Iraqi chemist languished in asylum hotel despite workforce shortage

Qualified medical professionals are becoming stuck in Britain's system even though they could help solve staffing crisis

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dungeness, Kent, after being rescued by the RNLI from a boat in the English Channel. Getty Images
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Healthcare professionals seeking asylum in the UK are languishing in provided housing or being threatened with deportation to Rwanda as chronic workforce shortages grip the country.

Furat, 28, a dispenser and trainee pharmacist in central London, told The National of his frustration as he waited months in government-sponsored accommodation for his asylum application to be processed.

“There are healthcare professionals stuck in the asylum system. They cannot work, study, train or start their career,” he said.

Furat, who asked that his real name was not revealed, came to the UK from Iraq as a pharmacology student in 2017. His chances of finding a job after graduating were high because of a nationwide need for pharmacists.

The profession is on the Home Office workforce shortage list. The National Pharmacists Association says there is a “workforce crisis” in the UK.

But after Furat’s student visa expired he had no choice but to seek asylum and wait in government-sponsored accommodation for more than nine months.

He believes it is the quickest route to joining the UK’s dwindling healthcare workforce.

“If the government is paying for your accommodation, they will process the application as soon as they can,” he said. “But if you are hosted by family or friends, they will keep delaying your case. In that time you can’t work or study.”

A Home Office committee briefing in October found that the government was spending £7 million ($8.7 million) a day on housing asylum seekers. The rising cost has compelled the government to rent a giant barge to accommodate asylum seekers off the coast of Dorset.

But Furat says asylum seekers are becoming increasingly discouraged from finding alternative support to government aid because this could increase the waiting time on their application.

His evidence for this was anecdotal — another refugee he knew spent more than two years living with relatives in the UK, waiting for her application to be processed, before eventually moving to a government-sponsored hotel.

“I couldn't afford to wait, I needed to get back to my training and work as soon as possible,” he said.

Furat’s journey began with a trip to the Home Office in Croydon, south London, where he declared himself a refugee. He could not return to his family in Baghdad due to repeated threats to his life linked to his religion.

He was transferred to a hotel in Yorkshire, then to shared accommodation in Newcastle.

Furat described life in the Yorkshire hotel as prison-like. “There was a curfew in the evening, we were four people in bunk beds in a small room that fits two people, with just a sink to wash our hands,” he said. “The bathrooms were always leaking. There were 400 of us in the hotel.”

Tensions with the residents in the town made some of the asylum seekers feel unwelcome.

“They put hundreds of asylum seekers in small towns, in deprived parts of the UK,” Furat said.

“The locals were poor and struggling with the rising cost of living. They saw us being housed in a hotel.

“It was a political move, to create friction with asylum seekers.”

Furat said he got along with the locals because he spoke good English and had previously exposure to British culture.

Today, Furat is training to become a certified pharmacist in the UK, a process that takes up to two years.

He is among the lucky ones, he says, as other asylum seekers he met could still be waiting. “There were Syrian and Libyan doctors whose qualifications are not recognised in the UK,” he said.

Independent community pharmacies say they are struggling to recruit adequate staff, despite Home Office measures to address shortages in the workforce.

“We know members are continuing to face a growing crisis in the recruitment and retention of community pharmacists and skilled support team members,” the National Pharmacist’s Association said.

“The shortage of pharmacists and other staff, the effect of Brexit on workers from overseas and visas along with the cost of living all impact workforce pressures.”

Updated: April 13, 2023, 11:59 AM