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Denmark: Syrian refugee women in the labour market

31 700 Syrian refugees have arrived in Denmark since 2014. Overall, those who arrived during the peak period 5-6 years ago have been very successful in entering the labour market compared to refugees arriving in earlier periods. But there are big differences when it comes to nationality and gender.

A new analysis from Danish Knowledge Centre on Integration found that only 17% of the Syrian women in Denmark had a job in December 2020. By comparison, 80% of the Eritrean men and 38% of the Eritrean women were employed – all of them arriving 6 years ago. The analysis does not provide reasons for this difference.

The low percentage of Syrian women supporting themselves has been mentioned several times by the Minister of Integration, Mattias Tesfaye, in the current discussion about revoking residence permits for Syrian refugees in Denmark. This contrasts with the many examples presented in the media and on Facebook in recent days, of young Syrian girls about to finish their education who are very well integrated and speak perfect Danish. Both images presented are accurate.

Part of the explanation for these statistics can be education level and trauma. Syrian women might be more traumatised than - or traumatised in a different way from - Eritrean women, for example, and Syrians might have greater focus on education – those ones who are currently enrolled in education in Denmark are not counted in these statistics. This said, almost 40% of Syrian refugees arrived in Denmark with a very limited school background, making it hard for them to enter the Danish education system.

Culture and traditions related to work and gender also play a part, as well as how Danish employers perceive various groups: the fact that Syrians are mainly Muslim and Eritreans mainly Christian, for example, might influence their chance of getting a job. But this is not the whole explanation, as Iranians and Afghans – also Muslim – have entered the labour market to a much higher degree than Syrians.

Obstacles to entering the labour market are complex. But with the right effort, they can be overcome. Danish Refugee Council (DRC) has seen good results with its related programme, designing efforts individually according to the needs of each refugee. DRC Integration works in collaboration with local municipalities all over the country, basing their work on previous experience from as far back as receiving the first refugees from Hungary in Denmark in 1956.

Kinda is one of the refugee women from Syria in Denmark. She looks forward to starting her apprenticeship as part of her education to become a Social and Health assistant, working in the care department for the elderly. This is the result of a four-month course designed for her by her municipality, Favrskov, and DRC Integration, focusing on women. She has completed courses on relevant issues, and a personal bilingual mentor was appointed to her.

Kinda explains: "I was an educated social worker in Syria, and in my country, when you get an education, you are supposed to work within that field. If I was working as a cleaning assistant, people would look down on me. But that's not how it is in Denmark. I found out that they will in fact respect you for doing that."

The project helped her find a temporary cleaning job to support herself while she prepared and looked for an apprentice position, to complete the education needed for the job she dreamed of: Social and Health assistant. She was nervous at first because of the language: "I don't understand 100%, but I follow. And I develop my skills a lot because we speak Danish every day."

Now, Kinda and many other refugees in Denmark are becoming nervous over an issue much more serious than language learning. Recent developments mean that they could now lose their residence permits to at any point. As the only Western country so far to announce such a change, Danish authorities have decided that the Damascus region is safe enough to return to for those who don't have an individual asylum motive. This new practice has led to the revoking of residence permits for around one hundred Syrian refugees so far, the majority of whom are women. The cases of another 900 are being assessed, leaving them waiting in a constant state of fear.

This will negatively affect the integration process of all refugees. The DRC launched a report in 2019 entitled "We are taking away their dreams" (in Danish), which was before any cases had been revoked, finding that even the insecurity of temporary permits being re-assessed every second year was a huge stress factor for people with refugee status. The authors of the report observed that the majority of the people interviewed for their research experienced anxiety regarding their future, which was affecting their ability and motivation to learn Danish, act and take decisions. This insecurity also leads to compromised psychological health.