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Ideas for a fairer world

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Address by Ram Gidoomal

By Ram Gidoomal.

Given at the Foreign Policy Centre Managing Migration Conference on Tuesday 15th January, Canada House

I came to Britain as a refugee: my family were part of the large influx of South Asians expelled from East Africa in the 1960s. The government of the day had little time to manage our migration. We were received into temporary camps and then found housing mainly in areas where there was already a large Asian population. My family settled in Shepherds Bush, where we bought a newsagents shop and became, like so many other South Asian immigrants, successful retailing entrepreneurs.

Issues of Integration

Even as long ago as the 1960s there were aspects of our situation that are common to refugees and immigrants today. For example,

-We were in a situation where our skills and training were not utilised. My family had owned extensive business interests and property in East Africa. We were allowed to take only £2,000 to Britain with us, and in Britain, rather than finding an opening at the level he had left, my father had to start again at the beginning.

-Progress towards integration was hampered by factors such as unfamiliarity with how Great Britain plc actually functions, and basic literacy: my mother did not know how to write a cheque, and there were no South Asian language-speakers in our local banks.

-There were no effective systems in place for identifying skills and placing immigrants into roles where those skills could be utilised.

Of course our situation was largely due to the fact that the government priority, for such a large influx as ours, had to be the basic needs of food and housing. Occupational skills analysis came a long way down the list! But today, with immigration much reduced and refugee entry to the UK limited, managing migration is rightfully becoming a government priority, for the reasons we have already heard. How can we turn the refugee/immigration issue into an asset, rather than a problem? How do we create pro-active, constructive agendas, instead of aiming to stabilise the status quo and deal with arrivals on an ad hoc basis?

These are issues much in the mind of government in 2002, and indeed this is the mission of The Employability Forum, of which I am very pleased to be a Trustee. The Employability Forum assists newcomers to the United Kingdom - newcomers, typically displaced by conflict or natural disaster in their own countries - to prepare for and obtain employment.

Most important in this, especially in view of Lord Cairns's comments on today's competitive skills market, is the identification of the skills resource that immigrants and refugees represented. It is estimated that by 2003, Britain will be short by 620,000 IT professionals – a field in which the South Asians, Chinese and Nigerians have strong skills.

The contribution of the UK ethnic communities to the NHS is well known – just under half of applicants for training in dentistry in 1994-97 were from the ethnic communities – but an increasing number are looking abroad for work. And the recent report from the Liverpool John Moores University predicting the failure of the ubiquitous Asian corner shop makes gloomy reading when you consider that around three-quarters of all independent retail outlets are owned by members of the ethnic communities. Whatever the future of this sector, the Government cannot and must not be uninvolved.

All too often the skills of immigrants and refugees are quickly buried on arrival in the UK – and all too often fail to re-appear. Why? Well, imagine the following. You arrive in the UK as a South Asian unable to speak very much English. Your priority will be to find a community that speaks your language. You will look for work in a workplace where English is not essential. You will probably end up in an Indian restaurant. The fact that you might be a qualified chartered accountant or academic in your home country will not enter into the practicalities of the situation.

I could give you many examples of this.

Here's one: in the Sri Krishna Restaurant in Tooting (a strongly South-Asian area) I was served my Masala Dosa by a young man who recognised me from my campaign in the London Mayoral Election and asked my advice. He was studying at night for a postgraduate MBA and he possessed IT skills. He was a classic example of the entrapped migrant, caught in a linguistic trap, a financial trap and – when it came to job hunting – a visibility trap. How many employers do their IT hiring from restaurants?

And that is a key issue. In Geneva, an Ethiopian refugee arrived one day at our church. He was a qualified Electrical Engineer, looking for appropriate work. I mentioned him to the personnel director of the company for whom I worked and he was just not interested in pursuing this lead. Having met Fetuyi and talked with him at length I took up his case. He was eventually appointed to a position in one of our supplier companies – a company where he has proved invaluable and is still a senior member of the staff there. But the point is that it needed somebody from the corporate world to look at somebody like that and see not a problem but an asset.

