With the number of refugees and displaced people at extraordinary levels, it is increasingly critical for countries around the world to successfully integrate refugees into their societies. Unfortunately, even though finding work is one of the most critical steps in rebuilding their lives in their new home countries, refugees struggle to find meaningful employment.

Researchers argue that a better understanding of the complex systemic barriers refugees face to gain employment is critical to help improve refugee settlement.

The following article is based on two studies conducted by International Business researchers exploring refugee employment, workplace integration and international adjustment.

Mapping out what we know

Knowledge about inclusion of refugees into the mainstream workforce tends to be fragmented, making it hard for researchers to timely contribute to existing knowledge and provide stakeholders with practical solutions.

In the first study, researchers Eun Su Lee, Betina Szkudlarek and Duc Cuong Nguyen from the University of Sydney, and Luciara Nardon from Carleton University, reviewed 171 existing studies to create a comprehensive overview of what is currently known about refugee employment and workforce integration. They also identified areas where more research is needed to help find practical solutions to refugee employment.

Factors impeding refugee workforce integration

In analyzing the challenges refugees face to enter the workforce, the research team coined the term “canvas ceiling.” This term alludes to the temporary shelters holding refugees for extended periods of time and describes the interrelated multilevel system of barriers unique to refugees that lead to extreme marginalization and hinder their access to meaningful employment and career advancement in the receiving country. Barriers were identified at the institutional, organizational and individual levels.

Institutional – When exploring institutional barriers refugees were up against:

  • Immigration regulations and policies that favor political interests over refugee well-being
  • Accreditation bodies that reject internationally obtained credentials and restrict access to better-paying jobs
  • Socio-political narratives that cast refugees as an unwanted burden to society

Organizational – From an organizational perspective, refugees tended to face:

  • Government-funded refugee employment programs that prioritize immediate employment over long-term career success and advancement
  • Reliance on support organizations meant to facilitate newcomer resettlement and workforce integration who often lack understanding of the qualification recognition process and lack capacity to provide adequate training and professional development alternatives
  • Employers’ reluctance to consider refugee job applicants due to the challenges of verifying internationally obtained qualifications and experience
  • Higher standards employers impose on refugee job applicants compared to the local population
  • Discrimination against job applicants that look “visibly different” from the local population
  • Lack of access to post-employment training crucial in helping refugees stay employed and get promoted into higher positions
  • Lower wages that are based on employers’ perceptions rather than objective reflections of refugee skills and qualifications
  • Feelings of exclusion, isolation and being undervalued within the workplace

Existing studies argue that due to the challenges of entering the workforce, refugee entrepreneurship is often driven by necessity. And though refugee businesses tend to hire other refugees, the jobs tend to be in lower-skilled industries and therefore lower paid. Furthermore, in the long term, these positions tend provide limited opportunities to develop valuable skills and develop a professional network to grow professionally.

Individual – On an individual level, refugees often struggled due to:

  • Demographics that make it more difficult to find work, such as being a woman or older individual
  • Difficulty securing employment due to lack of language proficiency
  • Limited access to professional networks to uncover work opportunities
  • Mental health challenges at the time of arrival making workforce integration more difficult
  • Negative sense of self-worth due to disappointment in home-country credentials not being recognized, failure to secure work matching their skills and experience, or reliance on government-assisted income

In exploring the interplay between barriers, the research team argues that from a top-down perspective the socio-political environment has an overarching impact. It affects institutional approach to policy formulation as well as organizational behaviours in recruitment and workforce integration of refugee jobseekers. Furthermore, institutional factors determine the level of support and funding for support organizations to work with employers, which in turn impact organizational willingness to consider and hire refugees.

Notwithstanding, there is also a bottom-up perspective where individual factors impact institutional and organizational factors. Individual employment outcomes, such as a refugee’s ability to be successfully employed, also tended to collectively impact socio-political attitudes around refugee workforce integration.

Dr. Nardon spoke of the importance of understanding the interplay between barriers.

“When we just focus on refugee self-agency, we fail to recognize the complex systemic barriers refugees face in their path to meaningful employment,” she said. “The solution starts with understanding.”

Broadening our views

The second study delves further into better understanding barriers refugees face to integrate into the workforce of their new country. This study argues International Business research, with its traditional focus on expatriates and multinational corporations (MNC), has created a knowledge blind spot. It points to a narrow view that neglects to show the impact macro-level factors such as economic, socio-political or institutional climate could have on any individual moving internationally.

To shine a light on systemic barriers and how much more can be done to facilitate refugee workforce integration, the research team compared extreme cases of international mobility. Namely, expatriates that move to work in a new country by choice and benefit from the support of their employers to adjust versus refugees forced to flee their homes depending largely on support from the receiving country to find meaningful employment.

Researchers Betina Szkudlarek and Eun Su Lee from the University of Sydney, Luciara Nardon from Carleton University, Joyce Osland from San Jose State University, and Nancy J. Adler from McGill University drew on their long-standing expertise as well as existing literature on international mobility to dive deeper into which macro-level factors most strongly affect international adjustment.

“Understanding international adjustment is particularly important because migrant populations now make up the majority of people moving across borders,” said Dr. Nardon.

Macro-level factors most strongly affecting refugees

Wealth of the receiving country. The level of economic development of the receiving country often determines the availability of support services available to refugees, which in turn impacts refugee adjustment. Case in point, while expatriates receive adjustment support from their employer, for services such as mentorship or cross-cultural programs, refugees rely largely on government programs and support organizations.

