When Rasha Mostafa fled war-torn Syria with her husband and daughter 4 1/2 years ago, little did she know she was going to help Amsterdam with a key economic problem.
The Dutch capital has leaned on the 33-year-old for jobs many of the city’s inhabitants shun — from assisting bakers at supermarket Albert Heijn and administrative work at a language institute to taking care of children at a refugee center. The Arabic literature graduate from Damascus is now a shop assistant at fashion retailer C & A on the western edge of Amsterdam, tidying up the store, putting clothes back on hangers and helping customers.
“The manager asked me if I soon want to learn to handle the cash register,” she said in passable Dutch.
With 2.4 million immigrants entering the European Union from outside the bloc in 2017, the latest data available, the debate over refugees deeply divides the region and has spurred the rise of populists. Yet in many large cities, migrants are quietly filling gaping holes in the labor market, doing jobs locals just don’t want to do. In Amsterdam, which has one of lowest unemployment rates for a European city, the refugees may be a godsend in many sectors — from hospitality and transport to information technology. The city is making an active push to get businesses to hire them.
With a jobless rate of 3.3%, the second-lowest in the euro area after Germany, the Netherlands faces an acute shortage of workers. Unemployment in Amsterdam, the country’s largest city, is lower still. Dutch central bank president Klaas Knot wrote in the institution’s annual report in March that staff shortages present a real challenge, characterizing the labor market as tight.
“Obstacles due to insufficient staffing increased sharply in all sectors during the year,” Knot wrote. “Against this background, it is likely that economic growth will level off in the coming years.” Economists predict an expansion in the country of 1.8% this year, after 2.7% in 2018.
As of the beginning of last year, 6,055 refugees had been granted temporary residence permits in Amsterdam. Nearly 5,000 of them came to the Netherlands in or after 2014, with half of those arriving from Syria.
The Dutch capital’s government embarked in 2016 on what’s dubbed the “Amsterdam Approach,” which is helping solve two glaring problems in the city: integrating thousands of refugees and addressing a lack of workers. At the end of last year, 53% of the city’s asylum-seekers with residence permits who’d sought welfare benefits in 2014 had found work, enrolled in education or no longer claimed state assistance.
About 80 “client managers” — many of whom are themselves migrants — work in Amsterdam with about 50 refugees each. They discuss everything from asylum procedures, Dutch language lessons and finding work to emotional support. It’s a long process that requires patience from all involved, said Marlet Schreuder, a refugee-integration specialist in Amsterdam’s City Hall.
“It’s dangerous to think that hiring a refugee is exactly the same as hiring a local,” she said. “We look for employers who also accept a social component and are not solely focused on economic motives. Refugees, who often don’t speak the language and are sometimes traumatized, need to be adopted by the employer.”
Cultural differences, the intensity of work and communication barriers are the main obstacles, she said.
Asif Mahmood Jabbar concedes it hasn’t been easy. The IT expert, who arrived from Pakistan in 2015, joined ABN Amro Group last year as a development engineer for the bank.
“I would have never found this job without help from the municipality,” he said. “At the beginning it was hard for me. The level of work was too high. I struggled a lot.”
After training courses and help from colleagues, Jabbar now feels he’s part of the team. His contract was recently extended.
Granted, not all stories have such happy endings. Many of the refugees are ill-equipped for life in Europe, struggling to adapt and making it hard for employers to take them on.
Harry Welch, a manager at Van Wijk Vastgoedonderhoud, a company with about 150 employees that manages property maintenance for housing associations, won’t be hiring refugees anytime soon. In January, after failing to find local tilers, Welch hired a migrant from Syria identified by an employee.
“His Dutch was quite OK, and my employee said he was willing to put in the time and energy necessary, so we said: let’s do it,” he said.
The company eased the new hire into the job and “didn’t throw him into the deep end immediately,” Welch said, noting that while there were communication issues that led to misunderstandings about tasks that needed to be done, the work he did was good. Welch said he would have liked to have retained him, but the employee recently indicated he wanted to leave and start his own business, breaching his one-year contract.
“That’s disappointing,” Welch said, adding that while starting a business might be simple in Syria, in the Netherlands it means complying with all sorts of rules. “I think it will be difficult for him, without a network and the knowledge of the local market. We told his coach at the municipality that we don’t think it’s a good idea for him at this stage.”
Most refugees also don’t come with the necessary skills, which means they’re not going to make a significant dent in the labor-market shortage anytime soon, said Nic Vrieselaar, an economist at RaboResearch.
Success rates differ from sector to sector. While refugees find jobs relatively easily in the hospitality industry, construction proves more difficult.
“Bricklaying a wall in Eritrea is not necessarily the same as in the Netherlands, in terms of quality and work methods,” Schreuder, the city hall representative, said. But it’s always worth trying to help refugees find their place in society, she said, adding that she’s already placed 40 people “who otherwise may have been dependent on government money for a lifetime.”