refugeesBy Roelof Troost, WCC Smart Search & Match

At a recent conference on border management, a retired border guard officer from Finland painted a bleak picture: global warming and population growth will result in food shortages around the equator, especially in the Middle East and Africa. This will ignite even more civil unrest in these already shaky regions, compelling people to seek safety, food, and a better quality of life in Europe. Without doubt, the refugee situation in Europe demands our attention. This article outlines a typical refugee journey and presents a remarkable solution for improving its end result.

The issue is here to stay

For some time, the number of asylum applications in the EU was quite stable, having peaked to 672,000 in 1992 due to the conflict in former Yugoslavia, then settling around 200,000 from 2006 onwards. In 2015, there was a dramatic increase in first-time asylum applications, mainly due to the Syrian conflict. In total, nearly 1.26 million people applied for asylum in the EU in 2015. By most accounts, these numbers should not be expected to decline anytime soon, leading to deep concern across Europe.

However, there are many ways to look at facts and figures. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) collects and publishes data on worldwide refugee counts. This data reveals that the refugees hosted by Europe only account for 6% of the world’s displaced people. Moreover, statistics gathered since 1960 show a clear decline in birth rates in Europe. Going by the theory that economic progress and wealth reduce the number of children per family, Europe may soon face a serious lack of people in the workforce.

Perhaps we are looking at the refugee situation through the wrong lens. What if the people at Europe’s doorstep are the solution to an imminent problem? One thing is clear: Europe will be dealing with refugees in the coming years. It makes sense to find the most effective way for them to integrate into society.

A typical journey

Let us consider a typical refugee journey. It starts with fleeing the turmoil in Syria and ends, if all goes as planned, in Germany. Most asylum seekers attempt to reach the nearest Greek islands, such as Kos or Lesbos. The short trip is dangerous and expensive. Smugglers charge extortionate prices to pack people onto shoddy boats. Once they first set foot on EU soil, the refugees are picked up by Greek coastguards or police. In accordance with the Dublin Regulations, their personal information is recorded and their finger- prints are stored in the EURODAC system. Next stop: a refugee camp.

The Dublin Regulations determine which EU member state is responsible for each asylum application. This is based on criteria such as which member state the refugee first entered, and whether any relatives are already in the EU. The Regulations also stipulate that each applicant be interviewed, and specifies how to organize transfer to the responsible member state. Countless stories describe the refugees’ difficulties understanding the interview, the lack of translators, and the confusion surrounding transport. This causes many refugees to continue on independently: a harrowing journey across the non-EU countries of Macedonia and Serbia, then through Hungary and Austria, to the end goal Germany. Once more, many use illegal smugglers who charge excessive fees.

Most refugees have family with whom they hope to be reunited. Sometimes, the relatives may already be in Germany, the UK, or Sweden. Other times, families become separated en route. Once in Western Europe, almost all refugees find the accommodation acceptable. With food and shelter taken care of, integration into the host society can start.

A matching solution

There is consensus among experts that the single most important step for successful integration is labor market participation. However, job availability currently is not factored in when deciding the resettlement destination. Clearly, we only stand to gain from doing so. In Germany, around 100,000 refugees have found a job and pay social security taxes: a firm indicator that becoming full participants in society is attainable for refugees. According to Tim Harford in the Financial Times, there is a role for economic matching here. He calls the current resettlement process wasteful: refugees are placed in areas without enough suitable work. This causes them to disappear into the illegal circuit or remain jobless and thus burden the economy.

Governments have various methods for resettling refugees, from random dispersion to best guesses by officials. What if they were to try matching instead? Harford considers the refugee crisis a classic matching problem: on the one hand, there are local governments providing amenities like housing, schools, medical care, and jobs. On the other, there are refugees with needs and desires, but also work experience and skills. However, the gap between theory and practice is significant. Refugees face major humanitarian challenges; skills matching probably is the last thing on their mind.

One solution is to connect the domains of refugee registration and public employment at a far earlier stage. A small, agile EU organization could be mandated to coordinate and align this new way of resettling refugees across all member states and points of entry. The input for job matching – recent work experience verified by sanity checks – can be collected directly in the entry interview. The public employment service in the destination country can analyze credentials and skills more extensively later on. However, recording job experience is only the first step for a successful match.

To be truly effective, matching must take into account member state information, which European public employment services can make available. This includes refugee acceptance quota, housing availability, and regional availability of jobs. International assessment teams of experts should then map the work experience against the target country context. For example, member states with flexible, job-based qualification systems might require less formal vocational training than countries with more regulated frameworks. Extracting vacancies from a variety of sources adds even more valuable input.

Of course, matching that takes all this data into account quickly becomes too complex to do manually. That means case workers should be supported by a matching platform that can handle large data volumes and flexible match requirements. Ideally, this plat- form would also incorporate a knowledge base of the labor market context to inform the decision-making process. This solution makes for much more effective resettlement targeting. It allows us to find the resettlement area with the highest chance of successful integration, and prevents sending people on avoidable expeditions. It is time to start linking refugee identification systems to employment services. Early job matching might be just the ticket to put refugees on the road towards a successful future.

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