In order to bridge divides we need to build a clear path to the labour market for Europe’s migrants

Monday 18 December is International Migrants Day. In the following blog piece Eurofound Director Juan Menéndez-Valdés and Research Manager Klára Fóti look at new developments in migration policy and practice in the EU, and the need to build clear paths to the labour market for Europe’s new migrants.


Europe’s labour market derives its strength from its diversity, and in that regard Europe’s new migrants may bring with them creativity, dynamism and innovation to an ageing workforce. But to harness this potential we need to have the right policies and strategies in place; unfortunately there has been limited evidence of this to date. More experience is needed with the measures currently in place, particularly in relation to challenges in implementation.

The large inflow of refugees in recent years, especially in 2015, has been posing significant challenges for Europe, even if the number of new arrivals has reduced since then.  After the initial humanitarian crisis, longer term solutions had to be found;  labour market integration is vital, not only for social integration and inclusion in Europe, but also to Europe’s economic and political cohesion.

It’s about geography, not borders

Every European country has been affected by the recent refugee crisis. It is not an issue that is confined to national borders, or that can be looked at in isolation. Eurofound’s  report 'Approaches to the labour market integration of refugees and asylum seekers'  looked at the practical measures that had been taken in a number different EU Member States, as well as EU level initiatives. One of the clear lessons of this research is that integrating these new migrants to the labour market is not simply a question of skills or legal procedures, but also involves living conditions, geographical distribution, incentives for employers, and education.

For example, even if the geographical distribution of asylum seekers and refugees is planned, there is no guarantee that there will be job opportunities near the reception centres and locations where migrants are being accommodated.  

Geographical distribution is also an important aspect  when it comes to preparing refugees for employment. For example, in Austria a nationwide apprenticeship placement scheme has been introduced. The rationale behind it is that apprentices are lacking in the western and southern part of the country, whereas many young people arrived to Vienna.  So the aim of the scheme, which is supported by employers, is to encourage those refugees who went to Vienna to settle in other parts of the country.   

Going beyond temporary measures

The volume of asylum seekers that have arrived since 2015 has resulted in the increased use of temporary asylum.  The provision of temporary asylum can weaken refugees’ position in the labour market since it may deter employers from hiring them or offering them longer term contracts as the employers are reluctant to invest in training. This must also be considered in the context that migrants are often already at a disadvantage, due to linguistic barriers, and unfamiliarity with social and employment norms. In Sweden, for example, it is possible to change status as a result of employment (paving the way for permanent residence).  The trade unions in Sweden, however, warned that in a desperate job search, these people could accept almost any job offer, which could aggravate their vulnerability and increase exploitation. 

Other restrictions, such as those on family reunification also have an impact, as separation from family members and insecure residence statuses can divert refugees’ attention away from focusing on integration.

Recent experiences have also pointed out new challenges. So far, even some promising initiatives have not had a major impact. For example, in Austria only a few people finished the so called Voluntary Integration Year, which includes training and integration measures (German language courses, recognition of diplomas) in a recognised organisation. The reason for this could be that the requirements were too strict.  In Sweden the fast-track initiatives for refugees into shortage occupations have also benefitted a relatively low number of people. This can be explained by the fact that the initiative requires a lot of resources both from the employment services and the employers themselves.

The EU encourages Member States to share their good practices among each other.  No doubt, this can be beneficial for overcoming the challenges across Europe. At the same time, the overall economic situation of the individual Member States is also important, since success of labour market integration depends to a large extent on the capacity of the labour market to absorb new arrivals. This is especially true in Germany, Sweden and Austria.  Another factor playing a crucial role in success is the extent to which migrants’ skill profiles match the available jobs.  In the case of refugees, this could be a particular challenge.

Focusing on the future

There is a strong political will in the key destination countries to integrate refugees and asylum seekers to the labour market as quickly as possible. As illustrated by the above examples, there are many challenges hampering this objective. Among other issues, future policies should include anti-discrimination measures (for example, to address discriminatory recruitment practices), introducing specific integration measures for family members,  labour market policy measures which can meet the specific needs of migrants, including refugees.

Europe has changed. The temporary measures brought in from 2015 to deal with the influx of migrants were a necessity to allow countries to adapt quickly to new challenges. We now need to focus on the future, to build strong bridges to the labour market and unite Europe through the strength of its diversity.

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