In the past year, a record-high 65 million people have been displaced worldwide, including more than one million people who crossed borders into the European Union while thousands more died on the way. The massive migration flow to the north has produced a war of semantics: Are the new arrivals refugees or migrants? While the two categories are treated differently by law, in practice they are both asylum seekers. Refugees and migrants arrive to Europe by the same road; they also face the same challenges in seeking asylum, labor, and housing, as well as integrating into their host communities. In fixating on distinguishing the two, politicians tend to miss the benefits that integrating both refugees and migrants into the labor market could have on the national economy. Businesses and civil society groups are busy developing training programs and job centers for asylum seekers to integrate into the system. As the European asylum system has effectively broken down amid the recent inflow, it is time for the EU’s wealthier member states to rethink current practices.

…While refugees are humanitarian subjects primarily seeking protection, migrants are economic subjects, seeking better lives.

Refugees, defined by international humanitarian law as people in need of protection, are entitled to a privileged status. Once granted refugee status in a host country, the state can’t deport them. Migrants, on the other hand, live without legal protection and can be deported at any time. The Office of the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stipulates that while refugees are humanitarian subjects primarily seeking protection, migrants are economic subjects, seeking better lives.

The UNHCR has warned that the conflation of refugees and migrants has “politicized” humanitarian work, but the distinction was political at the onset, as it prioritizes victims of physical violence over victims of structural and economic violence. Lest we forget, barrel bombs are not the only threat to life. Job insecurity, poverty, and hunger can leave people with no other choice but to risk everything on a boat across the Mediterranean.

In practice, refugees and migrants apply for the same asylum, which has somewhat disrupted the easy management of these categories. Many asylum applicants who technically fall under the refugee-protection category have been deported back to their home countries, where they are at great risk of torture or prosecution. For example, the EU’s asylum policy prioritizes Syrians over other nationalities, including Iraqis and Afghanis, even though they all face similar levels of violence in their home countries.

Frustrated by Refugee Label

For years, asylum seekers have navigated the asylum system by changing their sexual and national identities. As anthropologist Miriam Ticktin has documented, some even infect themselves with deadly diseases to gain protection as HIV-positive patients and thereby gain residence. Given the risk of deportation, many also avoid the system altogether and work informally instead. Others avoid registering for asylum, not for practical reasons but out of a sense of dignity. Many Syrians I spoke to last year in Lebanon and Jordan, where millions of Syrians have relocated, rejected registering as refugees in favor of living as “migrants,” stressing that they wanted to work and be self-sufficient rather than depend on aid.

Syrians’ rejection of the refugee category reflects the widespread association in the Middle East of refugees with Palestinians, who have for decades lived in UN-assisted camps in the region. Witnessing how Palestinian refugees have become caught in a state of permanent displacement, many Syrians are careful to disassociate themselves from the refugee identity. 1

“People want to keep their identity and their profession when they go abroad. It is not enough for them simply to stay alive. They want to work and maintain their dignity, not just be refugees.”

Kotada Al-Younes, a young Syrian journalist who has found exile in Sweden, told me that many Syrians in Sweden share this frustration with being confined and labelled as refugees: “People want to keep their identity and their profession when they go abroad. It is not enough for them simply to stay alive. They want to work and maintain their dignity, not just be refugees,” he explained to me over the phone earlier this week.

Syrian refugees’ desire to work speaks to a broader sentiment, shared by many asylum seekers, that employment matters more than protection. In 2012, at the onset of the current refugee crisis, I interviewed young Afghan and African asylum seekers in Denmark who expressed frustration with their confinement in asylum centers in remote areas, which they felt prevented them from integrating with their host community. Statistics show that asylum centers tend to isolate residents and restrict their access to the labor market.

Letting Refugees Work

Several studies suggest the increase of an active work force will benefit the EU’s GDP. Germany, for example, has suffered from zero population growth for years and is in acute need of young, able-bodied workers to feed its massive industrial economy. A new report released by The Guardian shows the recent massive migration inflow to Germany has had a positive impact on the GDP, as the population growth among the working age has increased while unemployment has decreased. Asylum applicants in northern Europe receive welfare benefits including free education and health care while their applications are being processed, which presents a considerable cost to society.

Two recent reports from the European Parliament show that despite short-term costs, labor integration of both asylum seekers and refugees will generate long-term economic gains that exceed the costs. The reports advocate for lifting labor restrictions and preventing discrimination against asylum seekers. The International Monetary Fund has also urged the EU to lift labor restrictions on refugees and migrants, and reward employers for providing them employment. In line with these recommendations, countries with high migration rate such as Germany, Sweden, and Italy offer asylum seekers temporary work permits while their applications are being processed. Other EU countries are now considering taking similar steps.

Work permits are a contested issue in the EU, since many native workers fear that the new labor force will “steal” jobs from them. But several EU countries have implemented labor restrictive measures to avoid this. For example in Germany and Sweden, so-called priority reviews specify that asylum seekers can only be employed if there are no suitable national or EU-citizens available for the job. In fact, research from the European Parliament shows that the latest migration inflow has not increased unemployment, but rather led to a growth in higher-wage jobs for native workers, as refugees and migrants primarily take over low-wage jobs.

