Employment

More than 8 million Ukrainian refugees have fled to Europe but only 1 in 3 have found work

Fewer than one in three refugees from Ukraine are employed in their host countries, despite having the legal right to work in Europe. What’s getting in their way?

On the 430th day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian activists hold another symbolic demonstration in Krakow's Market Square, on April 29, 2023, in Krakow, Poland. Image: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

More than eight million refugees have fled Ukraine for Europe since Russian bombs began to fall in February 2022. That’s around 18 per cent of the population of Ukraine looking to rebuild their lives and careers, or at least find some sense of normality until they can return home.

At the same time, Europe is experiencing a labour crisis. Millions of jobs are going unfilled, from construction workers to drivers, waiters and nurses.  Surely this influx of potential workers has been welcomed with open arms?

Yet 15 months since the war began, fewer than one in three refugees from Ukraine are employed in their host countries, according to recent research from UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. Many of the 17,000 refugees interviewed are underemployed, engaged in low paying jobs that are far below their qualifications or, worse, employed in the so-called ‘informal’ economy without protections.

When the war started in February 2022, Viola was living in Ukraine. She escaped to Poland when Russian tanks began rolling across her homeland. 

Despite enjoying the relative freedom of working as a freelance copywriter and social media manager, Viola lost the majority of her work, and her income dried up. “Mostly my clients were from Belarus and Russia,” she tells The Big Issue. “I didn’t want to work with them any more.”

As a 26-year-old refugee, Viola described how difficult it was to find her footing and secure a full-time role. For a while, she turned to gig economy platforms, like Upwork, but she wanted a stable income to build a life in Poland. She’s now found it, working for software company Nebucode through a new scheme to help refugees into work.

Many refugees end up taking temporary, manual or low-skilled jobs, explains Nicole Etchart, co-founder and CEO of NESsT, which supports social enterprises such as Nebucode around the world, “but what’s needed is sustainable employment”.

“A lot of the refugees are women, so they need to be able to support their families, they need work that allows them to be able to take their children to school. So it’s about the quality of jobs open to them,” she continued.



Many countries, including Poland, have welcomed refugees, while businesses, policy makers and charities have got to work figuring out how to absorb this influx of people into their labour markets. 

Rather than only aiming to help Ukrainians find a job, the NESsT Refugee Employment Initiative focuses on enabling refugees to find secure, sustainable work that capitalises on their skills while they take shelter in a safe country. 

There is a talent gap in Poland and Romania, Etchart explains, meaning that companies are keen to fill vacancies, but refugees still face difficulties in joining a new workforce far from home. 

Employers need help bringing refugees into their organisations in a sustainable way, says Shabia Mantoo, UNHCR spokesperson. What’s needed is: “access to job-matching mechanisms, information and guidance on how to hire refugees and prepare the workplace, as well as services available to support the integration of refugees beyond employment (language, skills recognition and upskilling, childcare, housing, etc.) and legal certainty” she explained. 

NESsT has invested in eight enterprises, with plans for seven more, in Poland and Romania, not only to bring refugees and migrants into their workforce, but to provide them with necessary support with additional training, childcare and psycho-social support. It’s a holistic package that views them as human beings. The initiative aims to create 3,000 jobs and improve the lives of 5,000 refugees.

“When people are looking for employment in a new society, new environment… there’s unfortunately cases where people have been exploited. We spend four or five months really getting to know the teams in the enterprises we include,” says Etchart.

Nebucode is a software development company in Poland that passed NESsT’s vetting process to both expand its employment opportunities for Ukrainian refugees and create a bootcamp for those coming from the war area. 

“We saw that those people are really committed to work, we saw that working with them was economical and reliable,” Patryk Pijanowski, CEO and founder of Nebucode told The Big Issue. 

Software developers are in high demand in Poland, Pijanowski explains, “so we need people from Ukraine”. Around 500 people have been supported into work through the bootcamp. 

Nebucode hired Viola, while she was searching for full time work, to maintain their social media accounts. She was was eventually hired full-time by the company as its operational manager, with the investment from NESsT supporting Nebucode to create more job opportunities for refugees like Viola. 

“This has been a brilliant experience for me, the team I work with are friendly, and most importantly they are professionals that can teach you,” she says.

Finding a job is “integral to the restoration of human dignity and freedom,” said Mantoo, from the UNHCR. “It is therefore important that while they are displaced and away from home – irrespective of the duration –  that refugees are empowered to earn a decent living and participate in local economies.”

With Russia’s war in Ukraine showing no signs of stopping and the risk of climate refugees on the horizon, the need for more countries to find ways to support refugees into work will only grow.

Big Issue Group has created the person-centred recruitment service, Big Issue Recruit to support people facing barriers to employment into sustainable jobs. To find out how Big Issue Recruit could help you into employment, or help your business to take a more inclusive approach to recruitment, click here.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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