7: The ‘back-stepper’ and the ‘career diplomat’: turning points of labour market integration

‘Delving into everyday experiences of a range of migrants and hearing their own voices, this chapter discusses how newcomers exercise agency to seize opportunities offered by their country of settlement and mitigate the effect of the turbulent social, political and economic circumstances they often meet with.

To understand migrants’ capabilities and agency, we not only look at their lives over the last five years but also explore their more distant memories long before their migration. Analysis of their past experiences enables our better understanding of their motivation for emigration, of barriers and opportunities they were facing and of their individual capacity for change and resistance. Looking back into their past also enables us to explore in-depth the reciprocal relationship between their agency and the sociocultural context.

The analytical accent is specifically placed on the turning points and emerging epiphanies of migrants’ lives as well as on issues of intersectionality which heavily determine migration outcomes. We mostly emphasise the narrative thematic analysis (composite biographies) and its combination with data from other levels of inquiry, or cross-level analysis.


There have been many studies on various forms, or proxies, of labour-market integration (De Beer and Schills, 2009; Bal, 2014; Berntsen, 2016). Among scholars and policymakers, there is a consensus on the economically integrated migrant as a well-paid professional who works in the area of his/her specialisation and rapidly progresses in his/her career (Baglioni and Isaakyan, 2019; Weinar and Klekowski von Koppenfels, 2020). However, there is limited knowledge about how migrants navigate complex new relations that underpin their labour-market accession, and how these people reflect upon their own experiences of integration. Living in precarious employment conditions in their new and often hostile societies, they make difficult choices and develop various coping strategies, while existing institutional practices and immigration laws often make their lives even more complicated (Oelgemoller, 2011; Marchetti, 2014; Koikkalainen and Kyle, 2016; Squire, 2017; Triandafyllidou, 2018; Marchetti et al, 2022).

It is within this context of everyday uncertainty, institutional bureaucracy and political instability that we seek to capture the biographic, or agentic, aspect of labour market integration. We want to look deeply into vulnerable and, at the same time, empowering lives of migrants and into the meanings they assign to their lived experience of (not) being integrated in their host societies. To achieve this, we use the method of narrative-biographic inquiry, which stresses the role of ‘critical events’ (Creswell, 2013) – or ‘turning points’ (Denzin, 1989, 2011) – in structuring people’s lives and influencing their perceptions and self-positioning. To understand how migrants themselves understand and manage their own integration, we ask two questions. What are the most critical events that affect migrants’ labour market integration? How do migrants respond to such challenges? The first question relates to the integration needs of migrants; while the second question connects to their own understanding of these needs and, consequently, to their coping strategies.

Through the prism of narrative-biographic research, our chapter looks at migrants, refugees and asylum seekers (MRAs) who arrived between 2014 and 2019 in seven European countries – notably, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Greece, Switzerland and the UK. These countries have been marked by significant post-2014 inflows of MRAs, who have very different migration experiences and backgrounds. We investigate, through the intersubjective yet critical lens, their initial labour market integration. Giving voice to the migrants themselves, we highlight their own experiences and understandings of the labour market integration process in the first years of immigration.

Our chapter has the following structure. The next section presents a critical literature review on integration and agency. In this section we elaborate on the basic concepts of ‘integration’, ‘migrant agency’ and ‘migrant vulnerability’, by illuminating their interconnectivity. We argue that integration of migrants is closely connected to their agency; while migrant agency, or ‘navigation of social relations’ by the migrant, is a dynamic, multidimensional process, which brings together an interplay of individual characteristics and structural forces such as gender, class and ethnicity (Triandafyllidou, 2018). Our starting point is, therefore, the ‘integration–agency–vulnerability’ nexus/triangle, which implicates the processual, multidirectional and dynamic nature of migrant agency in its difficult work towards achieving integration. The third section outlines the methodology and provides details of our sample. The fourth section discusses the main findings. It focuses on the main critical moments experienced by our informants in relation to their integration. These critical moments, or ‘turning points’ (Denzin, 1989, 2011; Creswell, 2013), throw light on integration challenges experienced by our informants and their emerging needs when they seek to enter and adjust to the host labour markets. In particular, we explore the role of such critical moments (or interrelated factor) of labour market integration as first job application (or labour market entrance), encounter with a biased administrator or official, and solidarity networking. We do not divide these critical encounters into barriers and enablers of integration for the following reason. We argue that integration is ‘liquid’ (or ‘fluid’) by nature, which means that one and the same event may affect integration both positively and negatively, depending on the circumstances and the work of migrant agency. In the fifth section, we develop an innovative typology of labour market integration: we present several types of migrants based on their perception of and responses to the challenges mentioned.

