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Untapped skills: refugees and labour market in South Africa 0

South Africa is safe heaven for many fleeing war and state disruption from virtually the entire continent. Still, social and economic integration seems so far out of reach.  Refugees and asylum seekers face huge difficulties in accessing the South African labour market in spite of the potential positive contribution of the skills they bring  to the host economy.

In South Africa, there are some 43,500 recognized refugees, mainly from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Somalia.  The number rises exponentially if we include also those that seek asylum in the country: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and government statistics indicate that more than 207,200 individual asylum claims were registered in South Africa in 2008, making the country the largest single recipient of asylum-seekers in the world.  The majority come from Zimbabwe (122,600), Malawi (18,160), and Ethiopia (11,350), as well as from other African countries and from Bangladesh, China, India, and Pakistan.

The 1996 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa is one of the world’s most progressive constitutions and the country’s legal system of protection for asylum seekers and refugee guarantees more rights than most other systems. These rights are contained in the 1998 Refugees Act and include freedom of movement within the country, right to seek employment and earn a livelihood through wage employment, the right to study and access to certain social services such as free medical care, education and certain training opportunities.

Free to settle on the territory, refugees and asylum seekers are encouraged to attain self-sufficiency by seeking accommodation, social services, and employment within the existing markets and structures as soon as they apply for asylum.

Within this framework help from the state and humanitarian agencies is relatively small, and finding employment is crucial to attaining a sufficient degree of self-reliance.

Furthermore, getting refugees and asylum seekers into employment increases local integration as working facilitates social contacts and offers the opportunity to learn or improve language skills and to re-gain self-esteem.  Unfortunately, many factors constrain the effective ability of refugees and asylum seekers to work in South Africa.

A research analysing over 2,000 database entries containing information on the employment situation of the clients of the Scalabrini Centre, a NGO that assists refugees, asylum seekers as well as local South Africans in Cape Town, has been recently presented and shows interesting data on refugees and asylum seekers’ constraints to economic and social integration.

In particular, the data of the Employment Help Desk provide evidence that in spite of the many skills and qualifications that refugees and asylum seekers bring to the South African labour market, they find extremely difficult to find employment that matches their skills and qualification.

Over 36,7% individuals holding a certified qualification or several years of experience in a specific sector, most 94,9% get employment in a low skilled job when they first come to South Africa, while only 5,1% of the highly skilled individuals manage to obtain a high skilled position in their first job in the host country. The sectors of first employment are limited mostly to the housekeeping and childcare sector (27,2%), and the hospitality and tourism sector (19,8%). Among the highly skilled individual surprisingly there are artisans (7,3%), teachers (6,8%) and health care professionals (2,2%), figures whose skills are listed as being in shortage in South Africa.

Most asylum seekers and refugees accessing the Employment Help Desk were unemployed at the time of the registration (86,45%), an interesting data considering the proportion of high skilled individuals. The professional skills of high skilled refugees and asylum seekers could be transferred to the South African labour market, but the barriers to access causes most to re-shape and lower their work level in order to meet their basic needs.  These obstacles include proficiency in the language of the host country, financial resources to sustain systematic job hunting, immigration status, xenophobia and prejudice. So that of the 36,7% of high skilled professionals, only 19,0% applied for high skilled professions, while the remaining 81,0% preferred applying for low skilled positions and in most cases in a different sector.

Of 38 high skilled teachers for example, only 20 applied for a high skilled teaching position, and of 12 health care professionals only 2 applied for a high skilled position in the sector.  The rest preferred either to lower their professional position, or to apply to another sector, in particular to a limited cluster of sectors: hospitality and tourism (26,0%), housekeeping and childcare (24,4%) and sales, marketing and retail (10,1%): jobs with very few opportunities for progression and poor terms of employment.

The data presented and the information gathered from the field research show that valuable formal qualifications and skills are lying dormant in the South African economy.  Difficulties in accessing the labour market, especially for high skilled professionals, force them to apply for low-skill jobs, with a subsequent waste of skills.  Ensuring that asylum seekers and refugees fulfil their potential and enter employment appropriate to their skills benefits the individuals as well as the South African economy, facing mass skills shortages of qualified professionals in fundamental sectors such as education and health. However, the policy makers seem ignore the potential economic contribution of those non-nationals already in the country. The few attempts made to target their qualification and expertise risk to waste important skills, a choice that the country cannot stand.

By Chiara Guido – Afronline

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