Refugees’ access to the german labor market: people-centered and employers’ perceptions of refugees’ capabilities, restrictions and perspectives

Scheu, Tobias (1); Schmidtke, Julia (2); Volkert, Juergen (3) (2019). 'Refugees’ access to the German labor market: people-centered and employers’ perceptions of refugees’ capabilities, restrictions and perspectives' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


Currently, around 1.5 million people with a refugee background live in Germany. More than one million of them have arrived since 2015 (Brücker et al. 2019: 50). This unprecedented high number of refugees migrating to Germany causes major potentials as well as challenges for refugees, society and its institutions in Germany. Our empirical contribution provides the first analysis based on the Capability Approach which is related to a favorable labor market inclusion of refugees in Germany as a key concern for refugees as well as for the domestic population.

Taking account of the significant impact of the current situation for the German society and refugees themselves, the goals of this contribution are to identify the capabilities which refugees in Germany value and have reason to value. As “developing the skill to pursue one’s own work-related plans and ambitions” (Sen 2009: 233) can be shown to be of central importance for the refugees, we attach a strong focus on the meaning of “good employment” in the eyes of the refugees and compare it with respective employers’ perceptions and expectations. Furthermore, we aim at analyzing and discussing potentials and restrictions with respect to a favorable social and labor market inclusion (Sen 2000) of refugees in Germany. In doing so, we explicitly differentiate the general analysis from female refugees’ specific (lack of) capabilities and agency as well as resulting individual, social and political consequences.

To achieve these goals, we establish a comprehensive perspective, based on own empirical research consisting of 142 qualitative explorations with female and male refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea: 76 of them in the German cities of Pforzheim and Tübingen and 66 qualitative interviews in four other regions of Germany in 2016-2018. This sample represents, to our knowledge, the only existing collection of qualitative data based on the Capability Approach in this research area and magnitude. These empirical data are complemented by qualitative interviews with representatives of 40 companies in four regional German labor markets with diverging structures in the second half of 2016. This allows us to compare the perceptions of the refugees regarding their labor market inclusion with the expectations and experiences of employers. Furthermore, we enrich our own empirical findings with existing quantitative studies concerning the inclusion of refugees into the German labor market.         

The refugees, who often fled from the Middle East to Germany in recent years, have to start a new life from scratch. We specifically analyze how they take account of their (forced loss of) capabilities, functionings as well as of challenges to (re-) gain control, autonomy, agency and empowerment (Alkire 2009) in a completely new, unknown environment. Having arrived in Germany, many refugees suffer from the multidimensional burden of unemployment (Sen 1999, 1997) caused by a diversity of restrictions. We show how refugees are forced to establish new life goals and plans in which employment plays a key role. We find that often they do not search for any kind of job, but for “good work” which they value and have reason to value. Digging deeper, we identify the multiplicity of valued capabilities and underlying arguments which determine what refugees personally value and hope to achieve as “good employment”. These diverse reasons to value a certain employment are characterized by the personal heterogeneities of the refugees and result in a high self-motivation and willingness to find employment which are strongly emphasized by the refugees and confirmed by German employers.

Based on this, we analyze the current state of refugees’ opportunity freedom (capabilities and functionings etc.) as well as process freedom (autonomy, agency, relational capabilities and empowerment etc.). In doing so, we are able to explore opportunity and process freedom restrictions which refugees in general and female refugees specifically experience on their way to find what they feel to be a good employment. We complement these findings with employers’ expectations and experiences related to refugees’ potentials and restrictions to successfully find employment and be favorably included as employees in German companies. Thereby, we show why and how connecting capabilities such as language, education, relational capabilities, notably social contacts across cultures, religions and nationalities, are essential for refugees’ inclusion into society and labor market as each of these groups of capabilities enhances each other.

Overall, the theoretical discussion and empirical findings enable us to draw conclusions how to enhance female and male refugees’ opportunity and process freedom to find and be favorably employed in a “good job”. Moreover, we discuss how and why refugees, employers and other social actors (e.g. German labor market agencies) as well as society and population in general can contribute to a labor market inclusion of refugees in Germany which is favorable for refugees and for the domestic population in Germany.

We finally show the strengths (Bonfanti 2014) but also the need to further develop the Capability Approach as a theoretical framework for analyses of contemporary refugee migration.

Keywords: Refugee, Capability Approach, employment, favorable inclusion


Alkire, S. 2009. “Concepts and Measures of Agency.” In Arguments for a Better World. Essays in Honor of Amartya Sen, Volume I, edited by K. Basu and R. Kanbur, 455 – 474. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bonfanti, S. 2014. “Towards a Migrant-Centred Perspective on International Migration: The Contribution of Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach.“ Social Work & Society Online Journal 12 (2).

Brücker, H., J. Croisier, Y. Kosyakova, H. Kröger, G. Pietrantuono, N. Rother and J. Schupp. 2019. Language skills and employment rate of refugees in Germany improving with time. DIW Weekly Report 4-6: 50-61

Sen, A. 1997. “Inequality, Unemployment and Contemporary Europe.” International Labour Review 136 (2) Summer: 155-171.

Sen, A. 1999. Development as Freedom. New York: Knopf.

Sen, A. 2000. Social Exclusion: Concept, Application, and Scrutiny. Social Development Paper 1, June 2000. Manila: Asian Development Bank.

Sen, A. 2009. The Idea of Justice. London: Allen Lane/Penguin Group.

Sen, A. 2017. Collective choice and social welfare. 2nd expanded edition. London: Penguin.

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