Refugees seeking employment should receive mandatory English and Maltese language lessons and be given access to mainstream childcare facilities, an employment support pilot project has suggested.

The one-year, €180,000 project sought to help refugees and beneficiaries of humanitarian protection find gainful employment, in contrast to the illegal roadside work prevalent among migrants.

Two employment support offices were set up at Marsa and Ħal Far open centres, serving as a go-between for prospective employees and the 88 employers that registered interest in the project.

More than 800 applicants signed up, with 194 eventually brought into the workforce.

The vast majority were male, Somali and aged between 20 and 29.

Most applicants sought employment as cleaners or labourers.

Recommendations were presented at a conference yesterday by staff from the Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers, which spearheaded the project.

Language barriers were “the main obstacle at all stages of the process”, said project leader Stephanie Borg Bonaci. She described cases where employees were unable to understand their employers’ instructions and said several applicants brought friends with them to help translate.

The gender imbalance among applicants – eight times as many men as women – reflected cultural norms but also women’s need to care for their children, she noted.

Ms Borg Bonaci called for stricter policing and enforcement of illegal employment hotspots because the prospect of unregistered, one-off work was luring many asylum seekers away from registered employment.

“We had cases where employees wouldn’t show up for an interview because they’d come across a day’s work and chose to do that instead. Others decide it’s more worth their while working illegally, cash-in-hand, than registering for employment.”

Cultural differences often saw employees and employers getting their wires crossed.

One applicant unfamiliar with the job interview process complained to project staff that others were waiting to be interviewed for the same job.

Others were confused when told they would only be paid at the end of the month.

Such difficulties prompted project staff to recommend that any future such projects make it compulsory for applicants to receive job skills training.

A report published some weeks ago by the International Commission of Jurists had criticised the government for failing to adopt adequate integration measures and sticking to what it termed an “emergency response” to migration.

But in a keynote speech delivered at yesterday’s conference, Home Affairs Parliamentary Assistant Beppe Fenech Adami said the project was “proof” that the government had gone beyond such a response.

Saying that the island was being “pressured to import mostly failed integration policies”, Dr Fenech Adami argued that Malta’s integration efforts were regularly under-reported “or not reported at all”.

Integration, Dr Fenech Adami said, was an important tool that the government needed to balance alongside the resettlement and, where possible, repatriation of asylum seekers.

The project is set to close at the end of the month but stakeholders are now assessing how to best extend its benefits in future.

In the meantime, prospective employees will benefit from a colourful guide to employment in Malta published as part of the project.

Printed in multiple languages including English, Somali and Tigrinya, the guide intends to help asylum seekers understand where and how to seek employment.

World Refugee Day

World Refugee Day, the internationally observed day dedicated to raising awareness about refugees, fell this week.

Eight local NGOs involved in migrant and refugee issues chose to use the occasion to pool their resources, share information and coordinate projects.

The NGOs – Aditus, SOS Malta, the Jesuit Refugee Service, Integra Foundation, GetUpStandUp, KOPIN, the Organisation for Friendship in Diversity and the Malta Emigrants’ Commission – will meet regularly but continue to be distinct entities.

Conflict and persecution meant that 4.3 million people were displaced in 2011 alone, with 800,000 of those fleeing across international borders.

Contrary to popular perception, about 80 per cent of refugees worldwide live in developing countries.

World Refugee Day events had kicked off with a panel discussion organised by UN refugee agency UNHCR.

The panel discussion brought officials, civil society representatives and representatives from the refugee community together.

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