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Integration of migrant women

A key challenge with limited policy resources

Mastering the host country’s language and accessing its labour market are 2 key steps of the integration process for all migrants. But migrant women also often take on family and child care obligations which may hamper this process. Consequently, they have worse employment outcomes in comparison with migrant men and native-born women. This is because migrant women face challenges and barriers as both migrants and women; a double disadvantage that is consistently confirmed by research.

Despite having a share of tertiary-educated similar to that of native-born women and migrant men, women born outside the EU are both more likely to be over-qualified for their job and less likely to be in employment. The latter is partially due to difficulties they encounter getting their skills recognised, as studies underline that women in developing countries are more likely than men to have skills that are not formally certified by diplomas.

Furthermore, the gap between the share of employed non-EU-28-born women and native women is 8 percentage points larger than the gap among men. This clearly shows that migrant women represent an untapped and under-utilised source of skills, and that their potential is not fully exploited. 

Diverse backgrounds and outcomes

Women arrive in Europe for many different reasons. They may come as labour migrants - often filling gaps in the service sector -, highly specialised employees, family members or refugees. And with the increasing diversity of legal status and rights among migrant women, as pointed out by the Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on Inclusion of Migrant Women in the Labour Market comes a disparity of integration outcomes.

For example, women who hold Blue Cards have immediate access to the high-skilled job market, while spouses who are admitted under family reunification arrangements sometimes have to wait for a year before being able to enter the labour market. And a higher number of women arrive to join family members than men. They often have limited language proficiency and don’t not benefit as frequently from skills assessment, re-training measures and other integration programmes.

Women arriving as asylum seekers may also have to spend long, unproductive and discouraging wait periods before having a clear opportunity to stay (and work), with valuable time for early integration being lost during the wait. Asylum adds a further element of vulnerability, as refugees generally have worse integration outcomes (e.g in the labour market) than migrants arriving through other channels. 

Recent OECD evidence shows that it takes longer for refugee women to gain a foothold in the labour market compared with refugee men. When employed, refugee women are frequently in part-time positions. They also have lower levels of host-country language skills compared to men in the first two to three years after arrival, related to the fact that they frequently receive less integration support than men, both in terms of language training and active labour market measures. With women comprising an estimated 45% of all refugees before the 2015-2016 peak and approximately one-third of all asylum seekers over the period 2015-2017, the recent arrival of large refugee populations in Europe adds to the urgency of integrating migrant woman.  

Policy frameworks and approaches in the EU

There is still a lack of policy focus when it comes to the integration of migrant women. A recent briefing paper by the European Court of Auditors pointed out that many EU Member States lack policies specifically concerning female migrants. Out of the 32 responding governments (27 Members States, 4 Belgian regions and Norway), only 7 have such policies in place. A 2018 report by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) also confirmed that across the EU, there is little evidence of action plans and strategies with a particular focus on migrant women or gender issues.

The situation described by a Czech report on gender and migration in 2016 is characteristic of a high proportion of Member States; there have been only minimum efforts in identifying problems related to integration of migrant women into society, and key policy documents fail to distinguish between men and women. Discrimination is normally dealt with through anti-discrimination and gender equality legislation, without specific reference to migrant women as a distinct category. The conclusions of the 2008 FeMiPol report still seem to hold true: there is an overall lack of policy approaches towards migrant women.

Overall and from a Europe-wide comparative vantage point, migrant women-specific integration efforts are marked at least as much by bottom-up, civil society-led responses as by top-down policies and public funding. NGO activities often fill the policy vacuum by campaigning for rights and integration conditions and by offering integration support to migrant women.

Early adoption of integration policies

Where women-specific policy and support frameworks exist, they tend to be in countries that adopted specific introduction policies for newcomers early on. Focusing on language learning and social orientation courses mainly for women arriving in the context of family migration, policy-makers soon recognised the need for targeted measures that take into account specific needs.

For instance, in Germany, guidelines for a country-wide harmonised integration module for women were introduced after the 2010 National Integration Action Plan had called for an improvement of the course programme in place since 2005. In 2017, more than 6,500 women who ‘for family or cultural reasons’ could not participate in the regular courses, pursuant to the by-laws that regulate the implementation of integration courses for third-country nationals, enrolled in either targeted women or (similar) parent courses. In addition to the introduction courses that are partly compulsory, low-threshold programmes for hard-to-reach female target groups are also publicly funded in Germany. Other Member States with well-developed newcomer introduction policies, such as Austria, likewise foresee such targeted formats. EU funding can be a welcome source for governments to pilot women-specific courses, with the programme for low-educated women with young children implemented in Belgium (Flanders) being one example.

