Should asylum seekers be allowed to work in their host countries? The 1951 UN Convention on Refugees – which all EU members have signed – states that refugees “lawfully staying” in a country should have the right to work. But an application for refugee status can take months (sometimes even years), potentially including a lengthy appeals process. An EU directive agreed last year says asylum-seekers should be granted access to the labour market in their host country once their requests for refugee status have been pending for more than nine months.
In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis will be on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
This week, we’re looking at Malmö, Sweden. Proportionally, Sweden has taken in more asylum seekers than any other EU country. It also has one of the most flexible employment systems, granting immediate access to the labour market to asylum applicants who can prove their identities, without the need to wait for a work permit. Yet that does not always open up the job market.
A report last May by the public broadcaster SVT found that less than 500 of the 163,000 people who applied for asylum in Sweden during 2015 had actually found a job. Longer term, 2015 data from the National Audit Office found only 53% of refugees who arrived in 2003 had found jobs by 2013. Bureaucratic barriers, skills gaps and language problems have all been blamed.
The city of Malmö has taken in many of the refugees who have headed to Sweden. In September 2015, the Swedish Migration Agency’s Malmö office was reported to be registering close to 900 new asylum seekers per day. Over 43% of the city’s 317,000 population have a foreign background, with those with Iraqi roots making up the biggest group. As in the rest of Sweden, there is concern over job market disparities: the national employment rate for foreign-born Swedes is 62%, compared to 76.2% overall, according to OECD data.
We had a comment from Proactive, who said: Anybody who “sought and applied [for asylum] must be given (temporary) shelter, safety, and offered (temporary) work – if capable and willing.”
In theory, this is the case in Malmö. In practice, however, what does the situation look like on the ground? Are most asylum seekers able to find employment in the city? To get a response, we spoke to Ola Nord, Head of Office at the City of Malmö EU Office in Brussels. What would he say?
For another reaction, we also spoke to George Joseph, who works on immigration, asylum, and trafficking issues at Caritas Sweden, part of the Caritas Internationalis network of Catholic relief, development and social service organisations. How would he react?
It’s true that there is difference between what is the law and what happens in reality in terms of the application of the law. [Asylum seekers] have the right to work, but then they are often in parts of the country where there is not much work. Nevertheless, some of them do find work during their application, even if it is low-paying work. And I think giving them the right to work also encourages them, from the very moment of their arrival, so they will not be dependent on subsidence from the state or the authorities.
Should European countries open their labour markets to refugees and asylum seekers? Or would that risk a voter backlash in countries already worried by unemployment and migration? Shouldn’t voters, who complain about refugees as a burden, be pleased to see them making a positive contribution to the economy by getting jobs? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!