Barriers to Refugee Employment

By Megan Towle

This past March, our team filmed a documentary on refugees living in Greece. Our aim was to understand the realities of life as a refugee in Greece, a year after the refugee crisis reached its peak. The world’s initial response was to manage the immediate needs - food, water, shelter. Now the needs have shifted from basic to survival to the more enduring. Refugees are asking, how can I build a life here? How can I contribute my skills to this new community? Where do I fit in?

Refugee integration is defined in many different ways, but it is often understood as the key goal the EU is working towards to “solve” the refugee crisis. Employment is a key measurement for economic and socio-cultural integration.

According to the UNHCR, economic integration refers refugee’s ability to, “attain a growing degree of self-reliance and become capable of pursuing sustainable livelihoods, thus contributing to the economic life of the host country.” Socio-cultural integration requires refugees to, “acclimatize”, and local communities to “accommodate refugees to enable them to live amongst or alongside the receiving population without discrimination or exploitation, and contribute actively to the social life of their country of asylum.”

While employment is widely understood to be the key tool to both economic and socio-cultural integration, it is still a challenge for many European nations and refugees alike. Refugees face many barriers when seeking employment in a new host country. These barriers include:

1. Qualification Recognition

When we were filming, we often asked our interviewees “what did you bring for the journey?” We received a lot of the same responses - a couple changes of clothes, money, a phone, and their diploma.

More often than not, these personal items are lost or damaged during the journey, which makes validating credentials nearly impossible. A great portion of refugees left highly skilled jobs or were pursuing higher education, but without proof of their qualifications - european employers are less likely to hire them into jobs that fit their skill levels.


A recent study focusing on refugees seeking asylum in Austria found that of the refugees that have found work, 40% are overqualified for the positions they held. This trend of downward professional mobility can lead to lowered self esteem, depression, and a lack of motivation.

Hiring refugees into jobs that meet their skill levels is critical for the individual to feel capable and like a member of their community.

2. Lack of local network and knowledge of job market

Think about your employment journey for a minute. Before you found your first “career” job, did you send resumes blindly over the internet? Did you search your LinkedIn connections for your in? Did you set up informational interviews with family and friends? Attend job fairs? Networking events in your particular field?


The norm for which American’s typically find jobs are ingrained in our culture. There are unspoken rules for how we go about searching, and rarely do people stray from that path. Now flip your perspective to assess the process from a refugee’s point of view. Refugees have less developed social networks on which they can tap into while job searching. For example, only 41% of refugees living in France reported knowing someone in France before they arrived. With limited connections, not to mention knowledge of the language, it is more challenging to identify opportunities and follow the social norms for finding employment.

This process can especially be difficult for women. In many of their home countries, refugee women were less likely to hold jobs outside of the household. For example, in Syria, only 12% of women held jobs outside the household in 2016. Now they find themselves in an unfamiliar country, working full time, trusting another person to take care of their children, while still preserving their own culture and identity. While so many refugee women are doing so with grace and tenacity, they are coming from a much different vantage point than local women who have been raised believing they are equal to men, they should have the same responsibilities as men, and have had their education systems reinforce those ideas.

3. Trauma endured along the way

Mental health is a huge topic worthy of our attention when discussing refugee employment. Just like how in the states, we talk about the affects of PTSD on soldiers coming home from war, Europe is learning more and more the effects of PTSD among the refugees entering the workforce.

According to the UNHCR, during the Syrian civil war,

"Many Syrians have suffered multiple rights violations and abuses from different actors, including massacres, murder, execution without due process, torture, hostage-taking, enforced disappearance, rape and sexual violence, as well as recruiting and using children in hostile situations. indiscriminate bombardment and shelling have created mass civilian casualties and spread terror among civilians. Furthermore, parties have enforced sieges on towns, villages and neighbourhoods, trapping civilians and depriving them of food, medical care and other necessities.

These acts of violence were perpetrated for years before many refugee’s made the decision to leave. Unfortunately, the journey out of war torn Syria to Europe was often also riddled with adversity - deepening the trauma. By the time the refugee arrives in Europe, they not only have lived through and escaped a war, but they have likely faced prolonged uncertainty, stress, captivity and separation from loved ones.


Just like we know veterans require extra time and patience to re-enter society, refugees will require the same. While many employers are very aware of the effects of mental health and PTSD, it is important to keep in mind how employers can best create an environment that focuses on mental health and adapts to ease the transition for refugees back into a peaceful and stable community.

Harmoni’s Approach

Harmoni connects refugees to the digital economy by offering training and connection to employment. Through our community centered approach, we break down some of these barriers to refugee employment while being the resource they need as they begin to place roots in their new community. We have two programs, a coding bootcamp and a mobile app that makes work easy and accessible. Our app gives refugees basic data processing and analytics tasks that they can do anywhere and our bootcamp trains refugees to code, allowing them to find challenging, meaningful work that will give them a sustainable livelihood again.

During Harmoni’s bootcamp, we help our graduates build their soft skills to navigate the new job market, network with employers, and become employed. We aim to become a hub for refugee support, both physically and mentally. Our facility is staffed with mental health professionals and counselors to offer support throughout the training process. But equally as important, our facility and program will continue to be a center for connection, mentorship and community long after a refugee completes the program. Harmoni’s vision is a community in which all people are able to build their skills, earn an income, and create a meaningful life, regardless of migration status.

Megan Majd