Refugees face a range of barriers, from language and digital literacy skills, to employment gaps and a lack of relevant work experience. Filling out application forms and attending interviews can be, very simply, impossible. Employers can also be reluctant to employ refugees with little experience working in the UK.
Tsehaye is supported by a scheme funded by Big Issue Invest, the investment arm of the Big Issue. It’s a pilot scheme to help adults recently granted refugee status to integrate with things like accommodation and employment. Called the Refugee Transitions Outcome Fund (RTOF), it takes the form of contracts awarded by the Home Office and backed by Big Issue Invest’s Outcomes Investment Fund, running in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands.
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As of November 2022, the UK has 231,000 refugees and a further 127,000 asylum seekers waiting for a decision on their status, according to the UNHCR. The number of refugees in the UK has sharply increased because of the war in Ukraine – presenting the challenge of integrating these people into society and allowing them to work.
Integration is a broad concept, says Nia Morgan, a project support officer in the Coventry City Council migration team, which is delivering RTOF in the city. It encompasses housing, language, community connections, health, and more.
“It’s everything you need to flourish, and thrive, and succeed in life,” says Morgan.
Before the RTOF programmes, there was no scheme specifically targeting newly recognised refugees, Morgan adds: “Without RTOF there’s a risk of homelessness and destitution.”
The goal of the RTOF in the West Midlands, which runs until the end of March 2024, is for refugees to become self-sufficient. In Coventry, where Tsehaye lives, he’s supported by Ashley Community Housing (ACH), an organisation in the city providing refugees with training, employment, and housing support.
After being granted refugee status in April 2022, Tsehaye has had to make use of the resilience on display throughout his journey across continents.
He studied English at school, and got a degree in geography. With the support of ACH, he has passed two English courses, and has applied for a job with Amazon
In the meantime, he’s receiving universal credit and using his English skills to work as a volunteer interpreter, helping to translate for other refugees. This is encouraged by the RTOF programme, as it helps refugees gain a record of work experience in the UK.
He is grateful for the UK government speaking out on abuses in Eritrea, where the government employs arbitrary detention and indefinite national service.
“That’s why I appreciate England,” says Tsehaye.
The government is “deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Eritrea” said British diplomat Rita French in a speech at the UN this week.
However, the government’s rhetoric around asylum seekers has been divisive. Home Secretary Suella Braverman has described those arriving on Britain’s shores seeking sanctuary as an “invasion”. Tsehaye doesn’t pay much attention to politicians, though.
“I’m not more interested in politics, I’m more interested in Bible,” he says, quoting teachings that say: “As you love yourself, should you love others”.
Once granted their status, refugees have 28 days before their cash allowance ends and they need to find somewhere to live. This cut-off is leaving refugees “on the brink of extreme poverty”, says the Red Cross, who are campaigning for the period to be extended to 58 days.
Part of the Life in the UK scheme, which is delivered by Coventry RTOF, helps those in asylum hotels waiting for their decision and status, and prepares them to bridge the gap. It involves running workshops in one of the city’s asylum hotels, covering topics including housing, welfare benefits, healthcare, what to expect when you receive status, and family reunions.
“Everyone wants them to move into work as fast as possible, but there’s little time to develop the skills they need,” says Morgan. “Our workers can support them while they’re also in accommodation, to develop skills in the place they live”.
The programme allows them to have realistic expectations of what life as a refugee will be like, but also to work towards long-term goals, rather than simply existing.
“Most of the people who come have a purpose in their life, they have goals, but they just couldn’t realise it in their own country because of the conditions there. So we really need to support them,” says Agnes Gaspar, a project manager for RTOF.
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Meanwhile, Tsehaye is waiting to see his wife and daughter again, who are currently in Uganda. He hasn’t seen them since he was married in 2018, but is in contact over video and text messaging.
“As a man, living alone is very very bad. It’s stressful,” he says.
Getting employment is key to the reunion, he says. His wife and daughter are waiting for a decision from the Home Office which will allow them to join. This reunion will also allow Tsehaye to figure out what his future looks like.
“It is very difficult to decide my future work,” he says. “When my family arrive, it is better to decide. But now, I don’t know”.