If you want a career that involves helping the vulnerable and making a lasting impact on people's lives, a career working with refugees might be for you. Our guide to graduate jobs working with refugees and asylum seekers explores what's involved and the strengths and skills you'll need.
What skills and strengths do you need to be a refugee worker?
Do you have what it takes to succeed in a career in this area, and would you enjoy it?
Resilience and mental strength are vital, and you'll also need to be dedicated to helping people in need. You'll be helping people, often unaccompanied children, who are fleeing unimaginable violence and took great risks to escape their homeland.
Knowledge of another language is useful, and in some cases essential. Both the British Red Cross and UNHCR seek candidates who can speak at least one of the following official UN languages: Arabic, Russian, French and Spanish.
Willingness to work in challenging environments. The opportunity to travel is an appealing aspect of the job, but a trip to France won't involve visiting the Eiffel Tower and eating macaroons – rather, you might be stationed at Calais refugee camp, helping with the distribution of resources and aiding asylum seekers with their applications for refugee status.
Sensitivity to different cultures. You'll need to be capable of thriving in multi-cultural environments.
Calm approach to difficult situations. You'll need to be an approachable, comforting person who can communicate effectively and who has strong negotiation skills.
Providing support to refugees
The primary responsibility of a refugee worker is to help refugees secure proper accommodation, healthcare, education and employment. This involves a lot of paperwork, as you liaise with local authorities and complete the relevant documents on behalf of the refugee so they can finally begin their new life.
A refugee worker supports asylum seekers through every stage in the process of claiming asylum so they can stay in the UK as refugees. For example, refugee workers attend tribunals, go to appointments and regularly check up on asylum seekers and refugees to make sure they are adapting well.
When asylum seekers are officially recognised as refugees, they may lose their entitlement to some forms of support, including accommodation. The role of a refugee worker is to provide support through this transition and to help refugees find suitable housing and begin earning a stable income.
Refugee status can be difficult to obtain and lawyers may be employed to present the case in court to seek to have an asylum seeker recognised as a refugee. As a refugee worker, you will be expected to liaise with lawyers and be informed about relevant legislation and the legal process.
What else does working with refugees involve?
Legal knowledge and understanding of policy
As there are a lot of legal processes involved, refugee workers need to be well-informed about migration laws, human rights and government policy. They need to keep up to date with current legislation and ensure that they are complying with the appropriate national and international procedures, policies and regulatory codes.
Your role could involve fundraising, whether by securing grants from the government or seeking donations from members of the public. You might do this by lobbying the government, designing impactful advertising campaigns or posting leaflets through people's doors.
You might be expected to be ready to travel to wherever you are needed at any time. For example, Save the Children UK notes that workers should be prepared to travel overseas at any moment.
Giving out supplies and liaising with other professionals
When based at a refugee camp, your job is likely to involve handing out food, water and medicine, and arranging interpreters for those who need help communicating. Refugee workers must also co-operate with staff already at the scene, as well as police officers and immigration officials. Strong negotiation and communication skills are therefore fundamental.
Qualifications and work experience
What qualifications do I need?
UNHCR requires an undergraduate degree from a UNESCO accredited institution.
Other charities say relevant work experience is more important than your degree background, though a degree in languages, medicine, law, politics or social sciences may be especially useful when applying for opportunities as you will often have to have very specific, specialist knowledge when dealing with certain issues.
Getting work experience
Employers in this area look for candidates who have emergency and development work experience.
Here are some of the ways you can get the work experience you need while you're at university:
- Volunteering with the local community. For example, you could volunteer to teach English to refugees at a local school.
- Fundraising. For example, you could organise a pot-luck where everyone brings in a traditional dish from their home country and pass on donations to a refugee charity of your choice.
- Campaigning. You could join a campaigning group such as Amnesty International and support its work on policies to do with the treatment and reception of refugees.
- Internships offer great opportunities to gain first-hand experience. UNHCR offers international internships for final year students and recent graduates, while Amnesty International holds four- to six-month internships at their International Secretariat Offices in London, Geneva and New York.
When applying for jobs in this area, the most important thing is to demonstrate your enthusiasm and dedication. The work can be tough, and true passion and belief in the work keeps you motivated even on the most difficult of cases.
According to figures published by the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), 70.8 million people were forced to flee their homes in 2018 as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. There's an ongoing need worldwide for workers to help refugees settle into their new homes, find work and continue their lives as normal.
- Refugee Council
- Save the Children
- British Red Cross
- Help Refugees
- Refugee Action
- The Children's Society
- Action Aid
There may also be some roles available with local authorities.