5: Civil society organisations and labour market integration: barriers and enablers in seven European countries

This chapter discusses the role of civil society organisations (CSOs) in the labour market integration of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers (MRAs) in the selected countries addressed by the book. It examines the positions of CSOs and their perception by newcomers. Our findings suggest that CSOs can work as important actors enhancing not only integration into the labour market but also integration through the labour market. However, such a capacity is unevenly spatially distributed, Moreover, CSOs either individually or collectively, frequently raise the problematic situation of illegal practices on the part of employers, exploitation, human trafficking or underpaid wages. Furthermore, CSOs help to mitigate and, often together with MRAs, struggle against the hostile context of a widespread atmosphere of xenophobia. Although we conclude the CSOs primarily work as enablers of the MRAs’ integration in the labour market, our critical analysis also suggests that CSOs can in some nuanced ways hinder the labour market integration. Last but not least, we focus our attention on the enablers facilitating or barriers hindering the migration-related initiatives of CSOs and therefore on the process indirectly influencing MRAs’ labour market integration.


Civil society organisations (CSOs), conceived here as formal as well as informal social groups with an internal organisational structure and regularity of operations (Salamon et al, 2003), play an active role in labour integration and cover a wide range of services or roles; they assist migrants, refugees and asylum seekers (MRAs) in their entry to the labour market, increase their linguistic and working skills, and help them to deal with problematic situations (Greenspan et al, 2018; Ruiz Sportmann and Greenspan, 2019), extending the provision of services concerning the labour market integration offered by the state (Matikainen, 2003; Sunata and Tosun, 2018; Mayblin and James, 2019; Vandevoordt, 2019). CSOs might be involved in collective actions by participating in decision-making processes and advocating for the rights of MRAs (for example, Jaworsky, 2016; Rother and Steinhilper, 2019; Schrover et al, 2019). Moreover, CSOs are involved in public, political and legal advocacy (Garkisch et al, 2017). They can operate as actors who help in setting standards and developing and testing knowledge (Dunleavy and O’Leary, 1987). Finally, CSOs can provide expert knowledge and evidence often rooted in international contexts from which the local policy is disconnected (Čada and Ptáčková, 2014).

The role of CSOs has been even more reinforced amidst and following the so-called migrant crisis in 2014, and at the time of writing, during the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. The post-2014 era contributed to a higher diversification of CSOs and to the evolution of more independent transnational solidarity movements (Pries, 2018; Vandevoordt and Verschraegen, 2019). The relatively autonomous position of solidarity movements allows them to provide creative, flexible solutions when facing the challenge of integration, thus opening new innovative integration pathways (Galera et al, 2018).

Although the existing research was primarily focused on the capacity of CSOs to stress the sociocultural and human rights dimensions of integration, several scholars suggested that the role of CSOs cannot be idealised and that their positive impact on integration cannot be taken for granted. In this vein, CSOs not only assist MRAs on the labour market or with broader, societal integration, but they also contribute to (a subtle) reproduction of otherness, especially in those national contexts where MRA involvement in CSOs is rather weak. As a consequence, by approaching refugees and asylum seekers as recipients of services in need of assistance, CSOs do not necessarily develop MRAs’ agency and autonomy; risking thus developing or deepening the dependence and passivity of MRAs (Szczepaniková, 2009). In fact, although CSOs act as cultural and linguistic mediators, they cannot fully substitute the voice of migrants (Lester, 2005). Furthermore, some authors have recently suggested that the label ‘CSO’ does not necessarily embrace the non-governmental ethos and that the post-2014 crisis has ‘attracted a growing number of un-experienced and sometimes self-interested actors, including conventional enterprises and organisations that use the legal forms of the third sector in an opportunistic way’ (Galera et al, 2018: 31).

This chapter analyses the role of CSOs in labour market integration. Emphasis was given to the perspective of MRAs. The aim was thus to understand both the demand and supply expected from and provided by CSOs in labour market integration services. In other words, in our research, we focused not only on how CSOs react to the needs of MRAs but also on what MRAs expect and get from them. The chapter is intended to discuss the role of CSOs in labour market integration, to identify the main agenda of CSOs, to capture the diversity of CSOs, and to analyse the main enablers of and barriers to CSO engagement in labour market integration.


