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Even worse than the undocumented?

Assessing the refugees’ integration in the labour market of Lombardy in 2001- 2014

Wooden blocks with Jobs written on them

Source: AndreyPopov

Immigrants’ employment is one of the most researched areas in the field of integration. However, only few studies focus on the impact of migrants’ entry channels (e.g. refugee, undocumented) on their labour market outcomes. Previous research in the United States, Australia, Canada and northern and continental Europe has shown that refugees face substantial difficulties in integrating into the labour market compared to other categories of immigrants. The disadvantage faced by refugees tends to decrease over time but rarely disappears. In the literature, such difficulties – both in terms of entrance into the labour market and earning compared to other immigrants’ categories – are known as the ‘refugee gap’ (Connor 2010). The gap is due to several reasons: personal characteristics of refugees (e.g. lower education, lack of knowledge of host country language and employability skills) and host country-specific characteristics (e.g. the reception system that builds mechanism of exclusion and the legislation that prevents refugees to work upon arrival) are the most relevant.

In a recent paper, Livia Elisa Ortensi (University of Bologna) and Elena Ambrosetti (University of Rome La Sapienza) aim to assess possible gaps in labour market integration of refugees compared to other migrants, including irregular migrants in the Italian region of Lombardy in 2001-2014. The authors argue that a reflection on and an assessment of refugees’ labour market integration in Italy is timely and needed to inform policies aimed at immigration policy and management. This is due to the high number of refugees who have applied for asylum in Italy in the last few years and in light of the expected economic crisis driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. Using data of a pooled dataset resulting from 14 rounds of the Italian survey on immigrants carried out by the Regional Observatory for Integration and Multiethnicity of Lombardy, the authors' research agenda focuses on: (1) whether refugees in Italy are more at risk of unemployment than other migrants, including undocumented migrants and/or co-nationals; (2) whether the occurrence of regular employment among refugees is similar to all other regular migrants and regular co-nationals and (3) whether refugees are more likely to receive the lowest average job-related income compared to other migrants.

Their findings support the results of studies carried out in other contexts on a ‘refugee gap’ in labour market integration. Despite the Italian labour market’s remarkable capacity to integrate foreign workers, in the Italian region of Lombardy, refugees have considerably more difficulties integrating into the labour market than other migrants. This pattern is sustained compared to their co-nationals, including those undocumented that may be in refugee-like situations. Refugees show higher unemployment levels, irregular employment and more often receive very low monthly work-related incomes compared to other regular (i.e. documented) migrants. At the same time, they show higher levels of unemployment compared to irregular (i.e. undocumented) migrants.

All in all, the picture is not all negative: considering the trend between 2011 and 2014, there are some improvements over the period. Despite an overall increase in unemployment, the gap with other migrants in employment and regular employment among the employed has been narrowing in recent years. 

The authors conclude that early labour market access policies should be a priority for refugees to be legitimated by their status and by their work. At the same time, the authors support the notion that the ‘culture of asylum’ in Italy should be seen as a fundamental human right.



Connor, P. (2010) Explaining the refugee gap: economic outcomes of refugees versus other immigrants. Journal of Refugee Studies, 23(3), 377– 397.

Livia Elisa Ortensi and Elena Ambrosetti