More than Bricks and Mortar: Employability and Housing in Refugee Communities
Reach In Project, HACT
Building refugee integration through housing work placements
When Youssouf first arrived in Bolton, Greater Manchester, as an African asylum seeker, his chances of finding employment seemed slim. Although he had a professional background in local government and was keen to work, local unemployment levels and some hostility towards asylum seekers made him wonder how he would possibly get his foot on the ladder.
Meanwhile, a Bolton housing association was suffering a skills shortage. Their manager particularly identified that they needed people who would understand the housing needs of refugees and asylum seekers in the area.
The innovative Reach In project, run by housing charity HACT, matched them up for a work placement. Now Youssouf is employed as a customer services officer with the housing association and leads HACT’s liaison efforts with refugee community members.
Reach In was developed by The Refugee Programme at HACT in 2008. The original idea was simple: the project would place refugees in short-term work placements with housing sector organizations to help build mutual understanding and promote integration. During the 3-6 month placements, refugees would gain work experience, receive on-the-job training and a professional qualification. Housing providers would embed and reflect a more informed understanding of refugee needs into their services.
Reach In was piloted in 2009, following which it was more widely rolled out in towns across the UK. As the project took shape and built support among both housing providers and refugees keen to take part, it became clear that there were wider benefits to this work than had been originally anticipated.
Marcelle Dopwell, the HACT Project Manager, explains: “At the beginning of Reach In, we placed much more emphasis on the way that this contact could help housing providers to understand refugee needs. But during the first pilot we saw the longer-term benefits for the refugees of gaining valuable work experience – about a third of those we put in placements gained employment afterwards.” The Reach In project showed that its simple approach could have visible benefits in a short period of time.
Reaching into Bolton
For a town like Bolton, with a newer history of migration, the Reach In initiative was particularly significant. Since the 1980s Bolton has faced the challenge of diversifying its economy away from its historical reliance on a declining manufacturing sector. Although the town has made significant progress, it has not been an easy transition.
In 1999, a new inflow of international migrants began to arrive in Bolton, introducing the potential for new social and economic tensions. The national government had begun a policy of dispersing asylum seekers to urban areas outside London and the South East. Bolton was the second local authority in all of the UK to accept refugees through the Government’s Gateway Protection Programme, which processes a limited number of asylum applications made overseas and arranges for their accommodation in towns and cities across the country, often resettling people directly from refugee camps.
Despite the insistence of local authorities that asylum seekers were not placing pressure on the local social housing stock, this perception remained among some residents. In addition, some asylum-seekers reported that they were struggling to find employment, essential to their future success in UK but also to a present sense of security and well-being.
When the HACT Reach In project began working in Bolton in 2009, it seemed that it could provide a partial answer to some of these issues. Project organizers began by building on HACT’s longstanding relationship with the local authority to develop partnerships with key housing providers: Bolton Community Homes and Bolton at Home. HACT coordinated the placements for refugees, providing dedicated support through a project team that was in regular contact with Bolton-based service providers and refugees.
In its first three years in Bolton, ten refugees were placed with housing providers, resulting in lasting success stories such as that of Youssouf. According to HACT’s Marcelle Dopwell, “The work in Bolton really illustrates the transformative effect that projects like this can generate in towns where immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon. Bolton had some really committed local housing providers alongside a local authority committed to making the project work – this made all the difference.”
The model developed by the Reach In project successfully demonstrates how mutual contact between refugees and public service providers can lead to better employment outcomes, stronger mutual understanding and more effective services – even in towns without a long history of immigration.
Please note, some names and identifying details have been changed in this article.
Making it Work for You:
- Ensure that project work between refugees and wider service providers has mutual benefits – if the impacts are going to last, everyone has to see and feel the difference.
- Build strong collaborative partnerships with public service providers and local authorities, to ensure that local project work is aligned with wider welcoming efforts aimed at new arrivals.
- Invest in a project structure and human resources that can provide ongoing dedicated support to beneficiaries, as well as maintaining relationships with external partners.