Research shows that the digital skills of refugees are underestimated and undervalued - to the detriment of the tech sector and wider economy
Today is World Refugee Day. The number of people across the world who have been forcibly displaced from their homes due to war, human rights violations, the impact of climate change or natural disasters continues to grow. The UN estimates that more than 100 million individuals globally had been forcibly displaced by the end of 2022.
Contrary to much culture war fuelled discourse, the vast majority of refugees live in a country bordering the one they were forced to flee. Only 1% of global refugees end up in the UK, and according to humanitarian tech organisation Techfugees, the UK is failing to recognise and increase their contribution to UK tech. This matters because unless we recognise what refugees can contribute to science and technology, we are destined to miss out on an opportunity to reduce the digital skills gap and strengthen the sector by enhancing its diversity.
A 4000-person study released recently by Techfugees finds that very few people associate refugees with science or technology roles. In fact, 22% of those polled associate refugees with manual labour, 15% with cleaning and maintenance and 12% with agriculture. Despite the physical demands of this sort of work, less than 10% of respondents said they would describe refugees or asylum seekers as ‘hard working' and only 6% would describe them as ‘qualified' or ‘skilled'.
Only 2% of British born people associate refugees with science or technology jobs, and only 1.8% think of them as working in coding.
These findings are unsurprising given the way that refugees are portrayed by many print and broadcast media outlets in the UK. Refugees are portrayed as drain on our stretched infrastructure that we can collectively ill afford. This portrayal is at odds with demonstrable fact.
Studies by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) have consistently found that people with immigrant backgrounds, including refugees, are significantly more likely to be entrepreneurial in the start-up sector than lifelong UK residents.
Digital inclusion is vital for successful resettlement and integration into the UK - a point worth remembering when hearing a certain branch of the commentariat caricaturing complaints from refugees in detention centres and hotels about poor connectivity.
Mike Butcher, CEO of Techfugees, says: "In a time when the UK is desperate for talent and key workers, leaving this human potential in limbo and stuck in detention centres is both a human and an economic tragedy for the UK.
"The time it takes to train somebody in basic technology skills has increased rapidly over the past few years. But you'd be astonished how fast it can be to upskill or reskill someone coming to the UK who is deeply motivated to succeed."
Refugees don't take jobs, they make jobs
It's difficult to overstate just how short the UK is of the skills necessary to fulfil its promise as a global tech leader. The current Prime Minister rarely misses an opportunity to talk about AI, and his wider ambition for the UK to be central to global innovation. He also broke up the department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and created the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. But a huge barrier stands in the way of Rishi Sunak's global tech ambitions, and that is that the UK simply doesn't have anywhere near the strength or size of STEM workforce required.
Tackling this shortage from the base by focusing on schools is no bad thing, but it's going to take at least a decade to start seeing a significant increase in the number of STEM ready school leavers, and that's based on the assumption that there are sufficient teachers of these subjects - and right now there aren't. The state is struggling to hang on to the science and mathematics teachers that it has already trained, let alone increase numbers.
The only way of bridging the tech skills gap that exists now and grabbing the UKs time limited chance to become a global hub for innovation is via migration policy, and part of that policy involves how we treat those seeking refuge in the UK.
Mike Butcher continues:
"A common talking point against refugees is that they're coming here to take our jobs. But actually, the overwhelming evidence shows that refugees with tech skills are both contributing to the economy at a high level at a time when Britain is desperate for talent, but are also far more likely to create jobs by becoming entrepreneurs. They don't take jobs, they make jobs."