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22 September 2016

How are refugees faring on the labour market in Europe?

Who are the migrants who come for humanitarian reasons to Europe, and how are they doing? 2 simple questions with particular relevance in the current situation, but notoriously hard to answer, as refugees gradually ‘disappear’ in migration and integration statistics when gradually settling in. New results from the 2014 Ad Hoc Module of the European Labour Force Survey shed light on how refugees are faring on the labour market in Europe in the long run. For the first time since 2008, additional variables on migrants enable to analyse the characteristics and the labour market outcomes of the 1.8 million refugees who were residing in the 25 EU countries covered by the survey in 2014 and to compare them with other migrant groups.

Based on information provided by survey participants who declared themselves to have come to Europe seeking international protection, this first evaluation of the EU-LFS ad hoc module provides key findings which can inform current policy debates.


The survey finds that 1/5 refugees, aged 15-64 and residing in EU in 2014 had a tertiary level education. Although this is a rather high share, it ranks below the 27% of other non-EU born migrants. Moreover, their education level varies greatly by country. For example, 1/3 of refugees in Spain have higher education, while the respective share is less than 15% in Germany, Italy and Croatia. Another difference with non-EU migrants relates to the gender educational attainment gap: refugee women who arrived in the last 15 years tend to have significantly higher education levels than men, which is not the case for other non-EU born immigrant groups.


Refugees represent one of the most vulnerable groups of migrants on the labour market. With an overall average employment rate of 56%, it takes refugees up to 20 years to have a similar employment rate as the native-born. Family migrants achieve comparable results, while persons arriving for employment or study purposes reach this level at the latest after 9 years. In the first 5 years after arrival, only 1/4 refugees is employed. This is the lowest rate of all migrant groups. After 10 years, their employment rate reaches 56% and remains below the employment rate of native-born persons in most countries. The study also reveals that refugees are much more likely to be overqualified than other migrants. In total, almost 60% of employed tertiary-educated refugees in the EU are overqualified for the jobs they occupy, well above the levels the native-born (20%) and all other migrant groups (31%).

A key finding is that bringing refugee women into employment is a particular challenge. Their average employment rate is 45%, 17 percentage points lower than that of men and 6 points lower than that of other non-EU born women.

Language and culture

Less than half (45%) of refugees in the EU reported to have an advanced knowledge of the host-country language, while 2/3 of other migrants from non-EU countries declare to have such knowledge. However, such knowledge tends to improve with time, as the share of refugees who have advanced knowledge of the host-country language is twice as large among those who have been in the country for more than ten years, compared with more recent arrivals. It is highlighted that the level of knowledge of the host-country language has a considerable impact on the employment outcomes of refugees on all education levels.

Overall, 4/5 of all refugees living in Europe are found in 4 EU Member States (Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden and France). Even before the recent refugee surge, Germany was the top host country and the United Kingdom ranked second. An additional 10% lives in Belgium and Austria. 

Working Paper
(1.42 MB - PDF)


OECD Secretariat and European Commission DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion
Geographic area
EU Wide
Contributor type
International organisation
Original source
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