Refugees and migrants in the labour market. Interview with Liam Patuzzi


The New European interviewed Liam Patuzzi, Associate Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute Europe. We had the chance to discuss different and common challenges that migrants and refugees face to enter the labour market. Patuzzi also provided some insights of the best options for refugees and migrants to land jobs.

Does the European Union need migrants?

If we look at the demographic development in the European Union (EU), we see that the population is aging. That means that the labour force will constantly shrink over the next decades, the population in retirement will increase and that will put a strain on our welfare and pension systems. Immigration is not the solution to this, but it can alleviate some pressure and be one of the components to react to this trend. Therefore it should be seen as an opportunity. For other reasons, migration of highly skilled workers and migration of talent, including innovative entrepreneurs, will be important if the EU is to continue its development into innovative, internationally oriented knowledge economy and to remain competitive on the global stage.

As regards refugee migration, the question for the EU is more one of global humanitarian responsibility rather than labour needs. The EU should stand up to its values and offer a viable path for people that are trying to escape the threats of war and conflict. They too can contribute to European economies, of course, but this should not be the main rationale of admitting them into our countries. And they are likely to have a harder time finding work, due to their vulnerability.

What are the current issues that make it difficult for refugees and asylum seekers to be fully integrated into the host societies?

Refugees and asylum seekers share most of the challenges that other migrants encounter, such as language barriers, lack of a relevant networks and social capital, or skills and qualifications that are hard to transfer to European labour markets.

But refugees and asylum seekers also face additional hurdles. This is partly due to the fact that their migration is not immediately linked to labour market needs, as is the case for work migrants. Generally, refugees leave their countries in a hurry and do not have the possibility to collect information about the country of destination, its education system, and job opportunities. Often they do not even know what will be their country of final destination.

For many young refugees and asylum seekers, fleeing their country means that they have to abruptly interrupt their education pathway. In other cases, they may have completed their education in their country of origin, but did not bring their certificates and diplomas with them. Another important concern is related to traumas or mental health issues that refugees may have developed as a consequence of the violence and existential fear they had to endure, both in their home countries and on their way to Europe.

Several administrative and legal barriers may also create additional obstacles on the way into the labour market. This is particularly true for asylum seekers (those who are not yet officially recognised as refugees). Most European countries have systems and regulations in place that bar asylum seekers from immediately accessing the labour market. At the moment, the trend is going towards more liberal rules of labour market access for this group, partly due to the long time it takes to process asylum requests in countries which experienced a strong influx. In Germany, for instance, it currently takes on average more than ten months to process an asylum claim, but most asylum seekers can access the labour market after three months upon arriving in the country. However, there are important variations from country to country. And even where formal labour market access is granted relatively fast, labour market tests and complicated administrative requirements may still discourage employers from hiring refugees, as recent surveys have shown.

Last but not least, refugees face many other challenges not directly related to work, making it more difficult for them to invest resources in looking for a job or accessing employment support. One such challenge, for example, is that reception facilities are normally located in peripheral and deprived areas,, far from urban centres where most jobs and training offerings are.

What is the recipe for migrant labour integration?

Proficiency in the language of the host country is certainly a key dimension, also from the perspective of employers. In several European countries, there is a growing recognition that it may be best to combine language training with vocational training or work experience: positive examples can be found in Sweden (step-in jobs) or in Belgium (‘Learning Dutch on the work floor’). In general, as a reaction to the refugee influx, there has been quite some experimentation on new, more flexible approaches to labour market integration in the main European destination countries. For instance, this includes combining early skills assessment with internships or subsidised work, with language training running in parallel, as is the case in Denmark.

When we talk about labour market integration, one immediate goal is to find a job. However, after the first entry into the labour market, it is important to offer paths of career progression through continuing education and training. A precarious, low skilled job for a person that has higher qualifications or a desire to progress can quickly turn from a stepping stone into a stumbling block. Striking a good balance between fast employment and further investments in human capital is essential to avoid these dead ends. Career pathway courses like the ones developed in Canada are a valid example for such an incremental approach.

Another aspect is to create social capital and networks, for instance through mentoring models. These models have been proven successful in several of countries, for instance Canada and Austria. One central advantage is their element of emotional support and empowerment. Usually the mentor is an experienced professional in the field who can convey to the mentee not only technical knowledge and skills, but also the informal rules and culturally specific ‘codes’ of the work environment. He/she can also help the immigrant with networks and contacts, as many jobs are normally found via these informal paths.

Do Member States qualification systems differ a lot from one another?