Integration, migrant agency and vulnerability

Squire (2017) defines migrants’ agency as ‘a conduct based on their ability to act consciously and to realize their migratory intentions’. As Triandafyllidou (2018) further explains, agency is their capacity for autonomous decision-making that takes place when they deal with various challenges of migration. Migrant agency manifests itself in the extent to which a person autonomously imagines a future migratory process, collects information, makes a cross-border movement, chooses his/her accommodation and professional or social activity in a new place, and/or forms a circle of new friends (Triandafyllidou, 2018). In other words, the agency of a migrant is revealed in his/her capacity to navigate the social environment of a new country and to become integrated in the host society and in the host economy. Moreover, the agentic potential of a migrant is realised through his/her labour market integration. Searching for a job, having your credentials recognised, negotiating your employment contract and fighting for your labour rights in a new country are indeed very challenging activities that require both autonomous decision-making and flexible networking on the part of the migrant. The labour market integration and migrant agency thus form a strong organic nexus.

Integration is generally understood by migration scholars and policymakers as ‘the process of mutual adaptation between host society and migrants, implying a sense of mutual respect for values that bind migrants and their host communities to a common purpose’ and mutual acceptance of each other (IOM, 2011: 51). At the core of this process is the reciprocity between migrants’ needs and the hosts’ actions (Penninx, 2018). This means that migrants should make an effort to learn and master the new culture while the hosts should try to understand the migrants’ needs and provide a variety of cultural and economic accommodations to include the migrant in the host society as fully as possible. In theory, migrants should offer their skills to the host societies, who should provide the migrants with necessary accommodations such as adequate salaries and employment conditions that would match their professional qualifications.

Various studies show that success of labour market integration is generally associated for the migrant with employment in decent working conditions (De Beer and Schills, 2009; Bal, 2014; Bernstein, 2016). The International Labour Organization (ILO, 2020) defines ‘decent work’ as a mode of employment that ‘delivers a fair income, security in the workplace, social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, and equal opportunity and treatment for all women and men’. The ILO (2020) further states that, only under these conditions, migrants’ lives can be self-fulfilling.

In practice, however, such expected reciprocity is usually skewed, to a certain extent, towards the responsibility on the part of the migrant. In terms of labour market integration, the main task of finding employment and negotiating its conditions rests on the shoulders of the migrant and depends mostly on his/her capacity for independent and proactive decision-making (Penninx, 2018). The autonomy of the migrant’s agency thus manifests itself in his/her decision-making in the conditions of minimum reciprocity with the host society. Studies show that a successful case of the migrant’s decent work is an outcome of his/her agency because prolific conditions of employment at destination are usually achieved by migrants through difficult decisions and various hardships rather than given to them gratis (Bal, 2014; Bernstein, 2016; Baglioni and Isaakyan, 2019).

