In Scotland, there are a number of organisations which specialise in supporting refugees’ access to the labour market, including the Bridges Programme, the Scottish Refugee Council, and Radiant and Brighter. Entrepreneurial support is also provided by Business Gateway, though stakeholders reported high degree of localised variation in refugee specialisms. Until 2015, the focus of this support sector was predominantly on Glasgow, which had accommodated Dispersal-pathway asylum seekers and refugees since 1999. Following the announcement of the (then) Syrian Vulnerable Person’s Resettlement Scheme in 2015, in which all 32 local authorities in Scotland volunteered to participate, this precedent significantly changed, not only in terms of the variety and geographical scope of locations in which displaced migrants lived – locations which came with very different challenges and opportunities to Glasgow’s highly-populated, urban, third-sector dominated environment – but also in terms of the different governance dynamics of the Resettlement Scheme. Unlike Dispersal, the UK Government granted local authorities an active role in designing and supplying services, including those related to employability and labour market access.
One of the places that garnered attention early on for the perceived peripherality of its location was the town of Rothesay on the island of Bute. The island of Bute is part of Argyll and Bute – the second largest local authority area in Scotland, with the third sparest population. Located on the west coast of Scotland and on the edge of the Highlands, Rothesay had once been popular seaside resort but has experienced decades of depopulation. Though Bute is only a 20 minute ferry journey from the Scottish mainland, the labour market on the island was characterised not by the big industry or multinationals of Glasgow, but by limited sectors specific to the island’s location and environment (agriculture, fishing, construction, tourism and care). To provide newly-arrived families with employability and labour market support, the local authority Resettlement team on Bute not only needed to consider the conditions that refugees were likely to face when trying to access the labour market, but did so in a context where public services and the public at large had little experience of refugee resettlement. Unlike Glasgow, there was no third sector support network, and where labour market opportunities were location-specific and potentially limited.
Since 2015, the local authority Resettlement team has worked hard to develop an effective system to support resettled refugees into the local labour market. The system which is in place today, based on the team’s Employability Strategy, has seen the successful development of several small enterprises, including a Syrian bakery, a Syrian takeaway and a barbershop, and the placement of individuals in local workplaces, including in the third sector, in the care sector, in agriculture and in engineering. As a result, a high proportion of adults able to work are currently in employment. In October 2019, this work was nominated for and awarded CoSLA’s Excellent People, Excellent Outcomes award. Reflecting on the award, the Bute Resettlement team commented
“The Refugee Resettlement Programme on the Isle of Bute provides more than a safe place for our Syrian families to recover from the horrors of the war that caused them so much pain and suffering. With the focus of the past 18 months being on the implementation of our Employability Strategy and the support to help refugees move from benefits to financial independence and the resulting improvements in their health and well-being. Our innovative programme of multi-agency support provides person centred employment pathways. By identifying the key aspects to improving employment prospects, we can address barriers, promote activities and ensure that we have the right support and guidance in place for refugees to begin their own employment journey. Supported by our programme, over 80% of our Syrian adults have either started up their own businesses, successfully applied for jobs, are studying at college and university or are volunteering and undertaking work experience. Time spent in the UK or language ability is not a barrier to the ambitions and determination of our refugees to pay their own way, move from benefits, increase their self-esteem and support their families once again.”
Key to the success of the ‘Bute approach’ was the Resettlement team’s decision to place Resettled individuals’ career ambitions at the centre of their support systems. What this meant was that where previously the Resettlement team had emphasised the importance of English language acquisition for labour market access, now they work with Resettled individuals and local employers to establish labour market access first – access which often facilitates English language learning. Also key to the labour market successes on Bute was the Resettlement team’s existing connections with other parts of the local authority, which enabled them to ‘triage’ potential barriers to entrepreneurial development. In a GLIMER interview, a local stakeholder explained:
Because we’re the local authority, most of that regulation sits under us: Environmental Health’s part of us, Planning’s part of us, Building Control is part of us being a local authority. So therefore I was able to take all of those services in right at the start and […] thereafter to explain the process. […] So it actually meant that when business plans […] were submitted, compliance and environmental health requirements were [also] being checked. And [the departments] they understood [the context] and they followed that through.
The Bute team’s methods for supporting Resettled individuals into the labour market goes against several accepted norms for refugee ‘integration’. The Bute approach highlights that it is not Resettled individuals’ English language ability that prevents labour market access, but rather policies and norms that link labour market entry to unnecessarily high or formalised English language expectations. The Bute approach also highlights the strengths of localised knowledge and local flexibility in supporting labour market access for Resettled communities. As the Scottish Government and other external agencies look to take inspiration from the Bute model and apply it to locations elsewhere, we would caution against a drive towards a ‘one-size-fits-all’ replication of Bute’s results, and recommend instead that policy is developed in the spirit of the Argyll and Bute team’s methods.
The full report of the GLIMER project ‘Displaced migration and labour market governance in Scotland: challenges and opportunities’ will soon be available to download from the project website.
Kone, Z., Ruiz, I. and Vargas-Silva, C. (2019) Refugees and the UK Labour Market. Oxford: COMPAS. Available at: https://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/ECONREF-Refugees-and-the-UK-Labour-Market-report.pdf (Accessed: 31/07/2019).
Mwaura., S., Levie, J., Stoyanov, S., Lasselle, P. and Carter, S. (2018) Taking Steps to Combat Barriers to Ethnic Minority Enterprise in Scotland, Glasgow: University of Strathclyde. Available at: https://pureportal.strath.ac.uk/files-asset/80713979/Taking_steps_to_combat_barriers_to_ethnic_minority_enterprise_in_Scotland_Mwaura_et_al_2018.pdf (Accessed: 31/07/2019).
 The COSLA Excellence Awards celebrate the work that Scottish councils do to transform and adapt to the challenges and opportunities their communities face. They showcase projects that are breaking new ground, bringing partners together to reform and improve local services. Argyll and Bute Council’s ‘Supporting our Refugees into Work’ programme was chosen for the 2019 ‘Excellent People, Excellent Outcomes Award’ by a judging panel which included experts from across the media, local and national government, the Scottish Parliament and the private sector.