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Step Up: How to get refugees into work quickly

OPEN’s new report, published with the Tent Foundation, sets out how best to get refugees and asylum seekers into work quickly, with a focus on entry-level jobs. 

Governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and businesses provide many different schemes to help refugees get jobs, often without knowing how effective they are. However, there is plenty that they can learn from what works well elsewhere. From research, analysis and evidence from 22 advanced economies that receive substantial numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, this study sets out 16 key policy recommendations, and highlights best practices and promising new approaches.

Getting refugees promptly into work is a top priority. It fast-tracks their “integration” – their ability to participate in society fully. It helps neutralise the claim that they are a burden. Moreover, when refugees become colleagues and friends, they no longer seem like a threat.

As well as being good for society, working benefits refugees themselves. While they have suffered immensely, they typically do not want to be treated asvictims or charity cases. They want to start rebuilding their lives and become self-reliant again. In addition to providing an income, work makes refugees feel valued and proud that they are giving something back. An entry-level job can also be a stepping stone to better things.

However, refugees face all sorts of hurdles to finding work – such as personal trauma, social discrimination and government bureaucracy – and in many countries, they struggle. In Belgium, fewer than one in three refugees find a job within five years. There is enormous scope for progress; in the Canadian province of Alberta, four in five refugees gain work within a year of arriving. While refugees’ success in finding employment depends in part on their skills and attributes, the policies and programmes in the receiving country also make a huge difference.

To start working, refugees and asylum seekers need three things: the right to work, appropriate skills and job opportunities. While resettled refugees have the right to work immediately, those who claim asylum on arrival in the country in which they are seeking protection typically do not. Such is the backlog of asylum cases in many European countries and the United States that many asylum seekers are left in limbo for a lengthy period, allowing their skills to rust, depressing their motivation and deterring future employers.

It would be both cost-efficient and humane to invest in creating a speedy and fair asylum process, as Germany has done, and to allow asylum seekers with non-frivolous claims to work immediately, as in Canada, Sweden and Norway. To limit uncertainty and disruption, long-term or permanent residence and work permits should be granted immediately to those who obtain refugee status, as is done in Spain.

With a minimum of training, advice and support, most refugees can readily find work in countries with flexible labour markets, such as Canada and the US, in which entry-level jobs with few skill requirements are abundant. In the US, 71% of those completing the Matching Grant programme provided by voluntary agencies became self-sufficient within 120 to 180 days. Further training and job opportunities are necessary to enable refugees to progress over time.

In European countries with highly regulated labour markets, such as Germany and Sweden, in which even menial jobs require qualifications and the cost and risk of hiring unproven newcomers with initially low productivity can be prohibitive, much greater efforts are needed. Whereas a construction worker in the US can often learn on the job, a bricklayer requires a three-year qualification to start work in Germany. Even though Sweden has a very generous welcome programme for refugees, only 44% of those who had arrived there in the past five years were in work in 2014.

While the challenges are greater in Europe, there is plenty of scope for countries to emulate best practices.

Early intervention is crucial. As soon as possible – before resettlement in the case of refugees due to be resettled and on arrival in reception centres in the case of asylum seekers – people’s skills should be assessed and language lessons started, along with the cultural orientation classes that already take place.

While refugees who do not speak the local language may be able to find jobs – as cleaners, farm workers or in ethnic businesses, for instance – language skills open up many more opportunities. Whereas refugees in the EU who speak the local language at beginner level or less have an employment rate of only 27%, this more than doubles to 59% for those with intermediate language skills.

Language training should focus initially on workplace needs. While this is costly and requires the cooperation of employers, the most successful language training happens on the job. In Denmark, a promising new government-funded programme combines work, on-site language classes and on-the-job training.

For refugees who have smartphones, as most now do, apps also provide a cheap, flexible, interactive means for refugees to learn the local language, at their own pace and at a time that suits them; many companies offer free use to refugees.

