THERE ARE many hundreds of people who could help solve the chronic staff shortages and long waiting lists in the NHS. They are not being used because the press and politicians treat them with hatred and suspicion. They are refugee doctors. The waste of doctors' talent, skills and energy is just one example of how the skills and willingness to work of all refugees is thrown away by government policy.
Last week the British Medical Association and the Refugee Council organised a conference, 'Supporting Refugee Doctors to Practise in the UK'.
The BMA knows of 965 doctors who are refugees or asylum seekers in Britain. 'These are just the ones who volunteered to register on the database,' said Deng Yai from the Refugee Council.
'There are about 1,000 others or even more out there. The number of refugee doctors is estimated at 2,000.' They are highly trained in areas such as child surgery, general practice and gynaecology. The top three countries they have fled from are Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. Many live in London. The second biggest group – some 21 percent – are in the north west of England and Yorkshire.
One West Midlands delegate at the conference commented, 'The refugees' skills match where we have got a shortfall. For instance, we've got shortages of anaesthetists and there are 24 of them on the database.'
Deng Yai added, 'When you look at the specialisation of these doctors, and then at the people queuing up to see a GP or a consultant, it is such a pity. They are an untapped resource that is not taken full advantage of. They would make a difference to so many people's lives.'
Dr Edwin Borman from the BMA, urged, 'Refugee doctors are a valuable resource when the NHS needs more doctors. It makes moral and economic sense to help them overcome the difficulties they face.'
Azhar Hammadi, an Iraqi, trained as a paediatrician. But she can't get a job in a hospital helping cure sick children. She told Socialist Worker, 'It all became too much. Now my job is as a health worker with refugees. When I left Iraq it was just six months before my graduation. I had been training for seven years in paediatrics. It was a big decision for me to sacrifice my future. But the government had started to target activists and some of my colleagues were killed. I managed to carry on my studies after leaving Iraq. When I eventually came to Britain in 1995 I wanted to go on to be a consultant. It has been too difficult, so much waiting, money, and problems. I have citizenship here. I'm British and I'm part of the workforce. But in this country people look down on you for being different.'
The anti-refugee climate in Britain is the root cause of the problem. Refugees are presented as a burden, not people who could help everyone. New Labour bans anyone in the process of claiming asylum from working. That accounts for a third of people on the BMA and Refugee Council's database.
Those who manage to get refugee status can apply for a job. But many don't end up in the health service because they don't get the support, training and resources they need.
They have to pass a series of rigorous tests on fluency in English language. Of course doctors must be able to speak to their patients, but the English test centres on academic English, not on whether refugees can communicate adequately. And if refugees do have problems with English they should be eligible to receive free intensive training courses.
Instead, at the moment, many end up paying for all of this training themselves. Even when they have passed, and finally get registered with the General Medical Council, refugees then suffer prejudice when applying for jobs. The BMA and Refugee Council urged more work should be done to help refugee doctors.
Dr Edwin Borman from the BMA pointed out that it starts from the most basic level. 'Food, shelter, clothing, those basic needs. Only when these are dealt with can we think about helping them to start studying again,' he said. 'Frankly I don't how they cope. They barely have enough to live on, £35-45 a week, and pay for exams. It takes one and a half to two years to give them a reasonable chance of looking for a job. Refugee doctors should be a success story. The strength of this initiative should be positive images of refugees to balance the negative ones we have had to put up with in the media.'
'My university was linked to Cambridge'
ONE OF those at the conference spent six years studying to be a doctor in her home country and ended up working in Tesco's. 'I had to leave Sudan because it was very dangerous for us. I thought I would be able to work here without any pain because the university I went to in Sudan was part of Cambridge University. But I have been really frustrated. The English test is not a language test, it is used as a barrier. I felt like a failure after all those years of studying. At the moment I am at home looking after our child. We have indefinite leave to remain in Britain. But the television only says about refugees that they are trouble, they are a burden, they all come here in the back of a lorry. It's just prejudice. They judge you before they know what you can or can't do.'
'l claimed asylum but I didn't want benefits'
'Before I came to Britain from Albania in 1997 I was training in obstetrics and gynaecology. I claimed asylum but I didn't claim benefits. I wanted people to say that I knew how to find my way around and earn a living. The Home Office said I had a very good case and they believed I had suffered – but not enough.
I had to start appealing against their decision. I paid for it out of my own pocket. Then I spent two years looking for a job in my specialisation. I eventually got work as a staff nurse. But having a full time job on top of the exams, essays, studying...I did not want to give up but I hit a brick wall all the time.
I know a lot of doctors who have been through the same troubles. I want to get back into medicine but it's been six years and inevitably I've lost some familiarity with current methods.'
Dr Genc Rumani
'I used to have my own doctor's surgery'
A GP at the conference from Iran spoke of his frustration that he cannot use his skills. 'I used to have my own doctor's surgery in Iran. Here I have tried many times to get a part time job as an auxiliary nurse. But I have found it impossible to get a job. I would like to be involved in the health system and to communicate with English people to improve my language. It does not help to stay at home. Now I work as a volunteer in the community in south Manchester. I live on £54 a week. Out of that comes some rent money and bills to pay. I had the ability to earn good money in Iran. If it wasn't for the government I would go back there tomorrow. I really want to be a GP. I know they are needed by many people.'
Figure it out
2000 – is the number of refugee doctors that could be working to improve the NHS and improve healthcare for everybody, but who don't because of the way the asylum and immigration system works.