This further leads us to see another nexus – between migrants’ agency and their vulnerability, or their openness to potential and real exploitation and harm, in the host labour market (Waite, 2009). In fact, within the context of minimum to null reciprocity, migrants as workers often become subjected to underpayment, unqualified employment, abusive employment relations and overall career downscaling and dissatisfaction (Waite, 2009; Piper, 2017; Piper and Whiter, 2018). While there are many established structural forces that support the vulnerability of migrants in the host labour market (Baglioni and Isaakyan, 2019). Scholars argue that legal provisions, labour market integration policies and discourses as well as civil society organisations and social partners provide migrants with a range of different opportunities, which differ across countries and migrant categories (De Beer and Schills, 2009; Bal, 2014; Berntsen, 2016). For example, ‘economic migrants’ are provided with opportunities that asylum seekers or irregular migrants do not have (Squire, 2017; Weinar and Klekowski von Koppenfels, 2020). Gender differences also create different structures of opportunity: thus women continue to lag behind men in their benefits from recruitment policies and become adversely affected by persistent cultural stereotypes about gender roles both in the family and in the economic system (Christou and Kofman, 2022). As a result, the childcare duties and educational disadvantages may become unsurmountable barriers for women-migrants in general and for refugee women in particular (Christou and Kofman, 2022). Alongside this, employment obstructions are added by disability. Thus not only more educated but also more physically fit migrants de facto have better employment opportunities at destination, while newcomers with medical conditions may have unrecognised healthcare needs that impede their successful employment (De Beer and Schills, 2009; Bal, 2014; Berntsen, 2016). Especially at the beginning of their immigration, migrants are, in fact, very vulnerable workers, who must confront their own vulnerability mostly on their own if they want to survive.

However, employment relations can be changed any time, and Waite (2009) gives credit to migrants’ capacity for turning their own vulnerability into a factor enabling their independent decision-making and integration. In fact, migrants’ agency – or their decision-making about relocation and settlement (Squire, 2017) – is a highly interactive process of exploring complex social relations while ‘navigating’ towards, away from or past integration (Triandafyllidou, 2018). The dynamic and multidimensional nature of migrants’ agency becomes especially apparent in their navigation towards labour-market integration, which often develops in non-linear ways (Katz et al, 2004; Triandafyllidou, 2018). Triandafyllidou (2018) argues that it is a ‘fragmented’ itinerary with different ‘stops and intermediate milestones’, where the journey can change its nature and direction and where there can be returns and new departures. Searching for work, migrants navigate complex administrative requirements, adapt to a new cultural context and identify job opportunities through formal or informal channels (Triandafyllidou, 2018).

During these phases of navigating the new country environment, there is an interplay between the migrant’s initial hopes and expectations, actual conditions that she/he is faced with, and ways in which the migrant develops her/his agency and seeks to turn these conditions in his/her favour (Triandafyllidou, 2017, 2018). This process also involves an intense interaction between individual migrants, their families, and various structural and relational forces that shape migrants’ trajectories and perceptions of integration (Carling and Schewel, 2017; Van Hear et al, 2017).

This interactive nature of migrant agency resonates with the fundamental argument of Anthony Giddens (2000) about the ‘agency-structure’ nexus, which implies an interactive – although not always reciprocal and symmetric – relationship between the individual and their environment. Migration scholars note that, while struggling with their hostile environments, migrants do not only make new forced decisions under the impact of various circumstances of their migration but also create new opportunities for themselves through these dynamics (King et al, 2017; Squire, 2017; Triandafyllidou, 2018). As generally noted by Norman Denzin (2011), some events that happen to people may change their lives entirely and create new circumstances. Such critical events may become the signposts of migrant agency.

The list of such events includes facing the loss of the significant other, graduating from the university, meeting a new person, undergoing a divorce or experiencing a difficult socioeconomic situation such as war or unemployment. During such encounters, people often have to change their habitual life plans and life routines and make new important decisions. The decision-making process – or the work of human agency – thus becomes altered or redirected towards new goals. For example, having lost a parent or a spouse, a person may suddenly enter a difficult economic situation and start thinking of new ways to earn money. Being affected by a war, political persecution or unemployment, an individual may start thinking about changing a living environment and emigrate. An encounter with a new colleague or stranger may lead to new social connections and, consequently, new opportunities for further decision-making. Thus people often change/choose their jobs and places of residence, including new countries, based on the advice or information from people they occasionally meet. When such events lead us to make new decisions, make new choices and change our lives, they become our ‘turning points’ (Denzin, 1989, 2011).


In the light of the discussion in the previous section, we would like to explore how migrants themselves understand the dynamics of their own labour market integration. To achieve this, we ask: What were the most critical events that helped the migrants understand their own needs? To what extent did the migrants feel ‘able’ to overcome emerging obstacles, mobilise their resources and achieve mobility in the labour market?

