A Closer Look

Refugees in Northern Europe – Chances of finding work increase with each year of residence but plateau at a rate significantly below

Since the late 1970s, wealthy Northern European countries have been popular destinations for both humanitarian and labor migrants. The EU accession of formerly communist Eastern European countries in the early 2000s led to a substantial increase in labor migration toward Northern Europe. Overall, these migrants have found it reasonably easy to find work and are generally employed at higher rates than the overall population. Between 80 and 90 percent of labor migrants who have lived in Sweden or Norway for two years are working, compared to between 20 and 25 percent of refugees.

In contrast, an analysis of employment data shows refugees who arrived in the late 1990s and early 2000s generally spent many years in unemployment. Refugees have a harder time finding employment than labor migrants even when differences in education and language skills are taken into consideration. One possible explanation for this difference is that labor migrants usually arrive with a job offer waiting for them. If they become unemployed, labor migrants also tend to move home or to another country. Many refugees do not have these options.

In Sweden and Denmark, just one-third of refugees who had been in the country for five years had some form of employment—including part-time work. Meanwhile, refugees in the other countries have fared somewhat better, with 40 percent in the Netherlands and nearly 50 percent in Germany working after five years. Almost 60 percent of refugees in Norway were employed five years after arrival. This is partly explained by the fact that Norway has had labor shortages for the last decade, having issued almost 20,000 work permits to EU citizens every year.

While a refugee’s chances of finding work increase with each year of residence, after ten to 15 years employment generally plateaus at a rate significantly below that of the overall population. The exception is Germany, where over the long run refugees reach an employment rate nearly equal to the overall population. However, these figures are based on the experiences of smaller groups that arrived over the last 15 years, and might not hold for the more than 1 million who arrived in Germany in 2015-16.

The traditional challenges facing refugees in finding work, combined with the overwhelming number of arrivals in 2015-16, have increased the willingness of recipient-country governments to review their integration policies and find ways to promote faster tracks to employment.


Denmark, Norway, and Sweden have adopted full-time integration programs for refugees, with economic benefits conditional upon their participation. The programs are composed of language education at special schools combined with apprenticeships and internships, vocational training, and assistance from employment offices in finding work.

In Sweden, the program is run by the Public Employment Agency. In Denmark and Norway, the municipalities are responsible but the central government agencies set up the general guidelines, for example the number of hours of language education to which participants are entitled. The Danish government regulates municipal efforts in greater detail, deciding exactly how many refugees they must accept each year and what type of workforce development they must provide. In Norway, meanwhile, municipalities have more freedom to compose their own integration programs. That autonomy might have contributed to the better overall outcomes of refugees in Norway, but may also explain the vast differences in outcomes between Norwegian municipalities. Refugees who completed their integration program in the best-performing towns are employed at rates almost twice those of refugees who attended in the worst-performing areas.

A comparison of policies and results between these countries shows that while there are no simple solutions, several best practices are becoming clear.

First, proficiency in the language of the host country is very important in finding and keeping a job. This has become increasingly true as entry-level jobs available to migrants are now predominantly in the service sector rather than manufacturing. Accordingly, governments have placed more emphasis on language training. Combining language education with employment training, preferably at workplaces, has proved to be the best path to regular work. All five countries examined, except Sweden, now require refugees to pass language tests to be eligible for permanent residence.

Second, integration measures aligned with the needs of workplaces are the most efficient. Successful labor market training and vocational courses happen in close cooperation with employers, preferably with long-term hiring needs. Programs that target sectors with labor shortages and provide refugees with a combination of vocational training and workplace experience in those fields have a high probability of success.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at Newcomers in the North: Labor Market Integration of Refugees in Northern Europe | migrationpolicy.org

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