Another key issue is language improvement.

One aspect of LANGUAGE IMPROVEMENT is that it's easier with the higher skills: somebody who has mastered HTML programming skills can usually improve his or her fluency in English relatively easily. But the Government – admirably – intends to identify all skills, and a skilled carpenter may require more sustained teaching to develop good language skills. However, in either case, language skills are not an optional extra. In the professions and in business, a grasp of English is not only desirable; it is essential if work is to be done well. I like the example of Hampshire Constabulary's Positive Action Team, who separate skills from language ability, and will arrange for an applicant who they recognise as an able potential recruit to have language teaching for a period, after which they resume the application process.

Of course we don't want immigrants and refugees to forget their own languages, and not only for reasons of cultural heritage: in today's global business world, the huge variety of languages spoken in the UK (an estimated 275 in London alone) is a very valuable (and often ignored) business asset indeed. But with an estimated 1.5 million UK residents unable to speak English to a standard adequate for everyday mainstream work, language skills are a priority.

I suggest that several things need to happen if we are to achieve the mission of The Employability Forum – successful integration of refugees.

Here's a start.

-We need to create much improved procedures for identifying skills, right to work, and illegal workers. The difference between Exceptional Leave to Remain and Indefinite Leave to Remain needs to be clarified for employers. I was recently approached, for example, on behalf of a young Turkish immigrant who was a qualified graphic designer and whose language skills were acceptable – but his work permit application was proceeding so slowly that he had no continuity in his work and valuable integration time into the British system was being lost.

-We need to improve tracking systems so that our understanding of the overall picture and also of the impact of migrant programs on the economy can be properly assessed. We cannot make a case to the corporate world that integration of migrants should be actively welcomed, if we cannot demonstrate a business benefit accruing from it. The example of the Australians and the Canadians is impressive here: I have been particularly impressed, for example, by the way that the Canadians have constructed a new vocabulary of immigration so that new patterns of thought are easier to develop along with a new terminology.

-We need to constantly review the infrastructure of business support agencies, from Business Link through Chambers of Commerce to entrepreneurial advisory agencies like The Prince's Trust and many more. There are still many, many members of the ethnic minority business communities who are unfamiliar with basic mainstream concepts such as P & L, tendering and British conventions of contract.

-We need also to grasp the sometimes controversial nettle of standards in literacy. Refugee professionals will require high-level English. The medical profession recognises this and has clearly set a standard – the IELTS test. Other professions, for example teaching and nursing, should follow this example. Job-seekers whose first language is not English must accept the need for these objective standards: too many people submit CVs describing themselves as 'fluent' when their English is not up to scratch. Employers and professional bodies can help here by making it clear what is expected.

-If the Home Secretary wants the English language to be a centrepiece of his integration strategy, he will need to persuade his colleagues that the current system for teaching English is inadequate. Part of the problem is lack of awareness. I am sure that if I asked this audience how many of you know about TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), a good number of hands would be raised. I doubt whether very many would go up, however, if I asked how many of you have heard of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages). Yet there are over 6,000 ESOL teachers in the UK. I hope that the White Paper will be a wake-up call for the ESOL Cinderella

But – and here I end – the most important issue is bigger than any of those. For we must continue to strive for the fair, multi-cultural, multi-skilled Britain that so many have spoken of and worked for. There is no point in attracting and identifying Filipino nurses to be the backbone of the NHS wards, or South Asian IT technicians to feed our skills shortage, if once they are working in Britain they find a culture of glass ceilings, intolerance and ethnic prejudice.

As a refugee myself I am immensely grateful for all I have received from Britain and I am enthusiastic about the current initiatives – fast-tracking and so on – that the Government has introduced. I look forward with great interest to the forthcoming White Paper, too. But we must take care not to miss sight of the wood for the trees. We must build bridges – but we must also tear down walls.