Employment options and available infrastructure. Expatriates have secure employment abroad and are rarely posted in areas without good infrastructure, such as transportation, schools, or hospitals. In contrast, refugees face more uncertainties and often have no say in the region where they settle.

Political climate and societal attitudes. Contrary to the welcome and high social status generally enjoyed by expatriates, refugees are often the subject of political debate, positioning them as socio-economic burden and unwanted competition. Furthermore, migration trends draw public attention to refugees often leading to discrimination.

Intent of immigration and integration policies. Existing studies argue that immigration policies tend to be in place to protect borders and discourage migration rather than protect human rights. This approach often fuels issues like illicit migration, further victimizing refugees. Similarly, integration policies requiring geographical dispersion of newcomers, have negative consequences. Settlement in rural areas with limited specialized refugee settlement support, employment options and access to infrastructure tend to undermine refugee well-being.

Macro-level factors affecting all globally mobile groups

While it is true that choice, preparation and support shelter expatriates and MNCs from some of the negative factors of international adjustment, they are not immune to the impacts of macro-level factors. Moreover, in reviewing existing studies, the research team argues some macro-level factors tend to diminish international adjustment of other globally mobile groups as well such as international students, seasonal migrants or self-initiated expatriates who move to work in another country on their own initiative.

Standard of living. According to existing research, generous relocation packages for expatriates are increasingly a practice of the past. More common now are localized compensation packages in line with the standards of the host country. And so, local salaries tend to impact multiple globally mobile groups.

Economic health and political stability. Transnational treaties and agreements can affect factors such as taxation, ease of entry or residency status. These not only affect multiple globally mobile groups, but also influence to what extend a MNC will operate within the host country.

Societal attitudes towards diversity. Existing studies argue that negative societal attitudes towards foreigners, such as nationalism, xenophobia or historic resentments can impact the most resilient of individuals thereby undermining adjustment within the country.

Complexity of immigration policies and institutional systems. Countries that for example do not grant work permits to spouses or partners of globally mobile individuals or do not provide multi-lingual support in areas such as education affect successful adjustment of globally mobile individuals and their partners or families.

Areas for future research and practical implications

The research team coined the term “canvas ceiling” to illustrate that barriers to refugee employment do not operate in isolation, therefore they advocate for future studies to explore how interactions among stakeholders affect refugee workforce integration.

The research team suggests a deeper understanding in the following areas could improve refugee employment outcomes.

  • How support organizations can play a successful intermediary role between refugees and employers. More research is needed to understand which models and forms of brokerage and engagement lead to the most sustainable employment outcome for refugees.
  • What are best practices across the globe to optimize governmental and organizational responses to refugee workforce integration. Studies looking at multiple countries and diverse groups of refugees can help formulate best practices by comparing successful and failed initiatives in terms of policies, regulations, and employer strategies.
  • What are best practices for employers to successfully hire, onboard and retain refugees. More understanding of effective hiring practices such as skills matching, cross-cultural training, up-skilling training, and workplace inclusion policies could encourage more employers to engage in refugee employment.

The study also argues that newcomers bring valuable skills and experience to their new home country and that more employers could benefit from increased involvement and commitment to refugees. Practical suggestions for how employers can help improve refugee workforce integration include:

  • Cross-sector partnerships to help reduce systemic barriers to refugee employment. Collaboration among stakeholders such as businesses, support organizations, accreditation bodies and government could help reshape how international credentials are recognized.
  • Create awareness for refugee employment to help improve societal attitudes. Businesses with successful workplace integration practices could help change the narrative around refugee employment from charitable act to engagement with a skilled talent pool that brings competitive advantage to businesses.
  • Support for refugee jobseekers in more ways besides hiring. Employers can include refugee adjustment as part of their social corporate responsibility mandate. They could offer apprenticeship opportunities for refugees to gain local work experience, encourage employees to mentor refugee jobseekers, or procure products and services from refugee entrepreneurs.

In conclusion Dr. Nardon shares:

“Refugee experts describe integration of displaced individuals not only as a human crisis, but also as a crisis of policy and political will,” she said. “I believe we can work together towards lowering systemic barriers to refugee employment and improve their overall well-being.”

Article Notes

Research Highlight writer: This Research Highlight was written by Fiorella Jansen-Nicorescu. CRIW’s Research Highlights share relevant and actionable information about workplace inclusion with a broad audience.

References: This article references work of other scholars, a list of references is available in the published studies: Unveiling the Canvas Ceiling: A Multidisciplinary Literature Review of Refugee Employment and Workforce Integration and When Context Matters: What Happens to International Theory When Researchers Study Refugees.

Other Information

For more information or to get in touch with a subject matter expert, please contact CRIW at criw@carleton.ca or 613-520-2650.

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This study was made possible, in part, through the generous support from the RBC Foundation.

About the Centre for Research on Inclusion at Work (CRIW)
The Centre for Research on Inclusion at Work (CRIW) is a research centre at the Sprott School of Business, Carleton University, focused on conducting and sharing research that advances diversity, equity and inclusion at work. By making research findings available to the public and connecting academia with the broader community, CRIW aims to advance knowledge and drive change towards more inclusive workplaces that welcome and support greater participation of all peoples.