Individual barriers and enablers: the Danish national report.


Liv Bjerre, Michelle Pace & Somdeep Sen

On the basis of semi-structured interviews, this study identified and analysed the labour market integration needs of refugee and non-refugee migrants in Denmark, as seen from their own perspective. In general, migrants’ stories questioned the sharp dichotomy between the burdensome refugees, who need incentives, control, and assistance to integrate into the Danish labour market and the contributing labour migrants, who are capable of integrating into the Danish labour market without assistance. Nevertheless, a number of refugee and non-refugee migrants alike face several of the same barriers (e.g. a lack of recognition of skills and qualifications).

All interviewees were committed to securing gainful employment. However, in their job search, many identified a gap between how they expected to pursue life in Denmark – both professionally and personally – and their actual lived experience in the host society. For one thing, they found it difficult to negotiate their professional (and personal) life trajectory in Denmark and navigate/adopt Danish cultural codes and norms. Further, they experienced that the value and relevance of their skills and qualifications in the labour market was not a given and that they were required to re-evaluate them in view of the precise needs and demands of Danish employers. Accordingly, three broad themes defined the interviewees’ experience of the Danish labour market:

First, interviewed refugee and non-refugee migrants described their attempts to secure gainful employment in Denmark to be marked by experiences of stress and anxiety, as they were unable to integrate into the Danish labour market in the manner they had hoped.

Second, interviewees experienced that their skills and qualifications were either devalued or lacking validity in the perception of Danish employers. They experienced this in their interactions with prospective employers. This perception was similarly prevalent in their interaction with representatives of the integration bureaucracy of the state, like case workers, language schoolteachers and representatives of municipal job centres who rarely carried out a careful assessment of their skills and instead provided them access to low skilled jobs without consideration of their prior experiences. To give an example: A refugee from Afghanistan with a degree in language and literature, and more than ten years of work experience as a teacher (including experience from Denmark), felt pressured by her case worker to take up a job in a nursing home even though it was hard on her given her prior experience with death and destruction from the war in Afghanistan.

Third, with many interviewees facing an anxiety-laden path to labour market integration wherein their skills and qualifications have been de-valued, they faced a difficult choice to either continue pursuing their career aspirations or, as is often the case, take up gainful employment in an unrelated (in terms of their skills/qualifications) sector. Some interviewees continued to pursue jobs that matched their skills and qualifications. Others, however, entirely abandoned their professional aspirations, with the hope that at least the next generation would succeed.

In view of these barriers, we recommend the following reparative measures:

First, we recommend that the focus of the policy discourse is shifted from the burden perspective to the resources that all migrants bring. That is to say, we recommend a shift to a bottom-up process of labour market integration that nurtures the skills and qualifications of refugee and non-refugee migrants.

Second, we argue, extensive control, lack of trust, and a high number of requirements (reserved for those granted asylum) were among the factors creating a barrier to successful labour market integration. Highly ambitious requirements for integration in general, e.g. in the form of strict requirements for permanent residency or citizenship, and a financial pressure of (not) making ends meet, also stand in the way of migrants successfully securing gainful employment. Especially female migrants with young children and without a support system seem to be in a precarious situation, struggling to make ends meet. We thus recommend lowering the level of control in the integration process and urge policymakers to reconsider the need for the current stringent requirements, given that the high level of requirements is detrimental to successful labour market integration.

Third, with interviewees experiencing that their skills and qualifications are devalued in the Danish labour market, we recommend that labour market integration services are built on an understanding of labour market integration as not just securing any job, but securing the right job, corresponding to the migrant’s aspirations and education. We suggest that the “right” direction is defined in collaboration with migrants, including her/his aspirations and needs, rather than being determined by municipal authorities and simply imposed on migrants. We thus recommend that municipal authorities initiate a public discussion about the importance of matching the skills that MRAs bring with them to Denmark with the right jobs - that reflects their prior experience and qualifications.

Finally, seeing as migrants are compelled to take low-skilled jobs when they are unable to find the right job, we argue that this ensures that the Danish labour market fails to gain from the skills and qualifications that migrants bring to Denmark. Therefore, and linked to the above recommendation, we suggest that a procedure of recognition of skills is introduced, which is designed to meet the realities of migrants’ lived experiences, among others accounting for the fact that refugees’ access to original certificates and documents is often hindered for years, if not impossible. With an official acknowledgement and recognition of migrants’ skills and qualifications there is a chance of reinstalling aspirations, the feeling of value and a wish to pursue a career where one can fulfil one’s potential in the Danish labour market integration process – that will in the end also benefit Denmark’s welfare state system.

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