Refugees study disproves misconceptions

Tuesday 15 October 2002

The positive contribution which refugees can make to society has been revealed by a team of University of St Andrews health population experts.

The pilot study, led by Professor Paul Boyle in the School of Geography and Geosciences in conjunction with Dr Karen Wren, disproved a number of common misconceptions about refugees and, in particular, revealed the problems they face in, and getting into, the workplace.

Funded by The National Institute of Working Life in Sweden, the study – ‘Migration and work- related health in Europe’ – looked at three countries, Britain, Sweden and Italy. A key finding to emerge was the potentially positive role refugees could play in European societies.

Professor Boyle said, “Many refugees are highly skilled and these skills could be put to good use with appropriate encouragement in the early stages of resettlement. This flies in the face of many common misconceptions of refugees as a financial burden to European societies. New immigration and asylum legislation currently being drafted in Britain does not pay enough attention to the demographic problems being experienced in Western Europe. An ageing population means that in future decades, the economically active population could be too small to support current levels of social welfare. Europe already has a highly skilled pool of labour on its doorstep, in the form of refugees, a resource which could be utilised more effectively given the provision of appropriate support services. The refugee population has a relatively young age structure and could therefore potentially offset the worst effects of changing demographics.”

However, the study also found, through interviews with Bosnian refugees in all three countries, that refugees often suffer from deskilling, a process where people perform jobs well below their level of qualification and experience due to a range of barriers, some institutional, others due to personal factors. Important insights were gained into the processes involved in deskilling, how these differ between countries and the ways in which deskilling is linked to health. The effects of migrant deskilling can include unemployment, poverty and ill- health, but poor health on arrival can also contribute to the problem. Many refugees arrive in poor health, often as a result of their displacement, and factors such as trauma, bereavement and earlier incarceration can impede their efforts to integrate into their new societies and engage with employment and retraining.

It emerged that, despite a more co- ordinated refugee integration programme in Sweden, the deskilling problem was more severe there than in Britain and Italy. Bosnians in Sweden faced greater institutional barriers than those in Britain, specifically non- recognition of qualifications and labour market discrimination. In Italy, some of the Bosnians interviewed were of Roma origin, and they experienced severe discrimination in Italy, being denied access to basic services such as health care and housing.

The study also found that negative effects from displacement and trauma can be offset by support from social networks and by keeping busy. Their ability to fight back and resist problems was improved by rapid access to employment and retraining and it was seen as essential to avoid long periods of inactivity. UK Bosnians were found to have the most severe health problems on arrival, yet suffered less from deskilling as their qualifications were more likely to be recognised in Britain than those of the Bosnians in Sweden and they were therefore able to access retraining and employment more quickly. This was cited as a major advantage in overcoming post- traumatic stress, by having “something to take your mind off things¿. The study demonstrates the importance of integrating health care and socio-economic assistance for refugees in the early stages of their resettlement, to facilitate rapid movement into retraining and employment, and to harness the positive contribution skilled refugees can make to European societies.

There are plans to develop this research further and focus more specifically on the links between deskilling and health in a wider range of European countries, where a strong network of researchers has been developed during the course of the pilot study.


NOTE TO EDITORS – For further information/interviews, contact Dr Karen Wren – available on Wednesday 16 October 2002 on telephone 01334 463897 or email [email protected]. After Wednesday 16 October, available at Scottish Centre for Research on Social Justice, University of Aberdeen on telephone 01224 274108 or email [email protected].

Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information please contact: Claire Grainger on 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or email cg24@st- View University press releases on- line at Ref: refugees/standrews/chg/16oct2002

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