Our analysis draws on extensive empirical evidence and is focused on seven European countries, more specifically on Denmark, the Czech Republic, Finland, Italy, Switzerland (Canton of Geneva), the United Kingdom and Greece. This focus allowed us to cover heterogeneity of migration as well as the variety of welfare regimes and the tradition of the third sector across different national contexts. Countries with a strong level of marketisation are represented by the United Kingdom (Zimmermann et al, 2014; Han, 2017), Nordic countries (Denmark and Finland) are representatives of welfare co-production (Evers, 2005; Saukkonen, 2013; Henriksen et al, 2015) where the boundaries between the state and civic society are often blurred (Alapuro, 2005), and countries with a weak civil society are represented by the Czech Republic and Greece (Fagan, 2005; Kalogeraki, 2019).

The research study draws on 302 semi-structured qualitative interviews with both MRAs (180) and representatives of CSOs (128). Confrontation of both perspectives shows the changing dynamics of the relationship between migrants and CSOs. Our focus was on CSOs favourable to integration and therefore we did not take into consideration the role of CSOs who embrace perspectives opposing integration. The post-2014 context contributed to the emergence of CSOs with anti-migration perspectives and which would explicitly resist any integration effort.

The primary aim here is to provide an overview of the barriers and enablers explored and identified in the seven analysed European countries. In line with the qualitatively driven nature of the research, the objective is to capture their emergence. In other words, enablers and barriers of CSOs discussed in this chapter are not necessarily present in all national contexts and do not function with the same significance. However, they appear to influence MRAs integration.

Civil society organisations and labour market integration: enablers and barriers

CSOs can work as important actors enhancing not only integration into the labour market but also integration through the labour market. More specifically, CSOs are important language course providers, and thanks to their social, legal and administrative guidance, CSOs help MRAs in overcoming ineffective administrative and legal structures. Several CSOs also assist MRAs with the recruitment process, providing courses and advice on how to prepare for an interview, how to write a CV or how to draft a cover letter. Furthermore, CSOs also assist MRAs in their efforts to have their skills and qualifications recognised. Moreover, by providing mentorship, training programmes, volunteering or even direct employment, CSOs contribute to the development of MRAs’ skills and competencies and provide platforms to enhance the agency and autonomy of MRAs.

However, such a capacity is unevenly spatially distributed – it is rather rare in the Czech Republic and Denmark, it is somewhat developed in the United Kingdom, and more strongly presented in Finland, some areas of Italy, among the solidarity movement organisations of Greece, and in the Canton of Geneva in Switzerland. Moreover, CSOs frequently raise the problematic situation of illegal practices on the part of employers, exploitation, human trafficking or underpaid wages. Furthermore, CSOs help to mitigate and, often together with MRAs, struggle against the hostile context of a widespread atmosphere of xenophobia.

Civil society organisations and labour market integration: enablers

Empirical evidence from all observed countries suggests CSOs potentially work as important enablers of MRAs labour market integration, especially in those areas not covered by public policies. The following sections provide a more in-depth account of key external and internal enablers enhancing the role of CSOs in labour market integration and, consequently, the chances, opportunities and integration of MRAs on the labour market.

External enablers facilitating civil society support for labour market integration

There are three main structural enablers facilitating CSOs labour market integration: (1) state policies and funding; (2) national and transnational networks among CSOs; and (3) cooperative and social entrepreneurship culture.

When it comes to the material and financial support of CSOs, one of the most important external enablers facilitating labour market integration initiatives are state policies and funding. More specifically, national states in all the seven examined national contexts significantly financially support counselling and educational services provided by CSOs.

In addition to national state support, CSOs commonly benefit from funding and expert-driven support from transnational governmental and intergovernmental institutions. In this regard, important roles are played by the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the European Social Fund as well as by country offices of the International Organization for Migration and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Similarly, the European Migration Forum and the Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship at the European Economic and Social Committee sometimes enable national initiatives.

