Ethnic communities help new refugees find work

Rohingya refugees Aisha and Naznin work at their mother's restaurant, the Tea Leaf Garden restaurant on January 11, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Credit: Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Ethnic communities help newly-arrived refugees find work, a new study of asylum seekers in Switzerland shows.

The findings show that new refugees were more likely to get a job within their first five years if Swiss officials assigned them to live in an area with a larger community of people who share their nationality, ethnicity, or language.

“Our study shows that ethnic networks can be beneficial for the economic status of refugees at least within the first few years of their arrival in the host country,” says Jens Hainmueller, a professor of political science at Stanford University and a faculty co-director of the Stanford Immigration Policy Lab.

Job search for refugees

For the study in PNAS, researchers analyzed governmental data of 8,590 asylum seekers granted temporary protection status when they arrived in Switzerland between 2008 and 2013. The data also included five years of information on each refugee, including whether they found employment and in which industry.

In Switzerland, immigration officials randomly assign each new refugee to live in one of the country’s 26 cantons, which are member states.

Officials typically don’t consider the refugees’ preferences as part of the process unless they have a family member already living in a particular canton. In addition, new refugees with temporary protection status cannot move outside of their assigned canton within their first five years in Switzerland, Hainmueller says.

Analysis of the data revealed that no more than 40 percent of refugees had a job during their fifth year in Switzerland. But those refugees assigned to cantons with a larger ethnic network were more likely to have found work.

If officials assigned a group of new refugees to a canton with a large share of others from their country, about 20 percent of those new arrivals became employed within three years of living in the country. But if that same group settled in an area with a small share of co-nationals, only 14 percent of the new arrivals had a job three years later.

“Given that refugee employment is generally very low, the increase in employment is an important effect,” Hainmueller says. “This is just one piece of a bigger puzzle on what helps refugees integrate within their host country.”

Concerns vs. evidence

In European countries, many people view ethnic enclaves as a result of a failure to integrate immigrants with natives. But those negative perceptions are not grounded in evidence, Hainmueller says.

In part, because of this general concern, officials in countries such as Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland have designed policies for dispersing newly arrived refugees to avoid the creation of ethnic enclaves.

“What this research suggests is that those dispersal policies come with some costs, in terms of new refugees not benefitting from the positive effects of ethnic networks,” Hainmueller says. “It doesn’t mean that these policies are generally bad, but it does highlight that there is one potential benefit of geographically concentrated ethnic networks that European officials are not capturing.”

In the US, people who arrive as part of the refugee resettlement program which includes an extensive background check conducted through the United Nations Refugee Agency, are assigned to live in areas based on where there is available space. Unlike in some European countries, new refugees are allowed to move after their initial settlement.

“US officials and the public have a slightly more positive view of ethnic enclaves because ethnic neighborhoods formed at the foundation of this country,” Hainmueller says.

The new study is a part of a bigger project at the Immigration Policy Lab that aims to examine how the asylum process and its implementation affect the subsequent integration of refugees both in the US and Europe, Hainmueller says.

“We are interested in a lot of different asylum policy choices, such as how asylum seekers are geographically located and what rules govern their access to the labor market,” Hainmueller says.

“There are a lot of rules that affect refugees and asylum seekers, and they aren’t necessarily grounded in solid evidence. Our research agenda is to try to quantify the impacts of those policy choices and point the way to policies that might work better.”

Additional coauthors are from ETH Zurich and Uppsala University.

Source: Stanford University