To answer these questions and to explore migrants’ lived experiences of labour market integration, the SIRIUS research project consortium1 has conducted 100 semi-structured narrative-biographic interviews with post-2014 MRAs in seven countries, namely: 16 interviews in Greece; 10 in Italy; 11 each in Switzerland, Finland and the UK; 14 in the Czech Republic; and 27 in Denmark. Fieldwork in Italy, Finland, Switzerland and the UK took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented the researchers from reaching out to a higher number of interviewees. In this context, an alternative and effective approach to obtaining the narrative-biographic data was its collection from secondary sources such as social media stories and published migrant biographies (De Fina and Georgakopoulou, 2012).

The choice of the countries has been determined by their political-institutional approaches towards welfare services, immigration and labour market structure. For example, Denmark is a country with a strong welfare system, which, however, has implemented a variety of flexible measures. On the other hand, Southern European countries have continued to rely upon more rigid labour market policies and have provided fewer social provisions from the welfare state (Eichhorst et al, 2009; Giugni, 2010; Simonazzi and Villa, 2010; van Aerschot and Daenzer, 2016).

The selected countries vary considerably in terms of their political-institutional approaches towards unemployment, welfare state and Europeanisation. On the one hand, these countries have some ‘contingent convergence’ of instruments, goals and outcomes in labour market regulations (Eichhorst and Konle-Seidl, 2008). On the other hand, substantial differences in their policymaking dynamics and policy implementation have led to the establishment of diverse employment policy regimes (Gallie, 2007a, 2007b, 2007c; de Beer and Schills, 2009; Rothgang and Dingeldey, 2009; Anxo et al, 2010).

The overall analytical framework is critical ethnography, which conveys a critical inquiry into the relationship between victimisation and empowerment (Creswell, 2013). In our case, it is the relationship between MRAs’ vulnerability and their agency – the relationship between their insecurity (Waite, 2009) and autonomous decision-making (Squire, 2017; Triandafyllidou, 2018). As De Fina and Georgakopoulou (2008: 385) note, critical ethnography ‘pays a close attention to both micro- and macro-levels but always take the local level of interaction as the place of articulation of phenomenon to be explained’.

Thinking about the crossroads of integration, migrant agency and meaningful biographic experience, we seek to find events that may change trajectories and self-positioning of migrants. The conducted semi-structured interviews lasted for 2–3 hours each and paid attention to the most critical moments in the lives of our informants. Using the narrative-biographic method, we specifically look into those ‘turning points’ (Denzin, 1989; Creswell, 2013), which challenged our informants by obstructing and/or enabling their integration and into the informants’ reflections on those changes (including their perception of gender, class and race/ethnicity). We then examine consequences that those events have had for the dynamics of the informants’ employment and develop a typology of their labour market integration.

The signposts of integration

Our findings show that the course of labour market integration never runs smooth. It is a complex trajectory, which has a few signposts. It stumbles over or gathers momentum from specific events, which may either disrupt or support it, depending on the external circumstance and the migrant’s reaction to them. Such critical points that had challenged our informants and (re)directed their integration paths were their attempts to enter the job market upon destination, encounters with a biased administrator or official, and encounters with and accession to a solidarity network. Some of our female informants had also experienced their turning points during their pre-emigration years, when their countries of origin had been in a political turmoil and when disturbing events had been, consequently, intensified.

Entering the labour market

The first job at destination became a crucial event for all our informants, changing their perspectives on ‘new life’ and, to a certain extent, predetermining their further integration trajectories. Some of our informants entered the host labour market in the reciprocal conditions of informational transparency and with full respect to their human rights. As migrant-newcomers, our informants were enjoying the right to work legally and to obtain regular employment in such instances. For their less fortunate counterparts, the only available choice was, however, no legal right to work, which meant employment in the irregular market. In either case, our informants admit having joined the labour market to occupy a position and fulfil tasks that were different from their previous professional experience back home. For example, Maria2 entered the Czech Republic with a fake tourist visa – that is, without a formal permission to work. As an undocumented migrant, she had no other option than to take “the dirtiest job at a factory with the salary around CZK 32 per hour”.

