employers' failure to understand that refugees are entitled to work, limited recognition of skills and experience gained in their country of origin, experiences of protracted periods without work while their asylum claims are determined and, critically, delays in receiving the necessary documentation when refugee status is granted.

At the Refugee Council, we currently run a project designed to help refugee healthcare professionals re-qualify, but our clients face many hurdles. As well as having to pass expensive English and clinical examinations, refugee doctors must provide evidence of their previous employment. Often, this must be obtained from the equivalent of the General Medical Council (GMC) in their home countries. For those fleeing oppressive regimes, this is anything but straightforward.

Of course, these issues aren't just the problem of refugee health professionals. Employers across the board are liable to be confused not just about refugees' qualifications, but also about their eligibility to work. Refugees can carry an array of documentation which may be unfamiliar to employers and suspicion may lead to employers to be over-cautious and overlook qualified candidates from a refugee background.

Employers need to be aware of refugees' entitlement to work and the types of documentation they carry. We would like to see the Home Office issue and promote clearer guidance on the different types of documentation likely to be carried by refugees.

Employers must also be given confidence that they are not breaking any rules by employing refugees. This could be easily achieved, through the provision of an accessible, responsive hotline for employers to call to check an individual's eligibility to work.

Many refugees also arrive without fluency in English. Pressure on ESOL provision can make it difficult for people to improve their English, which impacts significantly on the type of work refugees can access.

Applying for jobs in the UK can be a bewildering process for those not used to our employment market. We would like Jobcentre Plus to work with refugee agencies in order to provide tailored support programmes that are sensitive to people's backgrounds and experiences, and unfamiliarity with employment in the UK.

The UK must take advantage of these refugees' skills and their willingness and ability to work. Not only will we be helping them to rebuild their lives and support themselves, but we'll also be helping ourselves by enabling them to make a valuable contribution to the well-being of the country that gave them a future.