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Waste of refugee talent

Shortsighted rules block skilled new asylum-seekers from entering learning and the workplace. Ian Nash reports

Britain is losing out on a huge pool of untapped skilled labour among asylum-seekers because of official barriers to education, training and work, say the Government's adult education advisers.

The national body for adult learners has called for a new work-permit system, targeted at areas of labour shortage. This week David Blunkett, the new Home Secretary espoused a similar idea, whereby immigrants with sought-after skills could be offered US - style "green card" permits to work.

The rules preventing new asylum-seekers signing-up for college courses and initiatives such as the New Deal should be repealed, says a study by National Institute for Adults in Continuing Education.

Alan Tuckett, the institute's director, has also called for urgent research to evaluate overseas qualifications. Such research was killed off in the early 1990s when the Government blocked publication of a NIACE report on the issue.

There was optimism in the institute and the Refugee Council this week that the recommendations of their latest joint study would be implemented. The council has been heartened by the appointment of Margaret Hodge, the new lifelong learning minister, as she has campaigned for asylum-seeker rights.

As Education Secretary, Mr Blunkett had suggested that he wanted to offer refugees better opportunities and not leave them inactive for six months.

The detailed study of 440 asylum-seekers in Leicester explodes the popular myth that they are economic migrants or scroungers. Most fled their countries at the last minute - unable to gather evidence of their qualifications or skills.

Around nine out of 10 asylum-seekers have qualifications ranging from the equivalent of GCSEs to degres, says the report. Most are equipped for trades and professions from medicine, teaching, banking engineering and the police to carpentry, farming, and sales.

With minimal training, they could help plug the skills gap but meet barriers at every stage. Careers advice for them is patchy. After six months they are entitled to work but not eligible for any government-funded training.

Many are even prevented from doing voluntary work since the rules say "asylum-seekers who are volunteers cannot be provided with bus fares or other expenses to meet costs".

Those without proof of their qualifications get minimum help to put togther evidence of their skills. Employers in the NIACE study were willing to help in principle but were unsure how. They were cautious "not to raise false hopes," says the study. The study, funded by the East Midlands Regional Development Agency, echoes other research.

"National research into the experiences of asylum-seekers - their skills, qualifications, experiences, aspirations and perceived barriers - shows that the picture painted by the research in Leicester accurately reflects the national picture," says the report, Asylum Seekers' Skills and Qualifications Audit Pilot Project, by researchers Fiona Aldridge and Sue Waddington, a former Euro-MP.

Even efforts to tackle language difficulties are hampered by bureaucracy, they say. New Deal regulations bar those without six months' employment from English language courses. Colleges that do provide such training, lack the resources for the wider needs of asylum-seekers.

Alan Tuckett said: "This study shows asylum-seekers are a resource, not a problem. We have highly-qualified people idle because we don't know how to value what they do and what their qualifications are worth. It is high time we did something about it."

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