This turning point made the majority of our informants extremely disenchanted from European integration, at least, for some time. The emotional pain and the perception of integration as a difficult process were mostly associated with feeling ‘useless’ in terms of one’s own professional experience – “as if no one needed your skills” (Finland, MRA). Failure with the recognition of credentials became an additional – aftermath – encounter that intensified the effect of the failed first job application. Although theoretically considered a key aspect of the labour market functioning, the existing mechanisms for the recognition of educational credentials and related skills acquired outside Europe prove to be cumbersome and inefficient in most European countries (Isaakyan and Triandafyllidou, 2019). As a result, our informants (many of whom were highly skilled migrants) were expected to start their employment at destination ‘from scratch’, as if they had had no prior work-related education or experience. In such a migrant-hostile milieu, even the interviewees with in-demand skills such as healthcare operators found it very problematic to secure qualified employment.

In such cases, their migrant agency did not suffice to find the way out because it was intertwining with the traditional segmentation of European labour markets. Within such socially stratified rhetoric, the majority of employment resources are de facto allocated on the grounds of an invisible, caste-like, division of workers (Lhuilier, 2005; Duffy, 2011). In this heavily discriminatory milieu, even highly skilled migrants frequently specialise in certain tasks and jobs that are usually not what they would expect, especially when such jobs score low in the socail esteem hierarchy (Duffy, 2011), while local populations are engaged in other – more desirable – domains of work (Duffy, 2011). Our informants thus had to take their first jobs in the sectors of personal care, domestic work, agriculture, house cleaning and garbage collection.

The revelatory perception of employment in Europe as ‘extremely unfair’ and ‘intrinsically prejudiced’ was compounded by the informants’ encounters with administrators and immigration officials who held a personal anti-migrant bias in their decisions. For example, an informant from the Czech Republic admits that, when she was filling in the job application forms, she was interested only in a job she would be qualified for. However, the civil servant suggested that she should apply for the ‘cleaning maid’ position. The informant was shocked and extremely upset by the cynicism and indifference of the official, admitting: “That civil servant did not actually care about what I was writing in the form. She just wanted me out of her office as soon as possible” (Czech Republic, civil servant).

Meeting the right person

However, the sad ‘labour-market segmentation’ story did have a happy ending for some migrants such as the meteorologist Mohammed, who lives in Greece. Struggling through a series of discriminatory encounters and personal biases of powerful people, he incidentally met a diasporic co-national, with whose support he quickly found a good job, thus terminating all his employment sufferings. As Mohammed notes, “[f]or the majority of migrants, their ethnic networks appear to be the main communication channel with the Greek labour market”.

In this reference, scholars argue that networking is indeed a key condition for qualified and satisfactory employment in all EU countries (De Luca and Ambrosini, 2019). As the UK-settled migrant Danielle explains, “[g]ood employment is not just about finding a vacancy and applying for a job. It is all about networking”. She concludes, however, that “it is not easy to create personal connections if you are not from here, if you have not been born in the host country”. Linda, a migrant living in Finland, confirms the importance of authentic ties and the difficulty of searching for friends and other ‘weak ties’ with strangers (see Granovetter, 1983) as a substitute for the native networking that works in local communities:

‘The way to work in Finland is to know a friend who will recommend you to the company that is looking for workers. In this way, you can work with them for a long time, and they will see how you work. This is important because they are afraid of signing a long-term contract with you in case you are not suitable for the work.’ (Finland, MRA)

The interviews illuminate the contradictory nature of migrant networking. Although networks may help to alleviate the administrative bias and present the migrant as a trustworthy candidate for a good job, they are also of the segmentary nature: as ‘national outsider’ or ‘people from not here’ migrants are almost de facto located at the bottom of the networking hierarchy. While the ‘small world’ rule of paving your network road through friends (Granovetter, 1983) may in some cases work instantaneously, in others it can become a rather challenging activity, depending on the sociocultural conditions for migrant agency. Thus, for the Ukrainian migrant Lena, an encounter with a stranger became a positive critical moment of networking in the Czech Republic: the co-national man she met by chance became her boyfriend and immediately helped her to find a well-paid and secure job in a bar in Prague, with which she has been fully satisfied.