The second type of external enablers are the existing and newly emerging horizontal networks between civil society actors, developed at national or at transnational levels. These networks on several occasions served as an important resource of knowledge and information exchange as well as a tool for sharing innovative practices. As is suggested by the Greek case, these networks are often developed in the area of transnational solidarity movements. A statement made by a member of the grassroots solidarity movement well illustrates these processes:

‘In the context of the development of our knowledge to create solidarity cooperatives, we have been in contact with large international solidarity networks and academics from abroad. We did seminars to learn the basic administrative and financial tools of the Social and Solidarity Economy. They have taught us how to design and implement such employment actions.’ (Greece, CSO)

The existing horizontal collaborations serve not only to transform knowledge and know-how but also to provide material support to be independent from the state, as suggested by a representative of a Swiss non-governmental organisation (NGO):

‘We collaborate with many other associations, we organise events together, exchange on practices, funding ideas etc, we send us persons and support us on rooms location. As our activities rely on rooms and rooms are very expensive in both cities, sometimes associations give us rooms for free or for cheaper.’ (Switzerland, CSO)

The third external enabler is the development of cooperative and social entrepreneurship culture. It enhances the effectiveness of integration programmes in several countries, in particular Italy, Finland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. This favourable culture of collaboration enhances the emergence of new partnerships between CSOs on the one hand and cooperative and social entrepreneurship culture on the other hand. The enabling role of the social cooperative is well demonstrated by the remark made by an Italian CSO representative:

‘In 2015 we started a training course for self-entrepreneurship and in 2016 a group of young people from different countries established a cooperative that deals with ethnic catering. Currently the cooperative is still active and soon they will open their own restaurant with a cooking workshop. This cooperative is practically a spin-off of our social cooperative and they are now following their path independently, it is the first catering cooperative in Campania managed by refugees and asylum seekers.’ (Italy, CSO)

This can also be seen in the case of Danish networking organisations, which manage to build links between employers and MRAs or between states and MRAs. Thanks to this collaboration CSOs can decrease their dependence on public funding, as suggested by a CSO member from the UK who argued that social enterprise enabled them to “not hav[e] to be on the other end of funding applications all the time, grant dependent and things like that” (UK, CSO 6). Furthermore, thanks to the initiatives’ links with cooperatives and social entrepreneurs, MRAs have a number of volunteering, mentoring or internship opportunities that are valuable in stimulating the autonomy and agency of MRAs, as has also been suggested in the following observations made by a Greek solidarity cooperative representative:

‘We are trying to guide our members to create solidarity cooperatives to meet basic human needs. There the workers are equal, without hierarchies. For example, they are making a cooperative that has the purpose of providing food without intermediaries. They go to some farmers and receive a small income in cash and also get agricultural products from their crops. Then they sell their agricultural products at low prices in the cities.’ (Greece, CSO)

As further suggested, the involvement of MRAs in cooperatives contributes to their empowerment in the job market or during the establishment of their businesses, as illustrated by the following remarks made by several representatives of CSOs from Finland and Italy:

‘Therefore, being an entrepreneur myself, we direct them to the right areas, networks and people. We help them to buy a new business or open their own.’ (Finland, CSO)

‘With this tool [internship], many asylum seekers have found work. An example of a success story is a refugee who has done an internship with a cooperative of services with which we often collaborate: not only was he hired, but he also became a member of the cooperative.’ (Italy, CSO)

Internal enablers facilitating civil society support for labour market integration

Besides external enablers, there are factors defining the role of CSOs in the integration policies system. CSOs have the potential to enable the labour market integration of MRAs through their internal capacities in several ways. In comparison with other public services, CSOs offer services with: (1) a greater level of flexibility and a lower degree of bureaucratisation; (2) a more personalised approach; (3) broader networking capacity; and (4) CSOs support MRAs both socially and culturally. CSOs can facilitate integration to labour market through (5) direct employment. They provide MRAs with (6) sources of soft knowledge considering labour market integration and, finally, they are important as (7) reflexive actors in the policymaking process.

First, flexibility and a lower degree of bureaucratisation compared to the “stuck” (Denmark, CSO 9) public sector allow CSOs to account for the specific needs, aspirations and experiences of individual MRAs.