Funding as a policy instrument

Member States that place special emphasis on women’s integration have also chosen specific funding priorities as an instrument for promoting women’s integration. As one of its five annual lines of funding, Austria’s national integration fund has been supporting a total of 54 women-related projects in 2017 and 2018, representing roughly 10% of funds dispersed. In Germany, the budget available for refugee integration from the federal level through the Commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration has seen, since 2016, a focus on empowerment of female refugees as well as their labour market integration, with more than 100 projects implemented by civil society organisations in 2017.

Overall, accelerated labour market integration served as the policy hook around which integration of migrant women came to the fore. The European Social Fund has funded many projects on labour market integration of migrant women, such as:

  • The German project ‘Strong at work – mothers with a migration background are entering the labour market’, which provides career orientation and individual support to mothers with a migrant background
  • The Swedish project Mirjam, which provides job-related guidance and inspiration for newly-arrived refugee women
  • The Irish project Building Better Futures, to support migrant women who face extra barriers to entrepreneurship
  • The Slovenian project ‘Razkirte roke 3’ which brings together migrant women to set up a business while improving their language skills.

The Danish integration authorities have also released a report on how to get refugee women in employment in a multi-stakeholder effort. It finds that an early start and strengthening women’s confidence are crucial when municipalities seek to help women refugees gain employment.

Perspectives on the integration of migrant woman

Although limited attention has been given to the integration of female migrants at the policy and strategy levels in many countries, the topic is getting increasing attention, and numerous related initiatives have been developed over the years. The following illustrates migrant women integration policies, initiatives and good practices in three different domains: 1) social integration, 2) discrimination and access to rights and 3) labour market integration. Most of these initiatives focus on migrant women in general (especially newly arrived migrant women), although about one-third of the illustrated initiatives focus exclusively on refugee women.

Social integration

Initiatives for social integration may focus on one area (e.g., education) or take a broader perspective and aim at equipping migrant women with a set of skills to foster integration tout court. Broader integration initiatives seem to play a major role in allowing migrant women to achieve a good level of integration, as, for example, having a job might not be sufficient to have a decent life in the destination country.


Many organisations and initiatives provide overall support for migrant women in their integration process.

  • The Bulgarian Council of Refugee Women provides counselling and advice to newly arriving refugee women for their adaptation and integration in Bulgaria.
  • The Refugee Women’s Association offers advice to refugee women based in the United Kingdom on services and opportunities, in particular concerning language courses, rights and entitlements, professional re-qualification, access to education and grants and school access for children.
  • The Migrant Women Association in Malta has a wide range of projects to support integration of migrant women.
  • Vienna-based Peregrina is a counselling centre for women, offering advice regarding legal and social matters, career and education, as well as offering language courses, psychological counselling and therapy.
  • RAJFIRE (Network for the Autonomy of Women Immigrants and Refugees) in France provides migrant women with information and support on administrative, legal and social issues.
  • The Lighthouse, from Spain, guides migrant women in their integration through training and assistance in their contacts with educational, health and social services.


Another type of initiative promotes social integration through education of migrant women. It is possible to distinguish three types of initiatives in this category.

  1. Education in general: The University of Utrecht runs the Incluusion project, which allows refugees and asylum seekers to participate in a variety of university courses and organises some ad-hoc trainings. Although the project does not focus on migrant women exclusively, it has helped to organise a course on ICT skills for women with low computer knowledge. The Hopeland project in Turin organised 36 training modules on Italian language, society and culture for migrant women. At the end of the course, the beneficiaries could obtain a middle-school diploma.
  2. Language skills: Many initiatives focus on the acquisition and improvement of language skills. This is often combined with citizenship courses or activities to foster social integration in general. In London, the Xenia network is an initiative to create a welcoming space for language learning and activities that encourage language practice, cultural exchange and community cohesion. The ‘Meeting on the Crossroad’ project in Lithuania fostered the social integration of migrant women, improved Lithuanian language skills, deepened knowledge about Lithuania and strengthened adaptation in the new country. ‘Turin, My City’, which started in 2000, focuses on immigrant women who came from Maghreb countries to Italy. Besides being taught by expert language teachers (who are all female), participants in ‘Turin, My City’ get advice from a variety of professionals, including social workers, teachers and doctors.
  3. Educational programmes assisting with childcare: Other promising initiatives combine the language needs of migrant women with their child care duties as mothers. ‘Mum learns German’ in Vienna provides German language courses for mothers which are held at the kindergarten or school of their children. The ‘Parents’ Integration through Partnership’ in London was designed to support the language learning and integration of non-EU mothers of school children at partner primary schools and children’s centres. 


