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Newcomers in the North: Labor Market Integration of Refugees in Northern Europe

  • Work

In 2015 and 2016, nearly 2.7 million asylum seekers arrived in the European Union, comprising the largest mass movement in Europe since World War II. More than half chose to apply for asylum on the northernmost edge of the continent: Germany was the top destination country by far, but much-smaller Sweden received more asylum applications relative to its population.

The Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark also saw significant numbers. Since then, these five countries—high-income states known for their generous welfare systems and hospitality toward protection seekers—have turned to the sizable task of integrating the new arrivals into the labor market.

Northern European countries are no strangers to immigration, having received more than 2 million asylum seekers between 2000 and 2014, in addition to significant numbers of intra-EU migrants. However, despite their relatively welcoming attitude, these countries are marked by high barriers to entry in the labor market for humanitarian arrivals, and many refugees who arrived in previous decades found it harder than anticipated to find work and a footing in society. In addition, humanitarian migrants in some countries have fared much better than elsewhere; for example, after ten years in the country, more than 60 percent of refugees in Germany were employed, compared to roughly 45 percent in Denmark.

In light of the major inflows of primarily Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi asylum seekers in 2015 and 2016, governments are reconsidering their integration policies in an attempt to ease asylum seekers' transition into the job market. This article compares labor market outcomes among earlier waves of successful asylum applicants (referred to here as refugees) and integration programs across five Northern European countries—Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden—and identifies key lessons governments can learn from the varied experiences refugees have in finding work. The findings are adapted from the author's book, Inspiration for Integration, originally published in Swedish.

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