Refugee Women and Employment in Bulgaria

Every year, huge numbers of people are forced to leave their homes due to violence, military conflicts, human rights abuses, social and economic upheavals, disasters and environmental changes, in search of security and a new beginning for themselves and their families. They feel this is imperative because their lives are at risk in their home countries and their quality is extremely degraded due to the lack of access to health care, education, professional qualification and development.

With the support of UNHCR Bulgaria, we conducted a study, we conducted a survey focused on the level of employment and working conditions of refugees and asylum seekers, with 95% of the participants being women. Collecting such data is essential to giving voice to the issues faced by people in the community. The results of the research show difficulties for which there is a lack of public awareness, and that essential information about the rights that refugees have does not fully reach them. This allows potential employers to take advantage of this situation.

The survey data shows that 1 in 5 of those questioned work without an employment contract, which deprives them of their right to insurance and limits their access to medical services, as well as not guaranteeing them security of income, as the employer can terminate the relationship on any time without notice. This places them in conditions of additional vulnerability, and makes them subject to exploitation, forced labor and debt, as well as at risk of homelessness. Discrimination against refugees and asylum seekers is also seen, with 2 in 5 respondents reporting earning less than the national minimum wage. On the positive side, however, the remaining 3 out of 5 respondents believe their employers behave fairly, and 3 out of 4 say they get paid on time.

Due to the strict gender roles embedded in the cultural orders of the community, which dictate that taking care of the home and children are their responsibility, the women of this community face even greater barriers to finding adequate employment. A suitable one is not only essential for their survival as individuals, but is also one of the best ways to integrate them, which also contributes favorably to the economic and social life of the host country.

Of all asylum seekers and beneficiaries of temporary protection surveyed in our study, 76% of participants reported being unemployed. A third of them are currently looking for work, while over half of those surveyed say the opposite. This is again mainly due to gender roles and stereotypes in the community which are somewhat limiting for women’s opportunities. The main reason that stops women from the community from seeking employment is childcare, which once again shows how the burden is left almost entirely on them. While this is true to varying degrees for all refugees and asylum seekers, differences become apparent when considered separately by country of origin. While among Ukrainian women surveyed, less than half said that taking care of their children was the reason they could not work, this was true for almost three quarters of the rest of the respondents.

These gender roles and stereotypes discourage women from seeking work and lower their professional self-esteem, as well as the fact that in their countries of origin, many have not received the opportunity for education or professional qualifications due to the ongoing hostilities. One of the main stereotypes why a quarter of refugees think it is more difficult for a woman to find a job is the perception that they are not capable of working in all professional fields and that only low-skilled work is meant for them. Another major problem is the language barrier. It is difficult for the refugees from the Near East to overcome, due to the insufficient capacity of the available Bulgarian language courses, which are quickly filled by those who wish, as well as the large language differences. On the other hand, due to the great cultural and linguistic similarity between Bulgaria and Ukraine, the refugees from this region manage to socialize much faster, learn the language and enter the labor market.

Unfortunately, there are also public prejudices against the refugee community, which greatly reduce their opportunities to find work. They are often treated as foreigners who could contribute nothing to the prosperity of the country. This division and societal rejection also greatly contribute to their exploitation. Although there is little awareness of this topic, it is a problem that exists worldwide. Between 200 and 250 million adults are estimated to be victims of exploitation, which receives alarmingly little attention and public action. Within our research on refugee women and employment, 3 participants said that they are currently working in a situation of exploitation, and about 15% of our respondents told us that they know at least one person who is working for someone to pay off a debt to them. In this regard, another huge violation of is child labor. According to the United Nations, it is estimated that there are between 250 and 300 million working children today. Marginalized groups of people are exposed to an increased risk of falling into situations of violence, which applies particularly strongly to refugee children and when we talk about child labour. Of our survey participants, 1 in 10 reported knowing at least one minor who was working. This is an issue that needs serious attention so that the most vulnerable do not become even more vulnerable.

During the social consultations and assessments we carry out among our beneficiaries, we pay serious attention to their awareness of their rights and obligations as residents of the country. The main goal of our organization is that people who turn to us for help get the support they need to be able to start their new life and build good foundations for it, and our teams of social workers and cultural mediators work hard and tirelessly in this direction.

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