Over 120,000 refugees living in the UK have the legal right to work here. They want to work here. But with so many barriers to employment, 64 per cent of them are unemployed. London charity Breaking Barriers is on a mission to change this.
Their vision is simple: that every refugee in London can integrate into their new home through employment that matches their skills, experience and desire to work.
Matthew Powell founded the company in 2014, while studying a Master’s degree in International Development at the London School of Economics. Powell was shocked by how little support was available to help refugees integrate into society once they were granted asylum status.
"It is an issue we cannot ignore - it makes sense for everyone to successfully integrate refugees. Despite a strong desire to work, refugees are often long-term welfare dependent because of the particular barriers to employment they face," explains Powell. "From a fiscal perspective, it makes sense to get them off welfare and into work. They have a hell of a lot of skills, an eagerness to contribute, and can fill many skills shortages."
Building new opportunities
With many language and skill barriers, Powell was convinced that businesses have a crucial role to play. A role that goes beyond philanthropy.
Powell started persuading some prominent London employers to offer work experience. At the same time, he reached out to refugee communities and discovered a demand also for training and English language tuition.
Today, Breaking Barriers offers intensive support, based on their clients’ individual needs, skills, qualifications, experience and goals. They map out a journey, defining milestones along the way to work out the best type and style support.
And there’s a lot of support on offer - practical advice on preparing CVs, attending interviews and UK workplace culture, free English lessons and IT training. They also offer paid work placements with businesses and employability support specifically for 18-24 year old refugees in London.
It’s a holistic approach run by a core team, alongside dedicated volunteers and businesses - all designed to build transferable skills, boost confidence and improve their chances of finding meaningful employment.
Mohib works as a Team Administrator for Wholegrain Digital. A role he could never have fulfilled without Breaking Barriers.
"I was part of the Mayer Brown workshops and the experience this gave me is credit to where I am today. It gave me an insight into how an organisation works, what they are looking for in applicants and how to stand out," notes Mohib. "This experience really gave me confidence and was very unique. I haven’t come across another organisation that offers that service to refugees."
A retainable workforce
Breaking Barriers attributes their success to the corporate partners they are working with. So far, they have developed alternative recruitment routes specifically for refugees with many businesses, be it placements, apprenticeships or permanent job opportunities.
The likes of IKEA, Unilever, Thomson Reuters and Mayer Brown are recognising the valuable contribution refugees can make and the benefits of employing and investing in them.
For example, a study by the Tent Foundation - a private sector company that supports and empowers refugees - revealed that refugees tend to stay with their employers longer and can also help recruit other dedicated refugee employees. This is consistent across industry sectors and countries.
A future where refugees and businesses can thrive
Breaking Barriers see a future where refugees don’t just survive, they thrive. And with many commercial enterprises wanting to make a positive social contribution, employing refugees can have many businesses benefits too.
Rachel Harrington, one of the company’s trustees, says: "I believe that Breaking Barriers’ model provides a fantastic opportunity to make a tangible difference in an area that has been much neglected. We inhabit a world that is much smaller than we think, and I’m passionate about the way the organisation’s approach builds genuine and sustainable connections between refugees, businesses and communities."
Breaking Barriers is starting to change the landscape for refugees in London. And with a growing demand for their services, there’s hope that their model can inspire other businesses around the world to follow suit.