At the same time, the ethnic/diasporic ‘network’ encounters do not work as powerful turning points for all migrants. This is illuminated by dependent women-migrants from North Africa, who are still marginalised in their networking and, consequently, in their job search in Europe. They complain about constantly feeling the inadequacy of ethnic networking, which is contaminated by the scarcity of the childcare resources and the inadequacy of public services for migrant-women in the EU. For example, Zuleika, who has followed her husband in Denmark as a family migrant from Yemen to Denmark, explains that neither her husband nor her in-laws from the same household help her with the childcare. And since she has to spend most of her time at home, raising the children and looking after the house, she has no opportunity to search for a network. Above that, all her encounters with the diasporic network itself have made her feel as if she is ‘falling behind’. They have made her feel that she was ‘not good enough’ to gain the network support. At the same time, such women admit that the networking strategy would have been more effective for them if they had no husband putting the brakes on their diasporic networking.

A call from the past

The importance of pre-emigration turning points that have changed the lives and prospective integration trajectories of some independent women-migrants became clear in the case of women-migrants coming from countries where there was a military conflict. Thus Lena, a former police officer with a law degree from Ukraine, was affected by the Crimean war in 2014, as a result of which she could not find a job at home. That war intensified various attitudes of prejudice prevailing in her home society, including sexist practices in employment. An encounter with a highly misogynistic team of prospective employers who were administering her job interview had persuaded her to leave Ukraine and to be happy with any job abroad. Among Syrian women the war and the relocation to Denmark became a catalyst in their marriage and eventually led them to divorce and to seek to take their lives in their own hands – an achievement that was particularly difficult in a foreign country. That turning point had made Lena more open to integration and, consequently, more flexible to the impact of various other encounters such as job market entrance and communication with officials at destination. Pre-emigration turning points thus make the migrant’s agency more resilient at destination and more open to negotiating integration barriers.

The typology of the ‘integrated migrant’

Having experienced all these turning points in their lives, our informants underwent significant changes both in their life perception and in their coping strategies. Some of them started to re-evaluate their priorities and aspirations and to look for more pragmatic ways to facilitate their integration. Based on their responses (both inner thoughts and actions) to the critical events discussed, our informants can be divided into two broad types of ‘integrated migrant’: (1) ‘back-stepper’ and (2) ‘career diplomat’ (or ‘alternative/flexible careerist’). There are finer divisions within each type:

  1. 1.Back-stepper (‘depot migrant’, or ‘migrant-in-waiting’):
    1. (a)proactive back-stepper (or ‘new-skill-learner’);
    2. (b)passive back-stepper (or ‘depot dweller’).
  2. 2.Career diplomat (‘alternative careerist’):
    1. (a)re-skilled professional;
    2. (b)work–life balancer (working mother).

The back-steppers can be subdivided into ‘proactive back-steppers’ (or ‘skill learners’) and ‘passive back-steppers’. While career-diplomats are further divided into: ‘re-skilled professionals’ and ‘working mothers’ (or ‘work–life balancers’).

‘Maids-in-waiting’: stepping back to learn or to get lost?

All our informants agree that the degree to which you will be able to find satisfactory employment in emigration depends on your first job at destination and on the recognition of your credentials, the latter factors influencing (or ‘contaminating’) the former. Having encountered significant barriers for immediate qualified employment and understanding the difficulties of overcoming these barriers, many informants decided rather pragmatically to ‘take a step back’ and ‘wait for a better chance’ – or to ‘wait for the second chance’. They thus agreed to take ‘a very dirty manual job’ through the irregular market – sometimes feeling helpless to change anything but sometimes pursuing the intent of ‘buying in the time’ that was necessary for their prospectively envisioned integration. They can be conceptualised as ‘living-in-waiting’, or ‘depot-stationed’. The question is for how long they are intent on waiting and how soon they manage to move further.

