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How to Help Refugees Get Into Work Fast

What kind of support do refugees really need to get jobs? Philippe Legrain, founder of the OPEN think-tank, outlines his new 22-country study on what works best to help refugees find employment quickly, thus bringing dividends to local economies.

Written by Philippe Legrain Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Visitors attend a job fair for refugees and migrants in Berlin in January 2017. AFP PHOTO/STEFFI LOOS

Suleiman was thrown out of his home in Afghanistan at the age of 11 because his father couldn’t afford to support him. Forced to work for a living, he learned how to sew.

But as a Hazara, a persecuted Persian-speaking minority, life alone in Afghanistan became too dangerous. He eventually ended up in France in 2015 and was homeless in Paris for six months until he received refugee status.

Fortunately, a social worker at one of France’s refugee agencies contacted Action Emploi Refugies (AER), a social enterprise that uses an online platform to match refugees to employers. AER was looking for people to work with a small fashion label, which took on Suleiman straight away.

In 2016, he worked on a collection that gained a lot of attention. Soon after, Suleiman was hired full-time by a haute couture fashion label. He is now on an indefinite contract, enabling him to rent stable accommodation in Paris.

Suleiman’s story highlights the importance of getting refugees into jobs quickly. Refugees typically do not want to be treated as victims or charity cases. They want to start rebuilding their lives, become self-reliant again and give something back to society. In addition to speeding up refugees’ full participation in society, employment helps neutralize the claim that they are a burden. And when refugees become colleagues and friends, they no longer seem like a threat.

My first study for the Tent Foundation and OPEN think-tank, Refugees Work, found that investing one euro ($1.20) in welcoming refugees could yield nearly twice that in economic benefits within just five years. That initial investment, which tends to be spent locally, acts like a growth-enhancing fiscal stimulus – and as refugees start working, the dividends multiply.

Yet refugees face many obstacles to finding work – such as personal trauma, social discrimination and government bureaucracy. Their success in gaining work varies widely: In the Canadian province of Alberta, four in five refugees gain work within a year of arriving; in Belgium, only one in three does so within five years.

Our new study, Step Up, examines 22 advanced economies to highlight best practices and promising new approaches to getting refugees into work. The secrets to success are promptness, personalized assistance and possibilities for employment.

Speed is crucial. Long-term joblessness rusts skills, saps motivation and deters prospective employers. In Switzerland, an additional year of waiting for a decision on their asylum claim reduced refugees’ likelihood of subsequent employment substantially, by between 16 and 23 percent.

Yet most governments take a long time to register and process asylum seekers’ claims, initially denying them the right to work and then severely constraining it. So very few asylum seekers undertake paid work (leaving most reliant on welfare), while others work informally.

Investing in a faster and fairer asylum process would thus be both cost-effective and kind. Those with non-frivolous claims should be allowed to work immediately, as they are in Canada, Sweden and Norway. Asylum seekers don’t take local jobs, and imposing hardship on them is scarcely going to deter those prepared to risk death to reach a country from coming.

Newcomers’ skills should be assessed and language lessons started as soon as possible. And foreign qualifications need recognizing or converting faster.

As well as being prompt, assistance needs to be personalized. Refugees are very diverse – some are graduates, others illiterate – as are the requirements of local job markets. So training needs to be tailored to their individual circumstances and combined with a strategy to get them into work, as in Sweden. Refugees need much more training in highly regulated European economies than in Canada or the U.S., where it is pretty easy to find jobs with few or no qualifications.

The most effective language training is on the job, although this is costly and requires willing employers. In Denmark, a new government-funded program combines work, on-site language classes and on-the-job training. Work placements, internships and apprenticeships can also make a big difference, as can well-designed mentoring programs.

Technology can help this personalized approach. Many refugees have smartphones with apps that offer a cheap, flexible, interactive means of learning the local language, finding out about training opportunities and matching refugees to jobs. Job-matching platforms such as AER, which placed Suleiman with the fashion label, should be emulated and encouraged to scale up.

In addition to prompt and personalized help, it needs to be possible to actually find a job. When dispersing refugees, countries should take account of the availability of local jobs, as Sweden does. Anti-discrimination laws also need more effective enforcement.

The trickiest issue is labor-market regulation. Migrants’ employment rates tend to be lower in countries with high entry-level wages, excessive employment protection and a dualistic labor market.

One option is to open up the labor market, as President Emmanuel Macron is doing in France. While his main aim is to lower youth unemployment, his proposed reforms could also benefit refugees.

In the absence of economy-wide reforms, governments can also take specific measures to lower the initial cost of hiring refugees. One option is a lower minimum wage for newly arrived refugees, as typically exists for young people, while they are being trained. Germany is considering this; in Sweden, trade unions are conditionally open to it.

A better option is temporary wage subsidies, which are particularly effective. To avoid the charge that refugees are getting special treatment or undercutting local workers, these are best targeted at all the long-term unemployed. Lowering the taxes on low-wage workers in general can also boost employment.

Refugees have huge potential. Governments, nonprofits and businesses need to employ some fresh thinking about how to make the most of it.

The views in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply. 

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