Because refugees’ skills and needs vary widely – for instance, some have postgraduate degrees, while others are illiterate – job training needs to be tailored to their circumstances, combined with a strategy to get them to work quickly. Training programmes should also take account of local labour-market needs. In Colorado, Refugee Services training programmes – which cover
occupations from pharmacy technician to barista – are continued only if at least 70% of participants find work within six months.

Since local work experience is crucial, work placements, internships and apprenticeships should be encouraged. In Germany, Wir Zusammen (We Together), a coalition of more than 190 companies, has already provided internships for 3,500 refugees and apprenticeships for a further 800 and created 2,130 permanent jobs.

Digital technologies can also be a significant help. In the US, HigherAdvantage, a programme of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, provides online training modules on issues such as how to find and keep a job, how to prepare for a job interview, and what to expect in the US workplace.

Refugees often lack contacts who can advise them on how to learn job-related skills, find work and pursue a particular career. Well-designed mentoring programmes can make a remarkable difference. In Britain, TimeBank, a charity, trains volunteer mentors to help refugees integrate into society. While the Time Together mentoring programme is not specifically oriented towards finding a job, employment among mentees rose from 5% to 47%.

In addition to appropriate skills, refugees need employment opportunities. Many governments disperse them around the country without considering the availability of local jobs. It would make better sense not to disperse refugees, as Spain does, or else to factor in local job opportunities, as Sweden does, while allowing refugees who have been relocated and can’t find jobs locally to move to other areas.

Discrimination is another salient issue, exacerbated by politicians who demonise refugees in general and Muslim ones in particular. Field experiments in many countries show that people with foreign-sounding names are less likely to get a job interview than identical candidates with local names. Anti-discrimination laws need more vigorous enforcement. Practical measures, such as standardised job applications and anonymised CVs (resumes), may also help.

Labour markets that privilege insiders at the expense of outsiders – not only refugees but also young locals – are neither fair nor efficient. One solution is to open up the labour market, as President Emmanuel Macron is doing in France. If not, temporary wage subsidies have been found to be particularly effective at boosting employment in both Europe and the US.

Refugees often lack information about job opportunities, while employers are often unaware of refugees’ potential. While ethnic networks, NGOs and employment services can help match refugees to jobs, temporary employment agencies and technology platforms such as LinkedIn are also very useful.

In many countries, volunteers have set up online services specifically to match refugees and asylum seekers to jobs, such as Workeer in Germany, Refugees Work in Austria and Action Emploi Réfugiés in France. These should be encouraged to scale up.

While there is much for governments and refugees themselves to do, businesses also need to take the initiative, not just for corporate social responsibility (CSR) reasons, but also because it makes good business sense.

Companies want to be seen doing their part to help with an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Assisting refugees can earn goodwill from governments and consumers, and help attract, retain and motivate employees. However, the demonisation of refugees may make businesses reluctant to engage, and they may need reassurance that they are doing the right thing.

There is also a strong business case for hiring refugees. Refugees are typically hard-working and highly motivated. Skilled refugees can fill skills shortages, while less-skilled ones can fill jobs that locals no longer want to do. A more diverse workforce tends to boost creativity and innovation and can help tap new markets both domestically and abroad.

Businesses may face challenges in hiring refugees, but there are many ways to overcome them. Websites, brochures and hotlines can provide information about refugees’ right to work and how to hire them. Partnerships with NGOs such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) can help identify suitable candidates. Orientation classes can help both refugees and local workers address cultural barriers. Language classes and interpreters can help with communication issues.

While recruiting refugees may involve additional costs, this investment tends to yield a return quickly. In Germany, the Boston Consulting Group calculates that while hiring and training a refugee costs 40% more than recruiting a local worker, the payback period for the initial investment is typically only a year thanks to government subsidies and increased productivity.

Refugees have a huge amount to contribute to the society that welcomes them and to the organisations that employ them. It is in everyone’s interests to make the most of their talents. Governments, non-profits and businesses need to step up.

Download the full report (in single pages in case you want to print it) here.

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