8 September 2023

We can do better by Syrian refugees – and help businesses too

By Frances Lasok

What’s happening to global Britain? Last month it was revealed that the fast-track Global Talent Visa, launched in 2021 to bring the best and the brightest to the UK, has received three applications in two years.  

The aim of the scheme was to enable the world’s career leaders to come and work in the UK. Each professional sector was allocated an awarding body across the arts, sciences and tech. On paper, it looks great. But as did the UK’s post-Brexit visa system: written with the intent of enabling easy access to the UK for worldwide talent without being an open-door policy. Reality is yet to match ambition.  

However, the ambition to draw international talent is still an honorable one. In July, the Coalition for Global Prosperity took a group of British political stakeholders to Jordan to meet Jordanian thought-leaders and parliamentarians. We met a great number of the Jordanian elite who had connections to Britain, had not only been to British universities but spent years working in British businesses or international businesses in London. This soft power is one of our quickest and cheapest wins. We are a small and highly skilled island that cannot compete with the likes of India and Germany on manufacturing – but we can form a cluster of the brightest and best. 

But the structure has to be there to support it. That’s what the post-Brexit visa system was supposed to be about. Policies like the Global Talent Visa were put to paper, but then came Covid and then came Ukraine. There’s a reason why immigration lawyers will say that awareness of the new visa is relatively low. 

In the meantime, there is one under-explored opportunity for UK companies. 

In Jordan, we met Syrian teachers in the Za’atari refugee camp. Opened in 2012 to house Syrian refugees escaping the war that began in 2011, the camp is now over a decade old and the size of a large town. A new generation of Syrian children are born in Za’atari or other Jordanian camps or cities, growing up with Jordan as home. Within Jordan, census data suggests a Syrian refugee population of over 1m out of a total refugee population of over 3m. That’s within a lower-middle-income country of 11m with the second-scarcest water resources in the world. In schools, teachers are nurturing the talents of refugee children, but if they’re Syrian there is nowhere for that talent to go. Employment options for refugees are scant, a phenomenon that is easy to criticise but, for a country with 25% domestic unemployment, entirely understandable. 

So, where does Syria’s future generation go? For the moment, it is not back to Syria. 

Talent Beyond Boundaries is a charity that places refugees without jobs in stable countries. They assist job applicants to overcoming informational, legal and financial barriers to finding employment. Refugees are given a transformative change in income and increased support for their families. The argument that skilled migration results in brain drains in less economically developed countries does not apply here, as there is currently no prospect of these individuals returning to Syria.

If you work for an organisation who may be interested, and are looking for an innovative way to act as a global citizen, this is a win-win. The barriers to doing this are often administrative, so knowing the available options and having a supportive player at a high level within a company are profoundly important.

There are no simple solutions to the refugee crisis and too few options for the 1m Syrians waiting in Jordan with no safe pathway home. But where small initiatives that make the world better exist, we should make the most of them. 

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Frances Lasok is a political professional.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.