Around 42% of refugees settled in France manage to find a job within a year of obtaining official status. But the jobs they find are often far below their skill levels, resulting in a "professional downgrade" that leads to discontent and exhaustion.
More than 24,000 official protection statuses were granted in France by the Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (Ofpra) and the National Asylum Court (CNDA) in 2020. For a majority of the refugees affected this means the beginning of the next step in their life in exile: the job search.
In their first year with legal status, nearly 42% of these refugees found employment, including one in four who managed to sign a permanent contract, according to a new study published by the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri).
This figure might seem encouraging, but only at first glance. The report, which is based on data collected from the ELIPA 2 survey conducted by the French interior ministry, also indicates that the working conditions of refugees in France are "precarious, unstable and unsatisfactory".
Most accepted refugees say they experience a "professional downgrade," which they say makes it is very difficult -- if not impossible -- to continue on the career paths they had started in their countries of origin.
"People who were highly skilled executives become basic level workers in France, while former bosses become employees," explains Sophie Bilong, one of the study's authors and a consultant for Ifri's Observatory of Immigration and Asylum.
The report specifies that while 10% of accepted refugees used to work in professions with an academic background in their countries of origin, only 2% continue to do so once their status has been granted.
Finding a job 'in a hurry'
There are many reasons for this professional downgrading, according to Bilong. The main reason is "the period of time when they are in the process of making their asylum application."
"This should be a very important time to prepare a project, to train and to be ready to start working once their status is recognized," she says. Under the current conditions, however, everything has to be done in a hurry. When an asylum seeker receives protection, he must immediately find a job to support himself. Unfortunately, you can't find a qualified job overnight, she adds.
As a result, most refugees are forced to turn to sectors that require only few prerequisites, and which can seem to be their only option to earn a living in a very limited job market. "The hotel and catering industry employs almost half the refugees (45%), while the construction industry employs 21%," the study highlights.
Another cause of this downgrading is the lack of resources available to asylum seekers when it comes to the labor market: "The companies we interviewed all told us the same thing, namely that (speaking the) language is their number one requirement," says Bilong. However, while waiting for their status to be recognized, applicants in France do not have any real opportunities to engage in language training.
According to Bilong, there is also "a whole part of the labor market, which is totally closed off to refugees, But it would benefit greatly from opening up to these candidates." These are jobs which make it a requisite to have French nationality or a degree from a French university.
In 2011, 5.3 million jobs were closed to foreigners from outside the European Union, including 4.5 million opportunities in civil service, according to the Observatoire des inégalités. This comprises 21% of all jobs in France.
For accepted refugees, it is also impossible to fill a position as a lawyer, accountant, pharmacist or notary. Without a French diploma, they are not even allowed to become hairdressers or to work in childcare.
'Stereotypes are still very strong'
In recent years, dedicated public initiatives to change public perceptions on refugees have nevertheless been launched, such as the HOPE program. Implemented by the French state in 2017, this initiative allows participants to learn French and a trade on a work-study basis, while receiving administrative, social, and medical support.
The mobilization of the private sector to help embrace asylum seekers, on the other hand, is "more recent" and "generally dates back to the 2015 migration crisis", the Ifri study says.
"That year, there was an increased awareness among citizens who were also employees, and this had repercussions on many companies," Bilong explains. "People introduced initiatives to deal with that emergency situation, and today, these have become more permanent."
New resources were set up, including skills sponsorships, which makes it possible to organize a mentoring program between a refugee and an employee.
'A winning bet'
But prejudices against employing refugees are still hard to break. According to Alain Masson, a manager at French food services company Sodexo, "stereotypes are still very strong, even in a large company that promotes social responsibility".
The final option for refugees is to turn to entrepreneurship. This is the choice of 1.7 million foreign nationals, who came to France from outside of Europe, says a study by the initiative, Startup Migrant: "This is a wonderful fact, because entrepreneurship is often a sign of autonomy and success," says Bilong.
But before setting up a business and being able to make a living from it, refugees have to overcome many challenges, with one key difficulty being the ability to obtain financing.
Some refugees find that there are simply too many obstacles that stand in the way of employment and they give up. According to Ifri, 22% are unemployed, marking a "sharp increase" compared to their situation in their country of origin; nearly 19% are inactive.
For public and private companies alike, integrating a refugee is always a winning bet: A report by Deloitte shows that more diverse teams are on average 20% more innovative, while 87% of them say they make better decisions.