Second, this personalised approach is linked to the capacity of CSOs to grant MRAs some agency in their integration efforts and to determine their own path to integration. Compared to public services, CSOs frequently have stronger potential to understand the personal needs of MRAs and to foster their agency. The following observation from Switzerland illustrates this point: “The public office of integration and the social worker were supportive, but they have an institutional view of the social-professional integration that could represent a real restriction” (Switzerland, MRA 2). In addition to MRAs in general, this focus concerns more specific groups, such as youth and women migrants, as has been for example emphasised in the Finnish context: “Sometimes women have the need for their own group. There may be subjects that they want to discuss only among women or due to cultural or religious customs it may not be meaningful to participate in mixed groups” (Finland, CSO).

Third, CSOs enable labour market integration thanks to their networking capacity. CSO representatives function as brokers who help MRAs connect with public officials, employers, trade unions, politicians and even with (although very rarely) journalists. The importance of networks was remembered by a Danish CSO representative, for example:

‘We see that building networks is the most important part of integration. We have programmes that pair refugees with Danish volunteers who support them in their everyday lives. There is no money involved so it’s an equal relationship. But it makes refugees feel like they have a network of friends in Denmark.’ (Denmark, CSO)

Fourth, the role of networking is not only social, providing MRAs with access to social networks which they could not access otherwise, but also cultural; CSO representatives ensure cultural mediation, supporting MRAs both culturally and linguistically. More specifically, CSOs can provide MRAs with information about national cultures and norms and assist them with translation. Therefore, CSO representatives connect actors who would otherwise remain disconnected. Furthermore, CSOs have the capacity to understand and perceive the needs of MRAs and articulate them towards the state, employers and other relevant external stakeholders. The complexity of this mediator work is well-illustrated in the following quotes:

‘We go over all the basic information in the migrants’ own language about Finnish working life: what are the responsibilities of the employer, what are the responsibilities of the employee, what is Finnish working culture like, why you need to be on time, what your contract should state, how salary is paid and generally how to behave in the workplace.’ (Finland, CSO)

Fifth, and in a related way, the agency of MRAs in some national contexts is enhanced thanks to their involvement in CSOs, either through professional work or through volunteering, often participating in language counselling services. In the Finnish context, for example, CSOs work as important job providers. Moreover, in some national contexts (for example, Finland, the UK, Switzerland) migrants themselves actively establish organisations with explicit integration objectives or they participate in CSO activities, as illustrated by the following example from Greece:

‘As a volunteer, I am the person in the reception in the ANKAA [which stands for equitable pathways towards education and employment] project. I help with the translation too from Farsi. Because I am unemployed right now it’s better for me than sitting in the house, so I prefer to come to a place like this and help people. And at the same time, I am getting working experience as a volunteer, and I am improving my English.’ (Greece, MRA)

Sixth, MRAs appreciate the psychological benefits which come with the personalised approach taken by CSOs. This personalised method can help foster the self-confidence of MRAs and prevent their alienation not only during the process of job searching but in integration more broadly. Several MRAs also appreciated that the non-profit ethos, differentiated from the public administration, helps to avoid the stigmatisation of MRAs commonly diffused among public officers, as is well exemplified with a story told by a migrant from Switzerland:

‘The coaches don’t just help you to improve your CV and your motivation letter. They help you also psychologically. If we have any kind of worries or problems you can count on them, they become your reference. You can talk openly with them and they will try to find a solution as quickly as possible. The association tries really to help every single woman. There is a personal approach that improve a feeling of self-confidence, which you lose when you arrive here, you easily forget that you have some competences and that you are qualified.’ (Switzerland, CSO)

Seventh, several CSOs provide MRAs with valuable sources of soft knowledge considering labour market integration services and enhance their orientation on the labour market. More specifically, they provide MRAs with important, simple but not always available answers to the following questions: Where to go? What service to use? And whom to contact and how? Furthermore, CSOs help in the complicated and bureaucratised administration of work permits and work contracts. The value of CSO support is well demonstrated with the following remark made by a migrant living in Greece:

‘Friends, if they know how to do something they will help, but when you go to an NGO or an organisation they can do the bureaucracy work for you, they can help you with a lot of paperwork, help you with things people don’t know about, so they are not like friends, they have another value for me. Like this morning I had to do a tax clearance in order to open a bank account so I did it here with the accountants. But if you go to another organisation for a tax clearance they will tell you to come back in three months.’ (Greece, MRA)

Eighth, CSOs are important as reflexive actors in the policymaking process, providing input, although only taken into consideration accidentally rather than systematically, for policy change through advocacy. This role of CSOs is well illustrated with a remark made by a Greek CSO member, who pointed out: “We strive to influence public debate and public policy decisions from the smaller to bigger. So, it’s more effective. We strive to have so much technical knowledge about every detail of the issue we want to change, so progressively it goes in our direction” (Greece, CSO 3).