The expected ‘second chance’ did not come to all back-steppers – but only to those who had invested in proactive planning and learning, which brings us back to the work of migrant agency as a proactive and well-planned process. While holding under-skilled jobs, some of our informants decided to use this employment as an opportunity to learn new skills such as the national language or additional career credentials and also to gather more information for locating the network. That is why they can be called the ‘proactive back-steppers’, or ‘new-skill-leaners’. Some of them have even managed to build up alternative careers and thus to convert into ‘career diplomats’, pointing to the interconnectivity between and porousness within these two categories of migrant.

In many of such cases, our informants have accumulated new skills and knowledge through volunteering and as supported by local civil society organisations. The story of Diana, who now lives in Switzerland, proves that, for migrants, volunteering can become a valid surrogate of work experience and networking in the country of settlement:

‘The volunteer work that I am now doing is closely connected to my area of professional specialisation. It gives me confidence that I am able to work in the field here in Switzerland. Now I have a good estimate of where and how I can further get a decent job with a decent salary.’ (Switzerland, MRA)

Volunteering has thus become not only an important way to a new experience but also a path towards new personal networks. And such proactive back-steppers have often accumulated their news skills through ethnic/gender solidarity that penetrated established institutional practices. This is evident in the testimonies about immense support from municipal case workers of the diasporic origin provided to our female informants. Their testimonies also show that the personal bias of an official can be positive, and it can work in favour of the migrant, thus creating a very powerful turning point at the crossroads of ethnic/gender solidarity and institutionalisation.

However, volunteering can work only for those migrants who trust this strategy and invest in it to the fullest. Among our informants, there are also those who have been looking at volunteering with suspicion, viewing it as doing something denigrated, which is below their professional level. The lack of knowledge about and, consequently, the lack of trust in volunteering and related networking is what may actually keep the migrant from ascending to the alternative career. And this mistrust may steer the migrant’s conversion into a depot-dweller, or a passive back-stepper, who lives in-waiting forever. Many of our informants in Finland admit ‘having got stuck’ in their depots, first waiting for their second chance and then giving up that hope. They complain about working as cleaning maids in cheap hotels or spa salons without any prospects for a positive change. They also admit having initially set unrealistic goals for their prospectively envisioned integration and having not invested in volunteering and proactive learning.

Alternative navigation, or growing to love

Angela, who had migrated to Finland, used to hear many stories about such depot-dwelling migrants. Afraid of this kind of conversion, she decided to explore the situation proactively as soon as she had realised that she could not easily find qualified employment as a medical doctor. She knew that she did not know the Finnish language very well, including the Finnish medical language. Having invested in language learning, she tried to apply for the medical assistant position, soon understanding that the job market in that sector was highly competitive for her. She had finally agreed to develop an alternative career – the career of a nurse.

That integration path was of course supported by her husband, who is a medical doctor himself and therefore has connections in the medical work sector. However, the main factor contributing to her re-qualification has been her pragmatic re-evaluation of her own skills and of the timing for their accumulation:

‘I was told that the language demands are less stiff for nurses. I also felt more comfortable knowing that I would not be fully in charge of many things because prescriptions required irreproachable comprehension and communication skills in Finnish. Starting sceptically, I have eventually grown to love my new profession.’ (Finland, MRA)

The worker and the woman: the equilibrium of integration

To what extent do material benefits and career aspirations remain important and to what extent can migrants be resilient when facing their full or partial loss? This is the question that seems logical in the light of the story about Angela’s resilience. This question probably relates to our female informants from Syria who had to re-evaluate economic incentives for and moral benefits/damages from their immigration to Europe when dealing with such pre-emigration critical events as divorce and sometimes a consequent separation from children.

For example, Habiba, a Syrian refugee-woman, fled to Denmark after having divorced her violent husband. That divorce had significantly changed her attitude to life and made her more flexible as a work–life balancer. Such experiences of liberation from a long-term marital abuse are located at the crossroads between the woman’s self-perception as “a wife who is falling behind” and her concurrent positive thinking of herself as “a free person who is entering the new world”. The latter element of self-revelation has become a very strong factor of the women’s labour market integration. The conflict between the envisioned professional qualifications and existing employment opportunities has been resolved through the consolidation of such women’s pre-emigration abuse experiences and their new feeling of self-emancipation. The taken “first available job” has been perceived by Habiba and other Syrian women from the same sociocultural background as “still a very good opportunity to obtain a high level of social control over your life”.

