Europe did well to allow Ukrainian refugees to work
In less than a month, more than 2.8 million people have fled the war in Ukraine. The immediate focus in countries like Poland, where refugees arrive exhausted and scared, has been to provide kindness, food and emergency shelter. No one knows how long the newcomers will stay, but it’s likely to be some time given the uncertain outcome of the war and the damage done to their country. Therefore, Europe will soon have to think about how to help them settle in the longer term.
A key question is whether they will be able to find work. “If you were to look at just one policy to make a big difference [to refugee integration]the only policy is the right to work – you can support yourself and your family, you can maintain the skills you have,” says Carlos Vargas-Silva, professor of migration studies at the University of ‘Oxford.
Refugees have generally found it difficult to establish themselves in European labor markets. A study of EU data found that refugees were 22% more likely to be unemployed than other migrants with similar characteristics. But there are reasons to believe that the Ukrainians will fare better.
First, policy restrictions do not defeat them. While a number of European countries prohibit asylum seekers from working for a period of time pending a decision, the EU has offered Ukrainian refugees “temporary protection”, meaning they can stay for at least a year and will have immediate access to the labor market and education. This makes a big difference: studies show that the longer an asylum seeker is banned from working, the worse their chances of finding a job deteriorate as their skills deteriorate.
Ukrainians will also be able to move within the EU where they have family support or better job prospects. Many asylum seekers, on the other hand, must first live where they are placed, sometimes in areas chosen for cheap housing rather than decent job opportunities.
Second, Ukrainian refugees arrive in labor-intensive economies. The unemployment rate in Poland and Hungary, the countries that have received the most Ukrainian refugees so far, is 2.9 and 3.7% respectively, well below the EU average. Hungary has already said it wants to help Ukrainian refugees fill vacancies. “It is in the interest of the country that we use skilled labor as quickly as possible,” a government official said earlier this month.
Poland, in particular, has relied on Ukrainian labor for years. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, Poland received more temporary work immigrants than any other OECD country, including many from Ukraine. This means that there are already formal and informal networks in the region that can help Ukrainians find jobs, from parents to employment agencies.
But there will still be challenges. The majority of refugees are women and children, while most temporary Ukrainian migrants in recent years have been men. Some of the long-term jobs these men held in industries such as construction, transport and agriculture are probably better suited to single people for short periods than single parents with dependent families. Employers may need to be more flexible and policy makers will need to think about providing childcare for people who want to work.
Vargas-Silva says this gender divide among refugees is unusual. “We are very used to a large number of male refugees [who subsequently bring their families],” he says. “It’s something a little different.”
It is also possible that the macroeconomic environment in Europe will deteriorate due to the knock-on effects of the war. Any slowdown would be particularly hard on newcomers. A Norwegian study found that the employment of refugees was five times more sensitive to variations in the local unemployment rate than that of native-born workers.
The EU has done the right thing by giving Ukrainian refugees immediate access to work and education, but this offer will need to be backed up with additional help: for language lessons, accommodation, school and health services for those physically and emotionally injured by war. There are also specific programs that could be learned from, for example Sweden’s 2015 Fast Track initiative, which aimed to help qualified refugees validate their professional credentials.
These policies are costly, but so is the cost of long-term inaction. So far, Ukrainian refugees have received a lot of public support. Now they need strategic help to ensure they can start supporting themselves.