In this vein, CSOs locate the importance of labour market integration in the broader context, articulating a more holistic vision of integration. Therefore, they remind us that labour market integration cannot work on its own, in a separate work-related bubble, but that labour market integration must also be developed hand-in-hand with broader social and cultural integration. In other words, CSOs can work as discursive shifters, as subjects who can potentially correct somewhat limited mainstream national integration policies where integration has a very narrow meaning, as well documented by the following quote: “We tried to change the narrative and not use the word ‘indvandrer’ (immigrant) and say ‘nydansker’ (new Dane) instead” (Denmark, CSO).

Civil society organisations and labour market integration: barriers

While CSOs act as important enablers of MRAs labour market integration, their position and role should not be idealised. The empirical evidence from seven European countries suggests that CSOs face several external barriers in their work and that, moreover, the nature of the CSO itself does not always favour integration processes, it can also undermine them.

External barriers hindering the role of civil society for labour market integration

CSOs, in their labour market integration initiatives, encounter several barriers: (1) limits of state funding and public policies; (2) subsidising of CSOs by public administrations; (3) the co-optation of the originally non-governmental nature of integration services by the state; (4) co-optation of the originally non-governmental nature of integration services by private business providers; (5) the distrust and suspicion of MRAs; (6) migrants’ values, norms and cultural background; and (7) ignorance from policymakers.

The first barrier is related to public funding. Considering the instability, temporality and uncertainty of the state support of CSOs, the dependence on funding influences the very existence of CSOs. The resource dependence hinders the contribution of CSOs to labour market integration objectives. Several CSOs across all the examined countries suggested that the public funding they have recently received was temporal, precarious, uncertain and significantly affected by austerity measures and the changing political climate. These problems have even been perceived by migrants: “NGOs have programmes only for a few months services. NGOs are not for the long term” (Greece, MRA).

CSOs in all the analysed countries also face a hostile national political environment sometimes accompanied by the establishment of national and transnational anti-migration CSOs that further inhibits more systematic political support, evident in several countries and well-demonstrated by the following quotes from Italy and the Czech Republic:

‘We moved from being considered as trustworthy actors providing solidarity, to being perceived as actors pursuing selfish interests. This is the result of the heavy political climate we face now in Italy.’ (Italy, CSO)

‘We are also worried about what will happen if some political subjects that are calling for the destruction of the civic sector will be successful in the election. … It is also uncomfortable to talk with possible donors who might have negative attitudes towards our work or who refuse to support us because of the negative reaction from the public.’ (Czech Republic, CSO)

Moreover, due to the project-driven and dispersed nature of the funding, the integration initiatives provided by CSOs are undermined by the lack of coordination, notably where CSOs act as labour market integration service providers. In the context of missing coordination, the heterogeneous needs of MRAs are hardly being met. This is well illustrated here: “Almost every year charities have to design projects to fit the funding which means that if the following year they have to go for another funding source they have to treat their project in another way so it’s … it’s difficult to bring stability” (UK, CSO). Furthermore, the empirical evidence from all the explored countries suggests that the precarious nature of funding leads to situations in which accumulated know-how and evidence remains unused and not further developed after the termination of projects which CSOs initially established, as mentioned by a representative of a Finnish CSO: “We receive funding but it is not permanent and it changes from project to project and that is a challenge that we do not have permanent services to offer – projects and employees come and go and then we start again from the beginning” (Finland, CSO).

