A Two-way Process: Towards a new and better environment for labour market integration of refugees

The crisis in Ukraine has increased the number of refugees that need urgent attention in Europe. How can all stakeholders work together to overcome the challenges of integration, especially into the labour market, for refugees from all countries? Banner image: Shutterstock/Pressmaster
A Two-way Process: Towards a new and better environment for labour market integration of refugees
The Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society— to discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.



European and OECD countries remain among the main destination points for refugees from all around the world. After the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, Europe has been experiencing another mass flow of refugees from Ukraine; the total number recorded is currently 5 million according to the UNHCR. Now their urgent basic needs are being met by host countries—often with unprecedented solidarity—their integration in the labour market becomes a longer-term challenge while the situation remains uncertain.

The labour market integration of refugees is still a problem for many receiving countries. Although there are labour market shortages in many European countries, and the number of vacancies are on the rise again after the pandemic period, the activity rates of refugees remain low. This is a huge waste for the countries who cannot make effective use of this pool of talent that is already in their hands.

According to the Migrant Integration Policy Index, the OECD average score is 56/100 while the EU’s is 49/100 in terms of their level of policy development.

We already know that there are many challenges for the quick and sustainable integration of refugees, such as language barriers; discrimination; difficulties in recognition and translation of qualifications and skills; lack of co-ordination among stakeholders; lack of long-term policy strategies at national/regional level; and insufficient lack of co-ordination during policy implementation.

The European countries are already taking steps against these challenges with policy instruments and funding mechanisms. According to the Migrant Integration Policy Index, the OECD average score is 56/100 while the EU’s is 49/100 in terms of their level of policy development. Because of structural and societal challenges, even increasing the integration funds could not substantially improve integration in many cases.

The last decade’s experiences of many refugees coming from conflict and crisis zones to Europe has shown that integration is a two-way process. On the one hand, it cannot be limited to mainly expecting efforts from refugees. On the other, this process cannot be handled by government alone: to make this happen, it needs a collaborative effort that includes civil society and the private sector following a positive narrative. Only this will bring real “social inclusion” that can be accepted as the final step of integration in our new (super-)diverse environment.

More on the Forum Network: City of Refugees: The Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life into a Dying American Town by Susan Hartman, Journalist, New York Times; Author

More on the Forum Network: City of Refugees: The Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life into a Dying American Town by Susan Hartman, Journalist, New York Times; Author

There are already promising practices piloting innovative solutions, bringing different stakeholders together for better labour market integration of refugees. The EU’s SPRING project gathers and shares sustainable good practices of integration. As an example, All-in-one4HER developed a sustainable regional/local model for integrating refugees into the labour market by using career coaching, mentoring and networking on a digital platform to mobilise volunteer mentors, employers and organisations. Successful initiatives like these need to spread to other areas, so that others can learn from them to increase the level of integration.

We all need to be careful with polarising narratives that can feed discrimination of different groups, and European and OECD countries can use this solidarity to build a more positive narrative for all refugees.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, we have seen an outpouring of support from European citizens, civil society organisations, companies and governments. Many citizens have volunteered to host these refugees at their home; many civil society organisations have been organising supporting campaigns. Most of the countries gave immediate access to shelter, food, financial support, health services, education and work. This resolve demonstrated across the continent presents an unprecedented chance to overhaul longstanding gaps in Europe’s ability to integrate refugees. We all need to be careful with polarising narratives that can feed discrimination of different groups, and European and OECD countries can use this solidarity to build a more positive narrative for all refugees.

While a positive narrative can lower the barriers in the labour market for refugees, developments on the environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) agenda are another opportunity. ESG is the framework for assessing the impact of the sustainability and ethical practices of a company. Based on the United National principles, the EU and OECD are also putting these measures in their regulations and guidelines, encouraging companies to comply with this framework while doing their business. The social criteria of the ESG includes the social relations of the company with its employees, diversity and inclusion, as well as its support for external vulnerable groups such as refugees.

In addition to established Corporate Social Responsibility frameworks, an ESG lens will bring more recommendations into focus so companies act with more social responsibility, for example organising volunteering during the working hours, starting campaigns in different countries or opening more positions to refugees and other vulnerable groups.

We need to remember that integration is a collaborative effort, bringing all sides of the process together. The current environment can be an opportunity for integration policy makers and practitioners to increase their efforts—implementing innovative solutions, to create win-win situations—and sharing them with others.




Read the OECD report Rights and Support for Ukrainian Refugees in Receiving Countries for information on entry and stay conditions, available reception support and integration measures

Read the OECD report Rights and Support for Ukrainian Refugees in Receiving Countries for information on entry and stay conditions, available reception support and integration measures

In this podcast, we talk to Viivian Jõemets, Chief Expert at the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research, specialising in language learning and migration, and OECD analyst Lucie Cerna, specialising in education and refugees, about how to best continue schooling and vocational training for refugee children and teenagers.