Social isolation and lack of a personal network can be an issue for migrant women, especially when they are confined to household tasks and do not carry out remunerated work. The Danish organisation Neighborhood Mothers supports women with migrant backgrounds who do not have a wide social network. The organisation provides knowledge about society or other topics like children’s upbringing, through initiatives such as visits from another neighbourhood mother, events, etc. Intercultural Girls was an initiative from the municipality of Ingolstadt in Germany that organised a series of meetings for girls between the ages of 10-18 with an immigrant background. Activities focused on youth-relevant subjects in the native language and in German, in cooperation with the existing youth clubs, sports associations, etc.

Discrimination and access to rights

Another type of initiative aims at promoting access to rights for migrant women. This can include fighting discrimination and countering exploitation on the labour market, ensuring basic human rights and supporting victims of violence.


A major concern migrant women face is related to gender-based violence, such as human trafficking, forced or early marriage, forced sexual relationships, honour crimes, domestic violence and female genital mutilation. Gendering health support represents one way to mitigate the effects of these negative and violent experiences and to empower women. Many initiatives focus on combatting gender-based violence and/or mitigating its effects:

  • As part of the Action Plan Women's Health, Austria aims at increasing the health opportunities for socioeconomically disadvantaged women with a migrant background. Positive approaches are the pilot project MiMi (With Migrants for Migrants), which trains and mobilises migrant health leaders and mediators, and video and telephone interpretation services in the health system.
  • In Portugal, the High Commissioner for Migration sponsored a non-formal training action on human rights, children's rights and honour crimes. The action aimed to disseminate good practices among immigrant communities through immigrant associations and other civil society organisations. This initiative was part of the European-funded project FATIMA (Preventing Honour Relating Violence by Education and Dialogue through Immigrant NGOs), which aimed to prevent gender-based violence through training of local communities in human rights in Sweden, Portugal, the UK and Greece.
  • In Germany, Kargah/SUANA is an advice office for migrant women who are affected by domestic violence, forced marriage and stalking. It recently published a multilingual booklet on the fundamental rights of women and equal treatment.
  • The Belgian NGOs Service de Santé Mentale Ulysse and GAMS Belgique offer socio-psychological support to female refugees who fled from, or have been subject to, female genital mutilation, forced marriage and other forms of gender-based violence in their home country, with assistance provided to several hundred women every year.
  • The Better Future project in Malta aims at providing mental health support, group and individual counselling sessions for female refugees.


A stream of initiatives focuses on increasing participation, raising awareness of rights and improving gender equality.

  • The Melissa Network, an Athens-based organisation, offers programmes and training on a wide range of subjects like language, art, drama therapy and product design. Women who join the network are required to attend workshops and seminars covering topics like women’s rights and sexual and reproductive health.
  • CIDFF, a French association, has put in place collective meetings to provide migrant women with the necessary information and tools to access rights and become independent.
  • The Danish ‘Mom votes’ campaign focuses on political participation of migrant women, especially in local elections.
  • DaMigra is a German umbrella platform of 60 migrant women’s organisations active in promoting equal opportunities and equal treatment. Through empowerment and women’s rights workshops, the platform’s MUT project encourages migrant women to claim their social, political and economic participation.


Migrant women face multiple forms of discrimination—discrimination against women and against migrants. Sometimes they are also discriminated against due to other factors, such as their religion. Therefore, they typically need policies that fight multiple types of discrimination.

  • The project ‘Women’s health in women’s hands’ tries to prevent situations of vulnerability and violence against women living in Bilbao, Spain. This programme has various lines of intervention for the prevention of gender-based and domestic violence and promotes overall physical and emotional well-being. 
  • Boosting the employability of female immigrants and descendants of immigrants’, from France, combines labour market integration with the fight against multiple forms of discrimination based on nationality and on gender. Women participate in coaching sessions, thematic meetings and employer sponsorship programmes. Debates and symposia are also organised to raise awareness of the multiple forms of discrimination faced by migrant women, which often happens subconsciously.
  • The project Forgotten Women, led by the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), targeted eight European countries (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden and UK) and aimed to document the effect of Islamophobia on the integration of migrant women and develop alliances between different actors to better address the intersectional discrimination affecting Muslim women.