Skills recognition and skills transferability can constitute important barriers for migrants and refugees. There are some significant improvements in Europe. In Germany, there has been important progress with a recognition law that was passed in 2012. This law streamlined the whole process of recognition and established the legal right for migrants to get their foreign qualifications recognised and set time caps to ensure a swift procedure. From the moment of the application, the competent authority must assess the foreign qualification within three to four months. Moreover, the German government has set up a network of information points (Network IQ) to help immigrants understand the complex recognition system.

However, there are some areas were more progress is necessary. For instance, when immigrants only receive a partial recognition of their professional qualifications, tailored and modularised training blocks should be available, so that migrants or refugees do not need to repeat the whole training, but can instead fill the gaps in a targeted fashion.

As mentioned, some refugees do not possess formal professional credentials or they are not able to provide official proof of them. Therefore it is important to enhance the systems of validation of informal or non-formal learning. Some European countries, Norway and Finland for example, are more advanced in this area, while others like Germany are striving to catch up.

At any rate, involving employers into recognition and validation practices is highly advisable, because it helps ensuring that recognised skills are in line with what is expected on the labour market. The ‘fast tracks’ introduced in Sweden to channel qualified asylum seekers into certain professions are a good example of how the social partners can actively participate in designing integration pathways.

Are refugee women less likely to be integrated in the labour market? Why?

Refugee women constitute a particularly vulnerable category. Generally, their labour market outcomes tend to be significantly worse than for other refugees. Besides being confronted with all the challenges mentioned before, refugee women often have to handle  competing demands on their time that derive from their role in the family (for instance looking after children). This makes it more difficult for them to participate in training and job-seeking activities.

Moreover, the frequently unequal gender relations within communities of origin of refugees compound the problem, limiting the possibilities of refugee women and, in some cases, exposing them to the risk of violence.

Therefore, to reach out to this group, tailored and targeted offerings that recognise this vulnerability and create a safe, empowering environment are crucial, at least at the initial stage.

At the same time, it is important to highlight that integration is not only about the acquisition of language and other skills, but also about accepting and endorsing the values that are fundamental for the EU, namely the gender equality between men and women. Well-designed civic integration courses can help convey this to newcomers, even though they are just an initial step.

Do you think the EU should do more to support migrant entrepreneurship? How could it be done?

Migrant entrepreneurship has been an area of focus at the EU level in recent years: it is included in the 2016 Action Plan for Integration, and EU-funded projects have developed benchmarks and guidelines to foster migrant entrepreneurs and tap their potential.

Particularly if we look now at the integration of refugees, entrepreneurship is a topic that gains new momentum. It can constitute a valuable alternative for people who do not possess formal vocational qualifications, do not perfectly master the host country language or lack the skills to enter the labour market. To start a business, particular soft skills, previous entrepreneurial experience and a certain degree of risk friendliness may be more important, and this matches the profile and the cultural background of many migrants.

Migrant entrepreneurship has the potential to fulfil two important goals: on one hand, social inclusion and labour market integration; on the other, creating employment and fostering growth. At the same time, especially if we look at high-tech, knowledge-intensive businesses, it can also stimulate innovativeness and move the European economy forward.

However, the entrepreneurial path is not an easy one, and it can be even more daunting for migrants.  Specific challenges may include language barriers, lack of knowledge of the business environment in the host country, limited familiarity with relevant regulations and legal procedures, weak business skills (for instance, how to prepare a solid and sustainable business plan), the lack of networks, and problems in accessing credits and investments (for instance due to a lack of credit history and collateral in the host country).

Migrant entrepreneurs do not necessarily need a separate system of support, although targeted measures can help groups with particular needs, such as newly arrived refugees, migrant women entrepreneurs, and others. In the long term, it is probably best to invest in a strategy aimed at opening up generic business services by making them more diversity-sensitive and inclusive.

In sum, entrepreneurship holds great potential as a path into economic self-sufficiency, but it is no easy solution. On one hand, migrants’ start-up rate is higher than among natives in several EU countries, in Germany for example. On the other hand, businesses created by migrants tend to be more vulnerable, with many failing within five years. While the entrepreneurial enthusiasm provides a great basis on which to build, it is essential to offer support for the long-term success of these businesses.

In order to stress the positive contribution of migrant entrepreneurship, the way it is represented should catch up with new realities. Migrant businesses are often instinctively associated with ethnic or low innovation enterprises. However, this is not necessarily the case anymore: in Germany, researchers have pointed to a growing number of migrant start-ups in knowledge-intensive sectors. It is much more complex, differentiated and fascinating landscape than outdated stereotypes would lead us to believe.


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