Moreover, the limited funding provided to the non-governmental sector can undermine the collaborative spirit within the sector itself; although CSOs in a variety of national contexts act primarily as collaborators in service provision and altogether strive for the same cause, they are occasionally constrained to become competitors who struggle over the limited volume of public funding. This increased competition also occurs due to the growing number of CSOs and is recognised as a danger by some CSO representatives:

‘We must be very careful not to compete with other associations working in the field of professional integration. There is a risk for funding and there may be discrepancies.’ (Switzerland, CSO)

‘Until recently, what we had in mind was the picture of the associations working on their own, without any intention to collaborate with others because of a fear of competition; but, I think this is changing.’ (Switzerland, CSO)

This competition can negatively impact the service quality provided by CSOs given the fact that they are constrained to invest more energy into the preparation of project funding proposals which are not necessarily in line with the know-how they develop in time. The uncertain funding not only influences the economic sustainability of CSOs but it also risks disrupting the continuity of their involvement in labour market integration services, as suggested by a remark made by a Finnish CSO representative who suggested that to “enable the continuation of [their] great results and good practices is a huge challenge, especially for small organisations that do not have constant funding” (Finland, CSO).

A second barrier is how the subsidising of CSOs by public administrations influences the agenda of NGOs, defines the (un)desired target groups, or determines the nature and spectrum of the provided services. As an interviewee from Denmark suggested: “I would be lying if I said that the government’s priorities don’t affect our work. If we want to be relevant as an organisation and have an impact on the government’s work, we need to show them that we have the same priorities” (Denmark, CSO).

National funding can also be used as a tool to subsume integration services under the principles of migration securitisation. More specifically, access to integration programmes is conditioned by detailed monitoring of MRA participation in these programmes. Such monitoring can have other functions beyond simple compliance with accountability principles. More specifically, the CSOs’ adherence to accountability principles risks being used as a tool for monitoring and surveillance of the migrant population. Therefore, integration initiatives run by CSOs can be instrumentalised as tools of surveillance.

Third, some CSOs mentioned the problem of co-optation of the originally non-governmental nature of integration services of the state. The process of co-optation results in the exclusion of CSOs from the arena they (co-)created and in which they operated. In other words, in cases of co-optation, CSOs would open a new path of integration policies, establish integration courses or start implementing mentoring services. However, once established, the provision of these services would lose state support and become secured exclusively by public administrations. The co-optation of ideas can sometimes be accompanied with the co-optation of CSO personnel – original NGO employees become state employees.

Fourth, the sphere of CSOs can sometimes similarly be co-opted and strategically misused by private business providers, as happened in the United Kingdom or Greece. This idea emerged notably in national contexts where the number of emergency ad hoc services introduced in response to the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ in 2014 attracted a number of actors with opportunistic business-driven interests rather than a non-profit spirit. For example, since 2016, their policy interest in the ‘refugee crisis’ intensified in the UK and many “new organisations which just repeated or copied the work of existing organisations” were set up (UK, CSO).

This co-optation can also be strongly developed in those national contexts where funding preferences prioritise established, usually bigger, and financially stable organisations; in particular, in the UK context, this means favouring even for-profit companies.

These companies would use the legal forms of the non-governmental sector in an opportunistic way and take advantage of public funding so as to pursue their business interests. Similarly, in these contexts, the stereotypical understanding of CSOs would be, though rarely, related to the suspicion that the free provision of services could work as a strategic tool to acquire clients for future profit activities, such as in the case of the Vietnamese community in the Czech Republic: “Other Vietnamese [other than the interview partner] do not trust services that are free. They suspect that free assistance have to be only false advertisement luring them into following paid services” (Czech Republic, MRA).

Fifth, the distrust and suspicion of MRAs would also suggest there are a series of sociocultural barriers influencing the interaction between CSOs and MRAs. These barriers prevent MRAs from stronger use of CSO services. These circumstances have been observed in relation to closed ethnic and national communities who have established their own networks that provide the same functions otherwise ensured by NGOs. These communities approach CSOs only rarely, perceiving them as formal organisations and often conflating their position with the position of the public service. Viewing CSOs as ‘official’ and ‘formal’ organisations, they struggle to develop trustful relationships. The conflation of CSOs with the state also occurs due to the low visibility of CSOs and the low familiarity of MRAs with the services provided by CSOs. In some cases, the fact that the service of CSOs is provided for free would further increase the distrust of some MRAs, who would understand the counselling as lacking expertise and being ‘insufficiently professional’, regardless of the know-how, experience and education of CSO volunteers and employers.

