Waiting to Work
by Rebecca Berthelsen
A manifestation walk "Out of the Camps" promoting a better integration of
refugees in Danish society, Copenhagen, May 13, 2012. Photo by Kim Bach
"I think the job advisors had lost their motivation at the jobcentre". The 29-year-old Syrian refugee smiles compassionately and points to his eyes. "They had these dead eyes, you know? The ones you get when you do the same job for a very long time. So, I was pushing them: find me a job, find me a job, find me a job". Munaf Alfayad had big plans when he arrived in Denmark in October 2014. He knew that first, he had to go through a lot of checks and waiting time at the asylum centre in Fredericia. But as soon as that was over, he was going to work for a company where he could use the skills from his Bachelor Degree in Economics and Business Administration from Damascus. He was very good at Excel.
However, Munaf's dreams quickly faded when he talked to some old immigrants who had lived in the red barracks at Fredericia's coastline much longer than Munaf. "They will not recognize your degree", they told him. "You will have to start from the beginning or work with cleaning". Munaf could forget about Excel.

"That really depressed me. It killed me, destroyed me at that time", Munaf says and looks out of the window from his yellow terrace house in Langeskov, a small Funen village, where he now lives together with his wife and their one-year-old daughter. Luckily for Munaf, the old immigrants at the asylum centre were mistaken. Munaf has been working as a financial accountant for more than two years. And it was exactly his Excel skills that got him a permanent job.

Munaf is not the only refugee in Denmark who found their way into the labour market in the recent years. From 2015 to 2017, the employment rate of newly arrived refugees increased from 12 to 30 percent. The explanation? The political focus on fast employment has proven to be the best psychological gift the refugees could get.

"We have become aware of the need to make use of the refugees' motivation and competences as soon as they arrive", explains Sarah Glahder Lindberg, Principal Advisor in Employment and Integration at Local Government Denmark (KL). "They need to be activated as soon as they get from the asylum centre to the municipalities, so they don't go from thinking that they can do anything to being clientized".

The main reason for this political focus was not a psychological concern for the refugees. It was an economic concern for the Danish society. In 2015 — the year when you could see refugees wandering up the Danish highway — Denmark received no less than 21,316 asylum seekers. And the year before that — 14,732. To the municipalities and the government, this called for a revision of the existing education and language focused integration strategy. "We could see that we needed to change integration strategy and make sure to get them working as soon as possible", Sarah Glahder Lindberg says. "If not, it would get very expensive for the Danish society".

In September 2015, the prime minister therefore invited civil society to an integration summit in his pavilion at Marienborg, and just seven months later, a tripartite agreement was made. 32 initiatives to improve the labour market integration for refugees. While the initiative to demand "job readiness" regardless of Danish skills is widely known, many of the other initiatives never received much attention, even if they might play an important role for the increasing number of employed refugees today.


"I hated Fredericia", Munaf says and pensively shakes his head. "The surroundings at the asylum centre were good — not like home. I shared one room and bath with 10 people, but that was okay at that time. But you know, when you are in a completely new situation and you hate everything around you? I had lost my country, myself, my soul, my family. And I didn't know what was going to happen to me".

Munaf's wife was still in Syria at that time, and the old immigrants' comments about him not being able to find a relevant job had left him somewhat disillusioned. Luckily for Munaf, he received his asylum rather quickly, so after four months he left Fredericia and moved to Kerteminde municipality, where he had an accommodation waiting for him.

"This was my first moment of happiness in Denmark. I was so happy, because I knew that I was going to have my own room with my own bath. I was going to read — I love to read — I was going to study, manage everything, forget about Syria… Then, however, I faced all the other difficulties that I didn't think about. When I was waiting, I just thought about moving to Kerteminde. And only now I realized that the next step was to find a job. Find something to do."

In the tripartite agreement that was made one year after Munaf moved to Kerteminde, the heading of the first six initiatives says: "Better use of the asylum- and transition phase". Instead of waiting to get their competences assessed in the municipalities, refugees are now screened already in the asylum centres so that they are ready to get matched with an employer as soon as they get assigned to their municipality.

This political focus on fast employment stems very well with the expectations of the asylum seekers. Kasper Koch, Leader of Strategy and Project Development in Red Cross Denmark's Asylum Department, explains: "When we met these new groups of Syrian and Eritrean asylum seekers, we could see that they were really active and determined to work. So we thought: How can we uphold this energy and help them with their job prospects? In earlier times, you would probably have hesitated to even touch refugees because of their potential traumas, but that is the worst thing you can do. The best thing that has happened to the integration system is that now we say: job first".

Not only does the screening help to uphold the asylum seekers' motivation by giving them prospects of getting a job. It also gives them a feeling of progression while they are waiting to get asylum. As Kasper Koch explains: "There is a lot of inaction in an asylum centre, and we have to work against that. Refugees are often very motivated to work when they arrive in the asylum centres, but we can see how the motivation drops if what they do is random. Therefore, we have introduced progress measurement procedures, so that the refugees can follow their own development in skills if they, for instance, are cooking, gardening or studying at the asylum centres. That is how they can feel themselves progressing."

