Despite being recognised as among the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic [1], refugees across the EU and beyond are stepping up to support local communities in fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic, a reminder that – vulnerable or not – refugees have skills that may be of added value to receiving countries and their local labour market needs.

Although unfortunate, the pandemic offers countries an opportunity to understand the value of refugees’ skills, as well as the barriers that they face in having their skills and competences recognised and in accessing the labour market. Confronted with the emergency of the situation and human resource shortages, the authorities in Ireland are calling for doctors and healthcare professionals of refugee background, who are not licensed to practice in Ireland, to be included in coronavirus responses.[2]  In Austria, civil society is working with the UN refugee agency UNHCR to recruit health workers, rubbish collectors and others for urgently needed services [3]. Other countries may do the same as UNHCR and the Council of Europe encourage States “to benefit from the support refugee health professionals can provide to national health systems at this critical juncture” [4]. The refugees themselves are volunteering to help their host societies by doing social work (disinfecting shopping carts and baskets or [5] sewing face masks [6]

However, under normal circumstances, their labour market potential is often underused. A reason for that is the difficulties refugees face with integration in the local labour market of the host countries. Another is that most refugees often live in developing host countries or are concentrated in a few EU countries of asylum, struggling to prove themselves in local economies which are unable to absorb and make full use of their labour market potential. As a result, refugees’ skills often remain unused and become obsolete over time, while EU countries which are facing serious skills shortages could benefit from inflows of this additional skilled labour.

Acknowledging that, vulnerable or not, refugees are indeed an untapped pool of human capital [7], Cedefop has been working since 2018 to design and test complementary pathway mechanisms for admission of adult refugees from a first host country (within or outside the EU) to an EU receiving country, taking into account and making use of vocational education and training (VET), skills, and qualifications of the individuals in relation to the local labour market needs of that country. Countries admitting refugees from main countries of asylum through skills-based complementary pathways may help address a pressing need for sharing responsibility fairly, while at the same time meeting existing and future skill gaps in their own labour markets.

Cedefop is currently in contact with authorities in Portugal and Finland to investigate the possibility of testing such a mechanism in the EU, hoping it may open the way for other EU countries to follow.


[2] Sorcha P., (2020), Coronavirus: Refugee and asylum seeker medics could provide ‘essential support’, Irish Times, Friday, Mar 20, 2020

[5] Nielsen N., (2020), Refugees across Europe help fight the pandemic, euobserver, Brussels, Apr. 8, 2020.

[7] References to refugees’ skills with the aim of creating pathways for protection can be found in the context of the United Nations Global Compact on Refugees.