Work permits alone do not guarantee refugees employment, though. In Sweden, which received 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015, many asylum seekers face difficulties navigating the Swedish labor market. Diplomas and qualifications have to be recognized by the national labor system, which depending on the level of education can take years. The European Parliament stresses in a report that even though Sweden offers low working restrictions for asylees, their labor market is inflexible and poorly adaptable to employees with different skills. The report shows that unemployment among third-country nationals in the EU is twice as high as among EU citizens, with Sweden revealing a particularly “worrying gap” between the total labor force and non-EU citizens actively seeking a job. To counter this trend, employers and NGOs in Sweden and Germany offer asylum seekers apprenticeships, training courses and special-track employment to help them adapt to the national labor requirements and enter the labor market faster.

…Who wants to hire an asylum seeker still at risk of deportation, since their application hasn’t been accepted yet?

According to new research, many asylum seekers experience discrimination on the Swedish labor market. As Al-Younes noted, who wants to hire an asylum seeker still at risk of deportation, since their application hasn’t been accepted yet? When I called the Swedish immigration authorities (Migrationsverket) to verify this, their press person acknowledged that “not many asylum seekers are working,” but indicated that only few asylum seekers make use of the temporary work permits in the first place. The EU report challenges her statement by showing that, rather than signifying asylum seekers’ lack of desire to work, the slow inclusion of asylum seekers into the labor market is a result of poor implementation: Many employers in Sweden are simply not aware that asylum seekers are allowed to work.

Meanwhile, work gains do not mitigate the fear many European politicians and citizens express over the long-term cultural impact migration inflow will have on the region. Unfortunately, extremists and right-wing politicians alike have used the sensitive political climate to strike fear and tensions. Reportedly, some of the perpetrators behind the Paris attacks had exploited the asylum system to enter Europe, giving migration skeptics ample opportunity to call for border closures. Similarly, right-wing European officials used the recent sexual harassment scandal in Cologne to fuel cultural bias and collective punishment against all asylum seekers. Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing her biggest political crisis to date over this issue, with over 40 percent of Germans calling for her resignation this year in response to her open-border policy.

In the EU’s Interest?

In a strategic attempt to halt “irregular migration” while maintaining her principle of a generous domestic asylum policy, Merkel has facilitated an EU agreement with Turkey. The deal gives EU states free passes to return migrants and failed asylum seekers to Turkey. What does Turkey get in return for taking care of Europe’s deported lot? Free visas to the EU. But, as Katy Long argued in a policy brief for The Century Foundation, in the case of the United States, which accepted 69,900 refugees including a mere 2,192 Syrians last year, Western countries may be shooting themselves in the foot by outsourcing their migrant problem. Turkey, a crucial political ally in the region already overburdened with hosting almost three million Syrian refugees and managing a failing security sector, is not well-fit to host additional people.Sunday’s incident—when Turkish security guards shot and killed eleven Syrian refugees attempting to cross the Syria-Turkey  border—is only the latest stark example of Turkey’s inability to protect incoming migrants.


Similarly, as many EU members have already acknowledged, it is neither fair nor sustainable to let Mediterranean frontier states such as Greece and Italy, already crumpling under financial debt, host the bulk of the incoming asylum seekers. The decision that wealthy northern European countries such as Denmark and the UK made last fall, when they dismissed the EU’s call for sharing the responsibility by refusing to receive any of the 120,000 asylum seekers relocated from the south, revealed their humanitarian priorities. More so, their action was a case study in poor strategic thinking. Not only did those member states threaten vital diplomatic relationships by placing the burden on their neighbors, but they also may have placed their own security at risk with their anti-immigration, borderline xenophobic policies.

At a time when Western states are highly concerned with maintaining influence in the Middle Eastern debacle, excluding people from their shores seems ill-advised. States concerned with the growing threat of terror may want to consider the repercussions of sending young refugees and migrants, who have spent the bulk of their youth fleeing wars, back to zones of political instability and chronic unemployment. While finding ways to address legitimate security and integration concerns, Europe could not only win skilled workers, but also hearts and minds of young people in the Middle East by accepting more asylum seekers from the region into their societies.

While EU members bicker over how to define, manage, and ultimately dispose of their new work-eager guests, asylum seekers themselves are finding innovative ways to avoid the system and gain access to the labor market so they can accomplish what they came for: Continue their life as best they can, even if on temporary grounds. Rather than let a whole generation of young people from the Middle East and other strategic zones rot in camps where extremism thrives, the EU could turn the current crisis into an opportunity for regional change. By giving all asylum seekers temporary work permits and cracking down on labor discrimination, member states with surplus capacity could gain a much-needed workforce and secure long-term influence in the region.


  1. See also Rochelle Davis’ comment on this phenomenon, from research among Syrian refugees in Jordan: “I was told that because Palestinians are refugees, because they have been displaced from their home since 1948 and they haven’t gone back, the Syrians say we’re not those people, we’re not going to be laj’een (refugees), we’re not going to be like the Palestinians. We’re going back to Syria.” Council on Foreign Relations, “Roundtable: Assessing the Syrian Refugee Crisis,” October 8, 2014,