This week’s news of 900,000 refugees fleeing war-torn Syria threw into focus the terrible plight of the innocent. Amongst many fleeing are health care workers, displaced and unable to practice at all, their experience wisdom and skills gradually dwindle in the cycle of despair that is the fate of so many. By contrast here in the UK, we bemoan our shortage of healthcare staff, yet efforts to support healthcare professionals coming here as refugees or asylum seekers seem paltry and uncoordinated. Often, they have fled with nothing – no papers to show they are qualified, no-one to vouch for them and no way to access their university records to prove their qualifications. Some of these are Christian or other minority religious groups, fleeing the double jeopardy of religious persecution as well as civil wars.
These healthcare professionals are desperate to work, desperate to support their families and above all desperate to live in peace and contribute to doing all they can for the most vulnerable humans they encounter.
These doctors, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, physiotherapists and related professionals are refugees from many countries, not only Syria. According to the UNHCR lists, there are currently 1,182 Iraqi doctors in camps in Jordan alone. Many have been trained in English; some have undertaken postgraduate training in the UK at some time before 2016. Yet they are not allowed to work in Jordan.
Proven good English language is essential to being registered in the UK to work as a healthcare professional. Some doctors pass the IELTS (International English Language Testing System), others take the newer Occupational English Language test. But sitting these exams costs money. And passing them is the first of many hurdles, including verification of their professional qualifications to obtain professional registration, developing familiarity with the application process, and securing a post in an approved practice setting with a designated body for revalidation of the professional registration.
“Often, they have fled with nothing – with no papers to show they are qualified”
The General Medical Council supports refugee doctors by allowing them two free attempts at Professional and Linguistic Assessment Board (PLAB) part 1 knowledge exam and then two attempts at the part 2 exam at 50% of the normal fee, with a flexible approach to paying professional registration fees once registered. The GMC also fund the verification of primary medical qualifications through the US Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, a compulsory requirement for all doctors who have qualified outside the EEA. Other registration bodies should follow their example.
The British Medical Association has brought together UK volunteers who have organised small refugee support schemes. Wales, Scotland, Lincolnshire, the North West and the North East of England have been supporting refugee doctors into NHS employment. Nine years’ worth of data published from London’s multiagency collaboration (the Building Bridges Programme) showed high rates of success overall with professionals settling in their own or in related healthcare professional positions in the NHS.
The UK’s healthcare professionals’ regulatory bodies should follow the GMC’s example. A lead agency is needed to ensure that wherever in the UK a refugee health care professional finds him or herself, support is available.
We have a staffing crisis in the NHS. It will take years for our own new graduates to come through. It is unethical to drain doctors, nurses and others from countries whose staff shortages are worse than ours. But shouldn’t we let highly skilled refugees have a chance to contribute, rather than leave them forgotten, in camps?
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff’s Oral Question on the case for accepting refugee doctors to the UK is scheduled for Monday 24 February