Sixth, the insufficient use of CSO services is also determined by culturally based personal honour; some MRAs would simply not approach CSOs as a matter of personal honour, perceiving a free service as a symptom of their own personal failure, as well demonstrated by a remark made by a refugee from Denmark: “I am not a charity case. I want to get a job on the basis of my qualifications. I don’t want anyone to think that I am like a refugee and need free help” (Denmark, MRA).

Seventh, the success of integration programmes is hindered by the fact that NGOs are awarded very little recognition from policymakers, and their recognition remains only tokenistic, as observed in Czech Republic the United Kingdom. An example from the latter suggests that in these contexts, CSO representatives perceive their participation in decision-making processes as strictly formal, with no impact or space to influence existing policies:

‘So within that discussion, you contribute and participate and all that, and you realise that your contribution is not valid. So yes, they give you the power to make the decision and to be engaged and hold but the recognition is not there, and it goes back to that point of just ticking the box.’ (UK, CSO)

Internal barriers hindering the role of civil society for labour market integration

Labour integration can be also hindered by factors related to how CSOs operate: (1) processes of othering and objectification; (2) the lack of experience and know-how; (3) a ‘CSOs’ professional bubble’; (4) the implementation of accountability measures; (5) bureaucratisation and institutionalisation; and (7) resource dependence.

First, the effectiveness of integration services can suffer from the low engagement of MRAs in CSOs. Some CSOs would explicitly suggest that the key objective of NGOs is to provide professional services, regardless of the participation of MRAs in CSOs everyday activities. However, the low participation of MRAs can reinforce the processes of othering and objectification. The objectification of MRAs is apparent from the following comment: “When organisations organise events, they don’t ask us what we want. Sometimes they just bring students who watch us like we are in the zoo. I don’t feel like I am treated like a normal human being” (Denmark, MRA 9). As part of this approach, MRAs are a priori understood as passive and somewhat incompetent actors with deficits. This approach hinders the development of autonomy and the independence of MRAs, and at the same time, it risks strengthening their dependence on CSO services or welfare systems more broadly. As the following quotes suggest, the provision of services can yield different outcomes; the risks of increasing dependence on CSO services and the related underdeveloped autonomy was perceived by MRAs as well as by CSOs:

‘Operators tend to assist you in everything without leaving you autonomy. But when you leave the centre, you are not very able to get away with it alone. In fact, you move from 100 to zero in terms of support.’ (Italy, MRA)

‘Sometimes we do have to do quite a lot of things on their behalf. I have even had to write a CV on the behalf of someone who dictated it to me and then I wrote it. This is how it often goes in career counselling, even though it should not go this way.’ (Finland, CSO)

Second, labour market integration services have been hindered due to the lack of experience and know-how of some CSOs, in particular those founded in an emergency context as a reaction to the so-called migrant crisis. As an interviewee from an Italian cooperative suggested, they had to reorient their agenda to integration work overnight, with staff with very little experience in the migration sector. As they suggested, previously they dealt with identification and expulsion centres:

‘So the complete opposite of integration … only business. … The message that has always come to us is: “we only do what is required by the prefectures: if we integrate people, better, but it is not mandatory” … fortunately we are all young people with clear beliefs and therefore we try to integrate.’ (Italy, CSO)

The operational capacity of these newly established CSOs was further restricted (although not necessarily) due to limited networking capacities, undermining the possible role of CSOs as brokers mediating the relations between MRAs and employers or the public administration. This lack of experience also occurs because of the precarious position of CSOs, which exposes CSO staff to precariousness as well. This precariousness and personnel discontinuity hinders information exchange, knowledge transfer and the accumulation of expertise – much needed for efficient labour market integration.

