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Shabnam Afshar: Empowering displaced planners

An overview of challenges facing displaced planners and support on offer.

Shabnam is a postgraduate student at the University of Dundee in Spatial Planning on a sustainable urban design course. She also works as an intern project officer at the RTPI. Shabnam worked at the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing in Afghanistan before the Taliban took over and has an undergraduate degree in Urban Planning.

In this blog Shabnam draws on her personal experience as a refugee urban planner from Afghanistan and includes observations of other refugees from urban fields who have resettled in Scotland. The world is grappling with significant challenges, from ongoing conflicts to climate change in regions including the Middle East and Eastern Europe. These challenges have uprooted many individuals, forcing them to leave their homes in search of safety and a better life elsewhere. According to the UNHCR data from 2023, the global displaced population has reached a staggering 110 million due to persecution, conflict, violence, and other events disrupting public order. Among these displaced individuals are asylum seekers, refugees, and others in need of international protection.

These individuals come from different professional backgrounds including skilled workers, academics, and planners who have contributed to their home countries' development but had to leave their professions and homes behind. Both the statistics and the literature rarely paid attention to the challenges urban planners who migrated to the UK and hold refugee or asylum seeker status have faced integrating into the professional landscape.

When displaced planners arrive in the UK, they often face several significant challenges, with language proficiency and the recognition of academic degrees and professional experiences being particularly crucial.

Refugees come to the UK with varying levels of language skills. As their migration is often involuntary, driven by circumstances beyond their control, they may have had limited opportunities to improving their language skills before arriving here. This can hinder their integration into the planning profession. For instance, a planner with a refugee background whom I met in Glasgow shared his experience:

‘I had a good job in my country, working in the field of urban planning for the government. Bad circumstances forced me to immigrate. While I am happy here, finding a job, especially with my current level of language ability, is challenging. This doesn't mean I lack knowledge in my field. I am well-versed in it. However, back in my country, I never anticipated immigrating, and there I conducted planning in my own language. I wish there were specialised English classes to expedite my learning process.’

As expressed by this planner, the lack of academic and specialised language skills poses a significant barrier to effectively demonstrating their expertise and capabilities in their new environment.

Many displaced planners also find that their planning degrees from their home countries do not align with the standards required for accreditation in the UK. This lack of accreditation hinders their ability to compete on an equal footing in the job market. For example, individuals from Afghanistan frequently encounter this issue. Despite holding planning degrees from reputable universities in their home country their qualifications often do not meet the criteria for accreditation in the UK. Consequently, their degrees, are downgraded to diploma certificates, and they are required to undertake additional years of study to attend undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. This barrier shows a notable absence of clear pathways for displaced planners to bridge the accreditation gap outside of pursuing further education in the UK.

Furthermore, when planners who are refugees or asylum seekers seek to further their education and enhance their competence, they encounter significant barriers, primarily related to finances and time constraints. Many displaced planners struggle to access the resources needed to finance their education.

After my arrival to the UK, considering my asylum status, I encountered significant challenges to secure funding for my higher education. Although there are a limited number of humanitarian scholarships, these had a three-year residency condition. As a result, I had to wait for a long time to become eligible for the loan and continue my university degree. To address this issue, greater attention and support from relevant stakeholders is essential. Establishing more accessible pathways for degree recognition and offering scholarships and loans to displaced planners would facilitate their academic integration into the UK planning profession. This would ensure that their skills and expertise are recognised and valued within the field.

A lack of UK based work experience also presents a significant challenge for resettled planners. Many planning positions require not only accredited degrees but also substantial work experience within the country. This requirement poses a barrier for planners who lack such localised experience. However, there is a pressing need to promote inclusivity within the job market by providing opportunities for planners with refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds to showcase their skills and competencies. Employers should be encouraged to give these individuals a chance to demonstrate their expertise, recognising the value they can bring to planning projects despite their lack of UK specific experience. By embracing diversity and offering avenues for displaced planners to contribute, the planning profession can benefit from a broader range of perspectives and talents, ultimately enriching the field as a whole.

Considering the extent and impact of the challenges outlined, programs aimed at supporting the integration of displaced planners in the UK are limited and relatively new. A significant initiative is the RTPI's Displaced Planners Pathways to Work, which provides professional, educational, and funding support. Other initiatives, such as those by organisations like the Scottish Refugee Council and Renaisi, offer assistance in CV building, confidence building, interview preparation, and networking opportunities for refugee professionals more broadly.

However, there remains a need for greater financial and specialised professional support to facilitate the successful integration of displaced planners into the workforce. This is crucial not only to address the emerging workforce shortage in the country but also to provide displaced planners with stability and the opportunity to contribute to society.

Refugee planners represent a skilled and capable workforce that can help bridge the workforce gap in the UK planning sector. The recent RTPI Scotland report on resourcing the planning service underscores the urgency of this need, particularly with the ageing demographic of local authority planners. Displaced planners bring valuable skills and experiences that can benefit society and meet the demands of the planning sector. Embracing displaced planners not only addresses staffing needs but also promotes diversity and inclusivity within the planning profession, enriching it with fresh perspectives and innovative approaches.

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