It is true that many skilled migrants view their ‘forced’ employment in a down-scaled sector with zero tolerance and repulsion, waiting for a better life chance. For example, Valerie (who lives in the UK) confesses that she “was forced, in a way, to accept the only job available, working in a beauty studio, providing waxing and other beauty treatments, and emotionally suffering from no career development”. However, the informants like Habiba feel quite satisfied with such a job because it allows them to achieve and to sustain the initially envisioned work–life balance.

Conclusion: Liquid integration

Summing up, the course of labour market integration does not always run smooth, as our findings show. They illuminate the labour market integration of MRAs as a complex trajectory, which is oriented to specific signposts. Specific events may both disrupt and support it, depending on external circumstances and the migrant’s reaction to them. Critical moments that have challenged our informants and (re)directed their integration paths are their experiences of first job at destination, encounters with prejudiced officials and encounters with solidarity networks.

When dealing with such turning points, our informants used the main strategies of stepping back (and waiting for a better chance) and re-skilling for an alternative career. On the basis of these two broad strategies, we can recognise the following four types of the ‘labour market integrated migrant’:

  1. 1.Proactive back-stepper who does not merely wait for his/her other chance but learns new skills, in order to foster the second chance, and shows pragmatic flexibility in re-evaluating his/her priorities.
  2. 2.Passive back-stepper (depot-dweller) who lives as if in the eternal depot, not actually waiting for the second chance but complaining about the denigrated employment.
  3. 3.Career diplomat who is a re-skilled – though, to a certain extent, downscaled – professional (as illuminated by the ‘doctor-to-nurse’ career descent).
  4. 4.Career diplomat whose overall work–life balance compensates for his/her employment insecurity (as illuminated by the careers of divorced working mothers from the Middle East).

The division of our informants into ‘back-steppers’ and ‘career diplomats’ shows that their integration differs in terms of their agency of investing. It is an investment in further integration that a turning point primarily disrupts or provokes. These turning points, that have detached some informants from their host societies, have actually stranded them away them from investing in integration – from learning new skills, from looking for new network connections, from trying volunteer work and from reconsidering their lives in general. The dirty work experience thus translates into integration for some migrants while into marginalisation for other. Labour market integration is thus an agentic category of skill/reflexivity investment.

Our analysis shows how integration is a dynamic process. People cross the borders through various interconnected channels of mobility and share their migratory experiences across different ‘migrant’ categories (Engbersen, 2018). Their labour market integration develops in interactions between policies, legal categories and frameworks on one hand, and their actions on the other – such actions include not only their effective actions but also how they feel about them and how they make sense of what happened to them. This is clearly visible in the polysemantic character of the turning points they face: one and the same critical event (such as first job or networking) can have different meanings for different migrants and, consequently, provoke different integration outcomes. Thus some ‘maids-in-waiting’ may endlessly wait for another chance and suffer from underemployment while others may actively invest in the accumulation of new skills and connections.

Second, the fluidity of labour market integration is seen in the porousness of its categories: proactive back-steppers can any time convert into career diplomats or depot-dwellers.

Third, integration is interconnected and sometimes moving back and forth rather than progressing in a linear way. Segmented labour markets prevent people from improving their professional situation and oftentimes it happens that their integration remains ‘liquid’ (Bauman, 2000) in the sense that migrants are kept in poor quality initial jobs, in-waiting for better opportunities but these do not always materialise even if migrants develop required new skills and solidarity networks.

Finally, integration experiences often become contaminated, like liquids that permeate across stratified areas. Thus, the effect of the ‘first job application’ becomes contaminated – or negatively affected – by the recognition of credentials or the gender/ethnic bias.



For more information see www.sirius-project.eu


Names of interviewees have been modified by the authors.


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