Third, some CSOs and their employees tend to operate in a ‘professional bubble’, which prevents them from considering the individual situations of MRAs holistically as well as understanding their sociocultural expectations. An inordinate focus on the professional identity of CSO social workers accompanied with excessive expertisation and prioritisation of technical skills can undermine the sociocultural potential of CSOs. Some professional service workers involved in integration programmes stressed that their organisation does not need to have MRAs at all costs, stressing that the ‘professional’ approach is a priority for them. By using the adjective ‘professional’, they stressed the fact that their workers possess all the necessary technical know-how, important to carry out everyday bureaucratic procedure related to permits or welfare support. Some MRAs would, however, perceive this strictly or primarily technical approach as insufficient, lacking a more in-depth understanding of their life histories and specific needs.

Fourth, the excessively professionalised ethos of CSOs is sometimes closely intertwined with the implementation of accountability measures, based on quantification and inadequate attention given to the nature of activities. The approach prioritising statistical evidence instead of experience can, for example, contribute to the fact that CSOs act as actors who extend the state’s pressure on MRAs to get a job at any cost instead of considering the position and experience of MRAs:

‘Like the government, all they [CSOs] talk about is labour market integration. I don’t think they have ever asked me what I want to do. They don’t know what my experiences and skills are. All they want me to do is get a job quickly because they think we will just stay home and live off welfare benefits.’ (Denmark, MRA)

Fifth, the capacity of CSOs to understand the personal needs of MRAs and to foster their agency is marginalised by the pressures of bureaucratisation and institutionalisation. Similar to the excessive emphasis given to expert knowledge, the bureaucratisation and institutionalisation of CSOs undermine the flexible nature of organisations and foster their more or less deliberate reluctance to take into account the specific experiences and skills of individuals. Excessive bureaucratic requirements and formalisation of operational activities requested by funding bodies according to some CSOs risks channelling out personal capacities which could be potentially used for a more direct social work with MRAs.

Sixth, the previously mentioned dependence on external funding can influence the internal nature of CSOs and undermine the contentious and transformative character of CSOs. The dependence on funding can therefore marginalise critical voices within CSOs, leaving the contribution of CSOs towards integration to rest on individualised service provision rather than collective action. An excessive alignment with state integration policy, embracing a narrow understanding of integration, is apparent in Denmark, where refugee and asylum seekers commented that CSOs tend to repeat state discourses and simply put into practice state policies.


In this chapter, we argued that several CSOs are significant enablers in the context of labour market integration, often representing the key pillars of integration. We suggested that they not only directly enable MRAs’ integration through their initiatives and everyday operations but that their role is at the same time potentially enabled by external actors and institutions. Although CSOs primarily stimulate integration processes and often manage to complement labour integration with a broader societal integration, they do not operate as enablers only.

The empirical evidence from seven European countries suggests that the functioning of CSOs is determined and hindered by external pressures and the integration objectives can also be undermined by some internal limits of CSOs. In other words, to sum up, CSOs’ involvement in the labour market integration is facilitating and facilitated as well as hindering and hindered.

By providing mentorship, training programmes, volunteering or even direct employment, CSOs contribute to the development of the work skills and competencies of MRAs and provide platforms to enhance their agency and autonomy. Furthermore, CSOs overcome the lack of networks by acting as brokers and mediators in the relationship between MRAs on the one hand and the state or employers on the other hand. CSOs frequently either individually or collectively raise problematic situations of illegal employment practices, exploitation, human trafficking and underpaid wages. Last but not least, they help to mitigate and struggle against, often together with MRAs, the hostile context of a widely diffused xenophobic atmosphere.

The role of CSOs has also been hindered by external and internal barriers. CSOs struggle with unstable and uncertain funding provided by the states, which in some contexts impose the agendas of CSOs’ services, their volume as well as the target groups. The dependence on public funding could limit the potentially contentious and transformative character of CSOs. The power of CSOs is also limited due to a lack of space provided to CSOs in decision-making processes. Moreover, CSOs’ initiatives risk being co-opted by the public or private sectors. The integration potential of CSOs is further undermined by a series of sociocultural barriers influencing the interaction between CSOs and MRAs. Lack of experience and know-how on the one hand, as well as an excessive focus on technical skills, professionalisation and bureaucratisation, represent further barriers undermining labour market integration.

To conclude, notwithstanding some of the mentioned barriers, CSOs represent one of the key pillars of the integration process.


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