• The economic benefits of refugee resettlement in countries that have allowed refugees to work, unrestricted, include increases in both median income and GDP.
  • By developing the skills of refugee populations and providing access to opportunities that take advantage of those skills, societies will see even greater social and economic benefits.
  • To maximize the benefits refugees can bring to their communities, professional development programmes need to recognize and foster refugee talent, harness skills and account for the lived realities of refugee communities.
  • A person-centred approach that considers an individual's skills, characteristics and experiences, rather than adhering strictly to standardized assessment criteria is a critical first step.

While many put their life plans on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, one individual made the most of every moment. During a full-time job as a construction labourer, he collected fossils and took them home to examine after work. He built a telescope from everyday objects in his kitchen and used it to monitor comets. He built a microscope to observe his environment in detail and connected it to his phone to track organisms, electrical currents and water movement. Despite his long hours working in construction, his thirst to explore nature was unquenchable.

Abbas*, some say, is destined to be the next Albert Einstein. Like Einstein, Abbas too is a refugee. He and his family fled Syria in 2013. Though he longed to complete his education in Jordan, his family’s financial situation forced him to forgo his studies for full-time construction work. Abbas’ aspiration to become a scientist persisted, but as a 24-year-old without a completed high school education, his reality has become a barrier to his dream.

The costs and opportunities of the refugee experience

When opportunities for individuals like Abbas to cultivate their talents are limited, their host communities lose valuable resources. This is never more true than at present when more than 1% of the global population is forcibly displaced. A 2017 study suggests that in the US between 1990 and 2014, refugee resettlement cost the government $15,000 per person. However, 20 years into their residency in the US, these refugees had paid an average of $21,000 more in taxes than their resettlement costs, resulting in an overall economic gain for the US.

By providing access to professional development programmes to refugees, societies will see even greater social and economic benefits.
By providing access to professional development programmes to refugees, societies will see even greater social and economic benefits.
Image: Statista

The economic benefits of refugee resettlement hold true in countries around the world that have allowed refugees to work, unrestricted, resulting in increases in both median income and GDP. By developing the skills of refugee populations and providing access to opportunities that take advantage of those skills, societies will see even greater social and economic benefits.

Many refugees arrive in new countries already considering how they can positively contribute to their host communities. Take Shah Jahan, for example, an Afghan national who was evacuated to the US in August 2021. A human resources manager by profession, Shah Jahan knew he wanted to continue his career in human resources in the US. To do so, he knew that he would need to hone his English fluency and develop a deep understanding of American culture.

To get started, Shah Jahan found an entry-level job as a grocery store customer service associate. In his free time, he continued to apply for jobs, but not with the immediate goal of finding a new job. “If I’m going to be a human resources professional in America, I need to understand the interview process,” says Shah Jahan. “What better way to learn than by going through interviews? I work at night and spend the rest of my time practising and interviewing.”

Shah Jahan’s story is just one of the thousands of stories of refugees who are working around the clock to develop skills they can contribute to their new communities. However, for many, lived realities remain a barrier to the pursuit of professional development opportunities.

Migration compact refugee professional development assistance
Refugees and migrants have a positive impact on the economies of their host countries
Image: UN

Person-centred design for refugee professional development opportunities

At age 14, Seba* and her parents fled from Syria to Jordan. Though Seba dreamed of becoming a journalist, her family urged her to leave school and marry. Shortly after she gave birth to two children, Seba divorced her abusive husband and became a single mother.

Seba was determined to complete her education. She undertook self-directed studies and obtained her high school diploma while raising her children. She then applied for an international scholarship to study journalism in South America. To her delight, she was awarded a full scholarship. However, shortly before her travel date, Seba was informed that scholarship recipients were prohibited from travelling with dependents. Seba could not leave her children behind. She was forced to forgo the scholarship.

Seba continued to apply for other scholarships that would allow her to pursue a Bachelor's degree. She applied for EDU-SYRIA, a scholarship specifically for refugees in Jordan, but as a single parent balancing full-time parenting responsibilities with her high school studies, her test scores were just three points short of the criteria. A male student who scored three points higher than she did, and who had neither family nor work obligations, was awarded the scholarship.

A Jordanian university professor heard Seba’s story and contacted the scholarship commission to demand that the programme criteria be changed to account for the realities of women like Seba. The commission then made an exception to its policies and accepted Seba into the programme. However, thousands of other refugee women remain disadvantaged in the application process.

Recently, Seba graduated from Balqaa University at the top of her class. She is now seeking work as a journalist while balancing her responsibilities as a single mother.

To maximize the benefits refugees can bring to their communities, professional development programmes need to recognize and foster refugee talent, harness skills and account for the lived realities of refugee communities. A person-centred approach that considers an individual's skills, characteristics and experiences, rather than adhering strictly to standardized assessment criteria is a critical first step.

Currently, most professional development programmes value privilege (which ranges from the privilege of formal education to legal status to family composition) over talent. By recognizing diverse realities, programmes will capture a wider array of talent and provide even greater benefits to society. Refugee contexts show the value of reimagining programme selection processes and what societies stand to gain from an overhaul of narrow and immutable selection criteria for life-changing educational and professional development opportunities.

*To respect the privacy of featured individuals, and for the safety of their family members, some of whom remain in their countries of origin, only first names have been used in this article.