Labour market integration

Another stream of initiatives aims for labour market integration, recognising employment and independent income as key steps in the overall integration process of many migrant women. Many of these initiatives take a comprehensive approach to access to employment, including vocational education and trainings and gender-sensitive assessment of (formal and informal) skills. Initiatives may also link these measures with other areas of life, such as education or care duties.


Numerous measures aim to provide migrant women with the skills they need to enter the labour market. These initiatives have either a general or specific focus.

  • General focus: The Karat Coalition from Poland provides activities such as language courses, workshops on employability, skills and labour rights to empower migrant and refugee women. The Forward project designed and implemented an innovative competence-based portfolio and pedagogical tools for the identification, recognition, validation and development of the competences of migrant women.
  • Specific focus: In London, the Refugee Council organised the Just Bread programme to provide refugee women with professional training in the culinary field. During the programme, participants could benefit from employment advice and guidance by the Refugee Council staff. The Honey Project in Malta offers an opportunity to take part in training on beehive products manufacturing and marketing, as a way to empower migrant women and start building a network between migrants and the private sector.
  • Computer programming and coding: A sub-stream of highly-focused initiatives is represented by coding schools where course participants learn about computer programming and coding. <Code>YourFuture is such a coding school for refugees, who acquire within six months enough knowledge to become suitable for a job as a web developer. Although meant for refugees in general, the school has a high rate of women refugees as students, improving the employability of migrant women in a sector where women are normally underrepresented. ReDi School of Digital Integration launched the Digital Women programme, which offers childcare for the duration of the course to make it easier for mothers to participate.
  • Highly-educated women: Migrant women with higher qualifications often deal with underemployment—working in a lower skilled position than what they are qualified to do. In Germany, the project PerMenti supports newly immigrated women, especially refugees with a higher education level or work experience, in planning their professional careers while they learn German and attend integration courses.


Integration of migrant women into the labour market is also fostered through coaching, mentoring and other support services. Both public bodies and private organisations have implemented these initiatives.

Government initiatives

  • Two main national government initiatives have been put in place in Spain. The first initiative is called Programa SARA, which designs integration trajectories tailored to the needs of each woman. The programme, which is managed by NGOs, provides women with support for integration in the labour market as self-employed workers.
  • The second initiative is called Programa CLARA, which aims to increase the employability of women through their qualification for employment, promote greater social participation and promote women’s personal and economic empowerment.
  • The Swedish Public Employment Service is running the Mirjam project from 2016 until 2019. Mirjam’s small coaching groups, at six locations across Eastern Central Sweden, provide job-related guidance and inspiration for newly-arrived refugee women. During a 10-week course, participants learn about the Swedish labour market, study opportunities (including financial support), rights in society and work/life balance. They also study Swedish, as language is one of the biggest barriers to finding work.

Private sector initiatives

  • The Jövökerék Foundation in Hungary offers a wide range of activities like group and individual job search consultation and techniques, skills development, resume and cover letter writing, interview preparation, promoting job retention and conflict management skills.
  • KVInfo women’s network, from Denmark, matches women of refugee and immigrant backgrounds with women who are firmly established in the Danish labour market serving as mentors. The mentors provide access to professional networks and advice regarding job applications, interviews, workplace culture, reassessment of job possibilities, etc.
  • Womento was launched for educated women who immigrated to Finland. With mentorship at the core of its model, Womento supports and provides educated immigrant women with necessary networks and skills for Finnish working life and helps deepen knowledge and practices in their professional fields.
  • For its Women’s Programmes (CGWP) in London, the charity City Gateway works with marginalised and vulnerable women of ages 19+ to build their confidence and skills. CGWP runs language classes and vocational courses alongside well-being sessions on fitness or healthy food.
  • In Germany, the ‘Start, change, get ahead’ mentoring programme assigns highly-skilled migrant women a personal mentor who shares knowledge, experience and networks over the course of one year, supplemented with professional counselling, intercultural training and skills recognition support. Results from this project show that about half of the participants managed to obtain a job in line with their qualifications within one year after the end of the mentoring period.


