Mitch Morrison
Aug 9, 2018 · 3 min read
A Syrian woman, now a refugee in Lebanon, shows off her hand-knitted clothes for sale. Credit: Picture: Russell Watkins for DFID (UK Department for International Development)

How to Improve Refugee Employment

The latter part of this decade will most likely be recorded by future historians as the “era of the refugee”. According to a 2017 UNHCR report, there are now 68.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world, including 25.4 million people who have are currently living outside their home country due to violence or prosecution.

As Europe has seen a massive influx of refugees, concerns about how to encourage and secure their long-term integration have been mounting. Obviously, an important component of this is helping refugees to secure a sustainable livelihood.

First, a disclaimer: there has recently been some pushback about applying a catch-all term like “refugee” to a heterogeneous group of people who possess diverse backgrounds and qualifications, and are only unified by their need to flee from violence or prosecution. For the purposes of this article, it means we should be cognizant of which socio-economic class of refugees we are talking about, and that integration and employment efforts should be tailored based on the individuals skills, qualifications, and education.

Nevertheless, there are some general principles that would benefit many refugees in general:

1. Speed: A 2016 study of asylum applicants in Switzerland showed that each additional year of waiting for a asylum status decision reduces the subsequent employment rate of the individual by 4 to 5 percentage points, and helps explain the 23% unemployment rate gap compared to the native population. The study found this was true among refugees of various backgrounds, regardless of age, education, gender, or social class. Luckily, in 2016 the Swiss electorate approved, via a national referendum, an expedited asylum procedure.

Likewise, states can do more to speed up the recognition of foreign qualifications. Aleksynska and Algan (2010, p.19) found in their study of immigrant integration in several European countries that “first-generation immigrants…have a significantly higher probability of performing worse jobs regardless of their potentially higher level of education”, due to the “different valuation and non-recognition” of the immigrants’ diplomas from their home countries.

2. Integrated approaches: In order to reduce the amount of time refugees spend out of the work force, an ideal program would combine both job training and language training skills (although this would be better suited for refugees coming from a low-skilled or blue-collar background). For example, a new state integration program in Denmark combines on-the-job training with on-site, integrated language classes. (Paid) mentoring and internship programs can also help refugees integrate in multiple dimensions at once.

3: Regulation: The state can make active interventions into the economy to help encourage refugee employment, from relatively small-scale and targeted (such as enforcing anti-discrimination statues to prevent job discrimination, like when employers discriminate based on “foreign-sounding” names on CVs), or macro-level reforms like the ones being pushed by the French president Emmanuel Macron.

Temporary wage subsidies, or introducing a special lower-level minimum wage for refugees, should be handled with caution. Such measures are being trialed in countries like Sweden and Germany but the governments there are engaging in consultations with trade unions, NGOs, and other groups before scaling them up.

4. Innovative Private-Sector approaches: In addition to local non-profits and larger NGOs, private sector actors such as start-ups and social enterprises can also play a valuable role. For example, the social enterprise firm TaQadam employs young Syrian refugees in Lebanon by enabling them to make image annotations that train AI for a variety of firms. Although relatively small scale, they can still make a valuable difference in the lives of hundreds of individual refugees.


Transforming satellite imagery into valuable insights with humans-in-the loop annotation, computer vision, and mapping technologies.

Mitch Morrison

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Transforming satellite imagery into valuable insights with humans-in-the loop annotation, computer vision, and mapping technologies.

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