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Stemming the brain drain: Improving skills for migrants and refugees

An ILO initiative is helping migrants and refugees get recognition for their existing skills and learn new ones – creating a ‘brain gain’ for them and their host countries.

Feature | 07 December 2018

AMMAN, Jordan (ILO News) - On a dusty Jordanian building site, Aboud al Masoud oversees his fellow construction workers. Armed with a clipboard, hard hat and high-viz vest, he works his way through the site, checking progress and work quality.

The grizzled 45-year-old came to Jordan as a refugee from fighting in Syria. He had previous construction industry experience, as a tiler, but like so many refugees, he initially had to support himself by working informally, a precarious position which can make it hard to find safe and decent work – particularly in a trade with inherent hazards such as construction.
“But then, with support from the ILO, the process of getting work permits was made easier.” he said. He and some of his colleagues were able to legalise their status and compete in the official labour market “using the skills and expertise we had already learned.”

Masoud benefited from an ILO-supported initiative to Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL), a programme that allows access to Jordan’s more formal labour market. The programme works with Syrian refugees and Jordanians to assess and formally recognize skills and expertise they already have, even if acquired working in the informal economy. 

Just as importantly, the programme includes a training component that gives construction workers like Masoud short practical and theoretical training, helping to upgrade existing skills and improve their knowledge of occupational health and safety.

“Through this RPL programme we were able to learn new skills which helped us compete in the labour market,” Masoud recalled.

Migration cuts across all categories of workers, and the number of international migrants and refugees is growing rapidly. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 164 million people are migrant workers in 2017 – a rise of 9 per cent since 2013, when they numbered 150 million.

Successfully integrating migrants and refugees into societies and labour markets is a win-win."

Srinivas B. Reddy, Chief of the ILO’s Skills and Employability Branch
“We need to ensure that we maximise the benefits for countries of origin and destination as well as the migrants themselves – so they become a ‘brain gain’ for countries, not a ‘brain waste’ when people are employed below their capacities,” said Srinivas B. Reddy, Chief of the ILO’s Skills and Employability Branch.

“Successfully integrating migrants and refugees into societies and labour markets is a win-win, preventing de-skilling, reducing vulnerabilities, capitalizing on talent, and supporting the development of local economies and enterprises,” he added.

To achieve this, Reddy said, education and training for migrants need to be strengthened. This means training institutions need to know about labour markets in both countries of origin and destination, so they have a better understanding of skills needs and can target their training programmes effectively. This not only facilitates international mobility but also contributes to employment growth in home countries.

Recognizing foreign qualifications will also be important. Often, gaining marketable skills in one country is not enough to access the labour market in another. If the skills of workers are not recognized this can increase vulnerability and discrimination, and make it more difficult to break into the formal jobs market.

There is also a need for more cross-border skills partnerships. Such skills partnerships not only help individual migrants, they also maximise the benefits of migration for both origin and destination countries.

Beyond this, at global level, broad international cooperation is needed to bring national efforts together and formulate migration policies that take account of and anticipate skills needs, increase migrants’ access to education and training, and strengthen mutual and multilateral skills’ recognition.

The proposed UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, a non-legally binding, cooperative framework, represents a step along this road. It aims to improve international cooperation on migration, acknowledging that no State can address the issues alone. The Global Compact recognizes that a comprehensive approach is needed to optimize the overall benefits of migration, while addressing risks and challenges for individuals and communities in countries of origin, transit and destination.

An Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration will take place in Marrakech, Morocco on 10-11 December, 2018.