World House Student Fellows Policy Project: Urban Labor Integration of Displaced Persons

By Viviane Weinstabl (W, 2019), Hani Warith (SAS, 2018), Carter Goodwin (SAS, 2018), Alec Ward (SAS, 2017), and Kamelia Stavreva (SAS, 2018)


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees currently estimates that in 2015, 21.3 million people have sought asylum due to conflict and persecution. The vast majority of those asylum-seekers who successfully obtain refugee status live in temporary accommodations, such as camps or unsuitable housing, and in impoverished, unsustainable conditions. The harsh 2016-2017 winter in Europe has seen several deaths for travelling refugees and refugees living under poor housing conditions, such as in tents on Greek islands. For both humanitarian and security reasons, it is imperative that the international community, especially economically and politically stable countries, find productive living situations for refugees by integrating them into the workforce.

Background Information

Our focus on European nations and neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon speaks to the recent experiences of governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and refugees in acclimating to workforce constraints and cultural integration. Many developed European nations have received large numbers of asylum-seekers in the past two years. EU countries, Germany in particular, have pursued policies that highlight the challenges of integrating refugee populations into stable communities. Political backlash, cultural conflicts, nationalist sentiments, and distrust have all complicated large-scale resettlement efforts and employment prospects for refugees. Jordan and Lebanon have received the vast majority of refugees, but their labor market integration policies have largely had the effect of actually limiting access to employment.

Effective labor integration programs provide unique opportunities for cultural integration and economic self-sufficiency without displacing native labor in host countries. This entails identifying job opportunities for skilled and unskilled refugees, as well as vocational programs and incentives for companies to hire refugees. Our project aspires to propose ways to overcome obstacles to employment opportunities.

Ways Forward

An analysis of both successful and unsuccessful urban labor integration policies around the world will guide our research. Labor integration programs for Syrian refugees have already been successfully implemented in several European countries. Denmark and Sweden, for instance, have promoted subsidized entry-level jobs in conjunction with language programs that assist refugees in their transition to the host country’s labor force. Additionally, pilot programs in Norway and Germany have helped match skilled or previously trained refugees with appropriate jobs. The UK runs a program that pairs new refugees searching for jobs with longer-term refugees for mentorship and training purposes.

Aside from these examples, we also hope to analyze case studies from around the world to determine their applicability to countries that currently have and are continuing to receive Syrian refugees. The city of Philadelphia, for one, offers a highly promising template of successful Vietnamese, Cambodian and Burmese refugee labor integration. The presence of many refugee and immigrant-focused organizations near Penn will allow our group to conduct comparative case studies across refugee demographics. Other notable resettlement and integration successes took place in Tanzania, Belize, and Uganda, which have practiced self-settlement and allowed refugees to integrate naturally without restrictions that inhibit financial assistance.

While a plethora of research on Western Europe’s and the United States’ integrate refugee populations, the literature on labor integration in developing countries is lacking. Coming up with labor integration policy solutions for countries lacking the resources found in United States and in Western Europe will be necessary for mitigating the economic effects of the large-scale refugee crisis. These case studies are especially relevant due to the pressure the Syrian refugee crisis has put on countries such as Jordan and Lebanon who now struggle to accommodate a rapidly-growing labor force.

Furthermore, there is room for cooperation between nations with less and nations with more financial security on the topic of labor-integration. Such research has the potential to be useful to several state and non-state clients, including large international organizations and smaller, state-level resettlement agencies.


The saliency of refugee resettlement right now should not cloud the fact that successful labor integration will be a lengthy process requiring sufficient resources and the dedication of policy makers. Given the extensive nature of the refugee crisis, both developed and developing nations will need to find sustainable ways to integrate refugees into their respective labor forces. While our project seeks to identify and to propose best practices, we also hope to contribute new, proactive templates for quickly integrating refugees and quelling the fears or concerns of native populations to create a safer, more inclusive environment for all.