Addressing the needs of women in both finding a job and in childcare duties is the aim of another subset of labour market initiatives.

  • I am a mom in Poland’ is a project led by the Polish Migration Forum that aims to help women prepare for employment and care for a newborn baby. A psychologist works with young migrant and asylum seeker mothers and provides psychological help and support.
  • The German European Social Fund programme ‘Strong at work – mothers with a migration background are entering the labour market’ provides career orientation and individual support to mothers with a migrant background. It consists of 90 projects across the country in cooperation with job centres, employment agencies, migrant organisations and social partners.


Women, and migrant women particularly, tend to be concentrated in a small number of sectors, such as health care, services to families and domestic work. Many initiatives therefore focus on these sectors, providing vocational training and internship opportunities. As these are sectors that are generally female-dominated and show demand for labour, policy-makers see these sectors as an opportunity to integrate migrant women in the labour market. Notable examples include:

  • Volkshilfe in Austria carries out the ‘Migrants care’ project, which offers information and courses for migrants who want to enter the care sector and its support professions. The aim of the project is to pre-qualify people with non-native German language for training in nursing and care.
  • The Portuguese project ‘House in Order’ trained 102 women and succeeded in integrating 80% of participants in the care sector by combining training and internship opportunities.  The three-year project focused on the fields of cooking, laundry, cleaning and caring for ageing people.
  • The project ‘Equal opportunities on the threshold of Czech homes’ focuses on promoting legal employment of women working in the domestic area. The project provides free legal and social counselling for future employers and employees in the sector.
  • A particularly successful project is the Yalla Trappan women’s cooperative in Malmö, Sweden. The cooperative provides employment opportunities in catering, cleaning and tailoring to long-term unemployed immigrant women who have little-to-no formal education and who have lived in Sweden for many years. Participants work under permanent contracts for Yalla Trappan in a close-knit environment and can obtain a qualification in their field or complete internships in other sectors. Since the project started in 2010, it has grown at an average annual rate of 30% in both revenue and employment, to around 40 permanent, migrant women employees and annual revenue of EUR 1.2 million.


If adequately supported, self-employment and entrepreneurship represent a promising alternative option for migrants to access the labour market. This works especially well for migrant women, as self-employment can also be a pathway towards empowerment and increased gender equality. Furthermore, women entrepreneurs can use the skills that they have acquired through non-formal education. Initiatives to favour self-employment for migrant women come from both the public sector and the private sector (mainly NGOs and foundations).

Government initiatives

  • The Spanish Ministry of Employment supports an NGO-run pilot project entitled ‘Support to entrepreneurship for migrants’. The project targets long-term unemployed migrant women with family burdens who have no access to regular loans. The programme participants receive training on entrepreneurship and management and loans (in cooperation with a local bank). In 2017, the programme helped train 88 migrant women, provided 44 microcredit loans and helped create 11 businesses.
  • The German government has financed a pilot project in Frankfurt called ‘Migrant Women are becoming entrepreneurs’. Between 2015-2017, the project provided mentoring, networking opportunities and skills training to migrant women to support entrepreneurship, increase the visibility of female migrant entrepreneurs as role models for other migrant women and raise awareness about the specific needs of female migrant entrepreneurs. Shortly after the end of the project, 16 of 22 participants set up businesses, and two further participants were preparing to start businesses.

Private sector initiatives

  • The Irish project Building Better Futures, organised by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) and the DCU Ryan Academy and funded by the European Social Fund, is a training programme for migrant women towards entrepreneurship.
  • The Dutch NGO Brilliant Entrepreneur promoted the programme ‘Entrepreneurship training for refugee women’ to support 25 female beneficiaries in starting their own business. The programme consisted of five training sessions addressing different aspects of starting a business, like motivations, objectives and formal steps.
  • In Sweden, the Ester Foundation supports unemployed migrant women entering the labour market and starting small businesses. With the cooperation of Swedbank and Johaniterhjälpen, a charity organisation, the foundation has set up its own microcredit system through which participants can access loans at attractive rates and reduced risks. Migrant women whose business plans have been approved by the Swedish Employment Agency can receive additional financial start-up support from the Agency and are entitled to further loans from Swedbank.
  • The Slovenian ESF-funded programme ‘Razkirte roke 3’ ran between 2016 and 2017. Through the project, immigrant women prepared a collection of textile products to sell online and participated in the creation of a promotional video to use on crowd-funding platforms.


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