Opportunity & Access

Ethnic Networks Help Refugees Find Work

Immigrants are more likely to find jobs within their first five years if they live near people who share their nationality, ethnicity, or language.

July 30, 2019

| by Alex Shashkevich


Children reach to touch the dragons taking part in Lunar New Year celebrations in New York's Chinatown section. It is believed that feeding the dragon a lucky red envelope, or patting it on the head, brings good fortune. Credit: Reuters/Henny Ray Adams

New research shows refugees who resettle near people who share their background can more quickly find employment in their new homes. | Reuters/Henny Ray Abrams

Ethnic enclaves are often viewed as a negative for the integration of immigrants with natives in their new country. But it turns out that ethnic communities can help newly arrived refugees find work, according to a new Stanford study that analyzed a cohort of asylum seekers in Switzerland.

Researchers at the Stanford Immigration Policy Lab found that new refugees were more likely to become employed within their first five years if Swiss officials assigned them to live in an area with a larger community of people who share their nationality, ethnicity, or language.

“Our study shows that ethnic networks can be beneficial for the economic status of refugees at least within the first few years of their arrival in the host country,” says Jens Hainmueller, a professor of political science at Stanford and by courtesy at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and a coauthor of the research paper. Hainmueller is also a faculty codirector of the Stanford Immigration Policy Lab.

The paper was coauthored by Linna Martén, a researcher at Uppsala University, and Dominik Hangartner, an associate professor of public policy at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and a codirector of the Immigration Policy Lab, which has a branch in Zurich.

Digging into Swiss Records

Researchers analyzed governmental data of 8,590 asylum seekers who were granted temporary protection status when they arrived in Switzerland between 2008 and 2013. The data covered five years of information on each refugee, including whether they found employment and in which industry.

In Switzerland, immigration officials randomly assign each new refugee to live in one of the country’s 26 cantons, which are member states. The refugees’ preferences typically are not considered in the selection process unless they have a family member already living in a particular canton. In addition, new refugees with temporary protection status are not allowed to move outside of their assigned canton within their first five years in the country, Hainmueller says.

Analysis of the data revealed that no more than 40% of refugees had a job during their fifth year in Switzerland. But those refugees who were assigned to cantons with a larger ethnic network were more likely to have found work.


Given that refugee employment is generally very low, the increase in employment is an important effect. This is just one piece of a bigger puzzle on what helps refugees integrate.
Jens Hainmueller

If a group of new refugees was assigned to a canton with a large share of others from their country, about 20% of those new arrivals became employed within three years of living in the country. But if that same group was settled in an area with a small share of co-nationals, only 14% of the new arrivals had a job three years later.

“Given that refugee employment is generally very low, the increase in employment is an important effect,” Hainmueller says. “This is just one piece of a bigger puzzle on what helps refugees integrate within their host country.”

Informing Asylum, Refugee Policies

In European countries, many people view ethnic enclaves as a result of a failure to integrate immigrants with natives. But those negative perceptions are not grounded in evidence, Hainmueller says.

In part, because of this general concern, officials in countries such as Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland have enacted policies designed to disperse newly arrived refugees to avoid the creation of ethnic enclaves.

“What this research suggests is that those dispersal policies come with some costs, in terms of new refugees not benefiting from the positive effects of ethnic networks,” Hainmueller says. “It doesn’t mean that these policies are generally bad, but it does highlight that there is one potential benefit of geographically concentrated ethnic networks that European officials are not capturing.”

In the U.S., people who arrive as part of the refugee resettlement program, which includes an extensive background check conducted through the United Nations Refugee Agency, are assigned to live in areas based on where there is available space. Unlike in some European countries, new refugees are allowed to move after their initial settlement.

“U.S. officials and the public have a slightly more positive view of ethnic enclaves because ethnic neighborhoods formed at the foundation of this country,” Hainmueller says.

The new study is a part of a bigger project at the Immigration Policy Lab that aims to examine how the asylum process and its implementation affect the subsequent integration of refugees both in the U.S. and Europe, Hainmueller says.

“We are interested in a lot of different asylum policy choices, such as how asylum seekers are geographically located and what rules govern their access to the labor market,” Hainmueller says. “There are a lot of rules that affect refugees and asylum seekers, and they aren’t necessarily grounded in solid evidence. Our research agenda is to try to quantify the impacts of those policy choices and point the way to policies that might work better.”

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