Despite recognised as among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus (1), refugees across the EU and beyond are stepping up to support local communities in fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic. Their contribution is a reminder that – vulnerable or not – refugees have skills that may be of added value to the local labour market of the countries of asylum, particularly those challenged with skill shortages.  

Although unfortunate, the pandemic offers countries an opportunity to appreciate the value of refugees’ skills and realise the barriers they face in having their skills and competences recognised and in accessing the labour market. For example, confronted with the emergency of the situation and human resource shortages, the authorities in Ireland are calling for doctors and healthcare professionals of refugee background, who are not licensed to practice in Ireland, to be included in coronavirus response (2).  In Austria, civil society is working with the UN refugee agency UNHCR to recruit health workers, garbage and recycling collectors and others for urgently needed services (3). Other countries may do the same, as the UNHCR and the Council of Europe encourage States ‘to benefit from the support refugee health professionals can provide to national health systems at this critical juncture’ (4). The refugees themselves are volunteering across Europe to help their host societies by doing social work, such as disinfecting shopping carts and baskets (5) or sewing face masks (6).

 UNHCR/Roger Arnold.

© UNHCR/Roger Arnold

However, under normal circumstances their labour market potential is often underused, not least because of the difficulties refugees face with integration in the local labour market of the host countries. Besides the language barrier, access to, and participation in, the labour market is hindered by a variety of factors, such as their relatively low(er) education level, their likely inability to present a formal qualification, the frequent differences in the value of the qualifications, differences in study approaches used in the country of origin, and the competence-focused education approach in the EU countries (7). These profound differences call for tailored solutions which need to acknowledge the individual circumstances of refugees (language, certificates, etc.) and be suitable for them (open access, focus on identification of non-formal skills and competences, on motivation, flexible study schemes, etc).

For example, the German pilot project PULS aims at providing international migrants in general, including refugees, with vocational training in healthcare. The low threshold of admission to the project ensures that refugees who lack the high standards of formal education but have some non-formal experience in the field can be included.

Most refugees often live in developing countries of asylum or are concentrated in a few EU countries, struggling to prove themselves in local economies which may be unable to absorb and make full use of their labour market potential. As a result, their skills often remain unused and become obsolete over time, while EU countries with serious skills shortages could benefit from inflows of this additional skilled labour.

Recognising that – vulnerable or not –  refugees are an untapped source of human capital (8), Cedefop has been working since 2018 to design and test complementary pathway mechanisms for admission of adult refugees from a first host country (within or outside the EU) to an EU receiving country; these mechanisms take into account and make use of vocational education and training (VET), skills, and qualifications of the individuals in relation to the local labour market needs of that country. Countries admitting refugees from main countries of asylum through skills-based complementary pathways may help address a pressing need for fairly shared responsibility, while at the same time meeting existing and future skill gaps in their own labour markets.

Cedefop is currently in contact with authorities in Portugal and Finland to investigate the possibility of testing such a mechanism in the EU, hoping it may open the way for other EU countries to follow.

More information on Cedefop’s project can be found here.


(1) WHO (2020). Interim guidance for refugee and migrant health in relation to COVID-19 in the WHO European Region (2020), Guidance issued as of 25 March 2020.

(2) Sorcha, P. (2020). Coronavirus: Refugee and asylum seeker medics could provide ‘essential support’, Irish Times, Friday, Mar 20, 2020

(3) http://www.mwoe.at/team-vielfalt-oesterreich/

(4) The Council of Europe and UNHCR support Member States in bringing refugee health workers into the COVID-19 response

(5) Nielsen, N. (2020). Refugees across Europe help fight the pandemic, euobserver, Brussels, Apr. 8, 2020.

(6) Lindsay, F. (2020). The Refugees In Cyprus Giving Back During The Coronavirus Crisis, Forbes, Mar 27, 2020

(7) Cedefop (2019). Creating lawful opportunities for adult refugee labour market mobility. A conceptual framework for a VET, skills and qualifications-based complementary pathway to protection.

(8) References to refugees’ skills with the aim of creating pathways for protection can be found in the context of the Global Compact on Refugees.