Blog: The Skills, Experiences and Aspirations of Young Syrian Refugees

A multidisciplinary team at the University of Glasgow is publishing the first policy report based on their project Building Futures: Aspirations of Syrian Youth Refugees and Host Population Responses in Lebanon, Greece and the UK. One of the report authors, Ben Colburn, explores those preliminary findings and what they tell us about the successes and failures of the UK’s settlement strategy for young Syrian refugees.

The numbers involved in the Syrian crisis are daunting. Since the civil war began in 2011, more than 12 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes, of whom more than 5.6 million have registered as refugees. The dire predicament of many of these displaced people has rightly meant prioritizing refugees’ safely and basic needs, such as health, water, sanitation, food and shelter. Nevertheless, these factors mean that there are aspects of Syrian refugees’ experiences which we are in danger of missing: hidden behind the headline numbers and basic needs are individuals with unique skills, aspirations and ethical perspectives. Our project seeks to explore those further aspects by talking to Syrian refugees directly, trying to understand the lives they want to lead, and what they need to be able to build those lives for themselves. We have conducted over 1,500 face-to-face interviews with young Syrian refugees in three host countries: Lebanon, Greece, and the UK. We have also explored the attitudes of host populations towards the displaced people in their midst, as well as what they say about their own aspirations and ideals.

Our first report concentrates on Syrian refugees in the UK, comparing their experiences with those of their peers elsewhere, and exploring the contrasts between different groups within the UK. Some of what we have learned is encouraging. Refugees in the UK report better experiences and better support, and their feelings about their prospects are much more positive than their peers in Greece and Lebanon. Other findings are more worrying. Despite many wanting to work, and having the highest levels of skills and training in the three groups sampled, young Syrian refugees in the UK still face significant barriers to participation, and many are unemployed, underemployed, or working in jobs which underuse the considerable skills they have brought to this country.

Perhaps our most troubling findings concern how different refugees’ experiences are, depending on arbitrary factors like their mode of entry to the UK.

There are two modes of arrival for Syrian refugees. Some have entered through the asylum route, making their own way across Europe and then claiming legal asylum at the UK border. Others have come under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons’ Resettlement Scheme, established in 2015 after the UK government agreed to resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable people directly from refugee camps. Resettled refugees are supported by local authorities, funded by the aid budget for their first year. Entrants through the asylum route, by contrast, are housed and supported directly by the Home Office while in the asylum process. On being recognised as refugees, there are no further resources available to aid their settlement.

Our research confirms that this two-tier system results in very different experiences. Resettled refugees are happier, more confident and more hopeful than entrants through the asylum route. The latter, by contrast, report worse experiences, less positive interactions with government and society, and less support. Similar contrasts – discussed in full in the report – emerge when we compare the experiences of refugees based in England and in Scotland, with their different levels and structures of support.

These differences show that we aren’t consistently doing our best, if the goal is to foster social cohesion, facilitate integration and empower Syrian refugees to rebuild their lives. The inequalities we have revealed also pose a legal and moral problem.  The UK is signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which commits its parties to granting international protection on the basis of need, to persons with ‘well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group’. A system that creates multiple and arbitrary tiers of support not only undermines its effectiveness but also contravenes the commitment to equal consideration embodied in our international obligations.

How do we solve this? Our findings point towards a more generous scheme of support for refugees (like the one offered in Scotland, though it is important to note that the Scottish regime remains imperfect). A central question is how we can build support for such policies amongst refugees and host populations alike, especially in a context of sustained austerity in public finances. Preliminary findings from the next stage in our project indicate possible ways forward. Many of the obstacles to labour market participation faced by refugees are shared with disadvantaged citizens, which suggests that a unified approach might meet the needs of both groups. Moreover, in asking both groups about their values and ideals we have found significant common ground between Syrian refugees and UK citizens concerning what matters for a good life: even against a background of religious and cultural difference, our respondents converged on some simple core commitments to family, bodily health and integrity, work, and education.

This common ground counters myths about ‘incompatible values’ between the two populations. If we design and advocate policy by emphasising this common ground, we can reassure citizens that the principles governing the distribution of scarce resources are ones which everyone can accept, because they resonate with underlying preferences, needs and ethical perspectives that both groups share.

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The full report ‘Building a New Life in Britain: The Skills, Experiences and Aspirations of Young Syrian Refugees’ is available here.

The Building Futures project runs from November 2016 to August 2018, and is supported by the UK government’s Global Challenges Research Fund, through the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (ES/P005179/1). The team members are Georgios Karyotis, Ben Colburn, Lesley Doyle, Kristinn Hermannsson, Gareth Mulvey and Dimitris Skleparis, with international partners Educart (Lebanon), Solidarity Now (Greece) and the Scottish Refugee Council (UK). For further information please see, or contact the Principal Investigator, Georgios Karyotis, at

Image credit: © Magdalena Grochal