There is a reason to believe that this new strategy of competence assessments has a direct impact on the refugees' increasing employment rate. A comprehensive research project carried out in 10 Danish municipalities among 2.400 receivers of cash benefits, 'The employment indicator project', shows that by assessing their own skills every third month, their chances of getting a job increased because they became more motivated and aware of what skills to improve. While the research project involved another group, it is likely that the refugees' screening and progression measurement has the same effect on their motivation and employment, since in both cases it is a way for people in a vulnerable and inactive state to be stimulated and reminded of their capabilities.

At the Jobcentre

While the systematic competence assessments make it possible for the municipalities to match the refugees with relevant employers in an early phase, there are big differences in how much effort the municipalities put into it. As Kasper Koch explains: "The municipalities that do best are all very aware of the time factor. In Køge municipality, they invite a new citizen to the welcome-meeting with a translator as soon as they know he or she will be arriving. At the same time, in other places you would be shocked to see how little they do. Sometimes, they just give the refugee an address, and then he or she arrives at an empty train station, goes to the house just to meet the janitor and does not hear from the jobcentre for a month, or finds some documents in Danish on the table. This is getting rarer, but it still happens."

Despite the differences in municipalities, the process is generally speeded up significantly, since the government has instructed the municipalities to make sure that the refugee is either offered an internship or a job already two to four weeks after arrival to the municipality. In Munaf's case, he had to take most of the initiative himself.

"I met with the advisor from the jobcentre, Hamid, who made an interview with me, but I don't think he cared about me, so I did my stuff on my own. I sent my bachelor diploma to the Ministry of Higher Education and Science, and they told me I had to do an assessment. I needed assistance to do that, but the Ministry could only make an appointment three months away. I didn't like to wait, I wanted to find a job, so I google translated the assessment from Danish to English, did my best and sent it in. They sent it back and said my degree was comparable to the Danish education system and equivalent to the Bachelor in Business Administration and Economics."

Munaf was ecstatic to find that the predictions of the old immigrants at the asylum centre had turned out to be false. Denmark did in fact recognize his degree. However, he met a new obstacle when he went back to the jobcentre to speak to the job advisor again.

"I told Hamid that I did the assessment and that he had to find me an internship. So he searched and searched and found me an internship in Silvan. I went there, presented all my skills and asked them what I could do. They said: can you arrange these wooden boards for us? I said: yeah okay, I can do that. So everyday I went there — they had a big mess, and I arranged it".

While Munaf accepted the work, he had a hard time seeing the prospects in it. The internship was unpaid, it was not exactly related to his study, and he couldn't see how it could lead to a permanent job. So after some time in Silvan, he went back to the jobcentre to convince them to find him another job.

"I wasn't satisfied with Hamid — you can easily find internships in places like Silvan, Fakta and Netto, because they need free workers — so I went to the other job advisor, Ricky. I said: Look, Ricky, you have to find me something. I have a degree and I'm really good at Excel. Don't you need someone in the municipality?"

Luckily for Munaf, Ricky did actually know a company, the Funen juice company Orana that was looking for skills like Munaf's in their accounting department.

"I went to the interview, and I nailed it", Munaf smiles proudly. "Because of my bachelor, I knew exactly what they were looking for. So I got a three months' internship, but I could feel that I still had to convince them of my skills. So I worked really hard and I did super good. At one point, they were experiencing coordination problems with their international departments, and I suggested them to make a database. Programs for such a database can be very expensive, so I told the manager that I could make a database in Excel. At first, he doubted whether I could do it, but after some time he told me: okay, you have two weeks. And I made it. They are still using it today."

After that, Orana hired Munaf and signed him a contract. With no limits. He finally had a permanent job. Even with no systematic assessment of his competences at the asylum centre, and only a limited matching effort at the jobcentre, Munaf didn't lose his high motivation despite the long waiting time. He wanted to work.

But even for less robust new refugees, there is a hope now. All the institutional obstacles that Munaf faced — the inaction at the asylum centre, the late assessment of his degree that he had to do himself, and the rather inactive jobcentre — are now being dealt with due to the high political focus on fast employment. The government's economic concern for the Danish society turned out to be close to a psychological miracle cure for the new refugees, since their competences are assessed early on and their waiting time is significantly reduced. Their high motivation to work is being upheld.

Even today, two years after Munaf got employed, his motivation has not dropped at all. "The Danish work culture is the best!", he bursts out, almost jumping from his chair. "You can just go to your manager and say: 'Hi, Flemming, how are you? I need this and that'. You can't do that in Syria. Not even in the United States. And they appreciate your effort. They are not scared to tell you because you might ask for promotion. If you work hard, they will tell you that you are good and that they appreciate your flexibility. You can't get anything like this outside of Denmark. It's an awesome work culture!"
About the author: Rebecca is a Danish Mundus Journalism student with a Bachelor's Degree in Anthropology. Next to her studies, she has been working for two years as a public relations assistant for the political party 'Alternativet' in the Danish parliament, writing op-eds, press releases and the like. She has always been interested in how media discourse influences people's political views on topics such as immigration, climate change and social inequality. After finishing the Mundus Journalism Master with a specialization in Media and Politics, her dream is to become editor-in-chief at a big Danish news media.

Rebecca Berthelsen
Made on