July 7, 2022

Understanding the refugee job search process: Barriers and recommendations

The UCalgary Psychology Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Blog

Canada has a long history of welcoming and resettling newcomers and refugees. One of the most salient events in recent memory was the resettlement of over 26,000 Syrian refugees in 118 days (IRCC, 2019). As newcomers resettle in Canada, they often begin searching for a job, which is an important component of economic and social integration. Unfortunately, newcomers, particularly refugees, often face many hurdles when it comes to finding a job.

Being unable to find employment can lead to negative consequences like depression, anxiety, and lower life satisfaction (Baranik et al., 2018; Kosny et al., 2020; Murphy and Athanasou, 1999). These outcomes are exacerbated for refugees, many of whom experienced traumatic and stressful experiences in their home regions (Porter & Haslam, 2009).

Fortunately, finding employment can reduce the severity of these negative mental health outcomes (Jablensky et al., 1994; Porter and Haslam, 2005). This employment, however, must be meaningful. Meaningful employment involves finding a job that is in line with one’s education, skills, and previous work experience. Employment can foster societal integration, permanence, and feelings of social inclusion and contribution (Guo et al, 2020; Jackson & Bauder, 2013; LaCroix, 2004). Thus, it is clear that gainful employment is critical for refugees’ resettlement, as well as their well-being, both mental and financial.

To understand the challenges facing refugees as they search for jobs, we researched how refugees look for jobs, and what barriers they face along the way.  Our team’s primary goal was to develop an organizing framework of job search processes for refugees, the Refugee Job Search Process Model. The RJSPF helps to identify the job search barriers that refugees face, recently referred to as the canvas ceiling (Lee et al., 2020).

We explore the canvas ceiling with the RJSPF by including important factors both on the side of refugees as well as that of organizations. To develop the RJSPF, we conducted interviews with Syrian refugees and those working for settlement service provider organizations who provide employment-related services and programs for refugees.

Our interviews with refugees and service providers were enlightening, and provided significant support for the RJSPF, highlighting the large number of barriers refugees face in their job search. In fact, interviews produced over 1000 separate references to the various barriers outlined in our framework. Below we highlight a few of the key themes.

One important theme was credential recognition. An employee from an immigrant-serving agency highlighted that those consequences associated with lack of credential recognition stretch beyond simply being ineligible for the same line of work in Canada but may affect refugee job seekers’ intrinsic motivations.

I think for a lot of clients this is a huge barrier is knowing that they have this education from back home, but then having to go through all these steps. I think it also affects their motivation as well because you have somebody who has been educated, they come to this new country, and having to start from square one again in terms of their work experiences and kind of their goals"

The frustrating experiences associated with such exclusion were also noted in our interview with a refugee job seeker who had previously been employed as a doctor.

“We expected that it’s very hard for us to get a job here, but we didn’t imagine that it will be impossible to be even in paramedical … If you want to apply for everything … one of the requirements is … to get first aid. What is the first aid? First aid, it was for one day or for a workshop or two days? What it will be if you were to compare it with medical degree? It’s nothing, and they ask you for first aid, you tell them I have a medical degree and I have my assessment from here, my ICAS (International Credential Assessment Service), and they admitted it, you are qualified and it’s equal to a medical degree.”

In the interest of leveraging refugees’ talents, experience, and qualifications, we recommend that employers take considerate, flexible, and realistic approaches when setting job requirements. It is important to consider the long-term gains of hiring refugees (e.g., many are highly educated and qualified, and eager to “give back” to their host country). We also encourage partnerships and collaboration between service providing organizations, employers, and newcomers that facilitate qualification bridging, direct hiring, and paid internships. Such work will help refugees take tangible steps to acquiring gainful and appropriate employment and is of benefit to all parties.

Another prominent theme highlighted the many mental health challenges refugee job seekers may be facing. Difficult circumstances do arise, as demonstrated in an interview with a service provider, specifically when discussing their interactions with their client “Tom” – with whom they were seeking to find a suitable work placement.

“With Tom, they have to avoid loud sounds because he can’t help but go into a fetal position and go under the table. He can’t. So, I have to place him in a soothing or calming place. Okay. And tell the employers this is him. I have to deal with employers.”

Refugees are resilient, but the mental health challenges some job seekers may be currently grappling with can influence their job search processes and opportunities. We recommend that service providing organizations support their clients’ mental health throughout the job search process and help co-create (with their refugee clients) paths to desired employment. Additionally, we also encourage organizations to offer counselling services for refugees that have succeeded in attaining employment but may continue to face trauma-related stress.

Ultimately, we also identified themes surrounding language fluency, Canadian experience, employer exploitation, and cultural incongruencies. Understanding how these barriers (among others) influence job search processes is key, but up until this point there has been a lack of an organizing framework for these factors. The RJSPF provides an opportunity to identify and contextualize barriers with an unfolding sequence of job search stages, while integrating the unique challenges faced by refugees. This effort will ultimately aid employers, service providing organizations, and researchers in beginning to ease the challenges facing our valuable and growing population of new Canadians. Moreover, while our focus was on Syrian refugees, it is likely that the work here can be informative for other groups, such as those fleeing Ukraine in recent months – although some of these circumstances may be unique.

We welcome readers to further explore these barriers and themes, additional interview quotes, and recommendations for both service providing organizations and employers in our recent publication, Boss, H.C.D., Lee., C.S., Bourdage, J.S., and Hamilton, L.K., (2022)  Developing and testing a framework for understanding refugees’ job search processes, in Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion: An International Journal, 41(4). doi.org/10.1108/EDI-01-2021-0031.



Baranik, L.E., Hurst, C.S. and Eby, L.T. (2018), The stigma of being a refugee: a mixed-method study of refugees ’experiences of vocational stress, Journal of Vocational Behavior, 105, 116-130.

Boss, H.C.D., Lee., C.S., Bourdage, J.S., and Hamilton, L.K., (2022)  Developing and testing a framework for understanding refugees’ job search processes, in Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion: An International Journal, 41(4), 568-591. doi.org/10.1108/EDI-01-2021-0031

Guo, G.C., Al Ariss, A. and Brewster, C. (2020), Understanding the global refugee crisis: managerial consequences and policy implications, Academy of Management Perspectives, 34(4), 531-545.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. (2019). #WelcomeRefugees. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/refugees/welcome-syrian-refugees/infographic.html

Jablensky, A., Marsella, A.J., Ekblad, S., Jansson, B., Levi, L. and Bornemann, T.H. (1994), Refugee mental health and well-being: conclusions and recommendations, in Marsella, A.J., Bornemann, T.H., Ekblad, S. and Orley, J. (Eds), Amidst Peril and Pain: The Mental Health and Well-Being of the World’s Refugees, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, pp. 327-339.

Jackson, S. and Bauder, H. (2013), Neither temporary, nor permanent: the precarious employment experiences of refugee claimants in Canada, Journal of Refugee Studies, 27(3), 360-381.

Kosny, A., Yanar, B., Begum, M., Al-khooly, D., Premji, S., Lay, M.A. and Smith, P.M. (2020),“Safe employment integration of recent immigrants and refugees, Journal of Migration and Integration, 21, 807-827.

LaCroix, M. (2004), Canadian refugee policy and the social construction of the refugee claimant subjectivity: understanding refugeeness, Journal of Refugee Studies, 17(2), 147-166.

Lee, E.S., Szkudlarek, B., Nguyen, D.C. and Nardon, L. (2020), Unveiling the canvas ceiling: A multidisciplinary literature review of refugee employment and workforce integration, International Journal of Management Reviews, 22, 193-216.

Murphy, G.C. and Athanasou, J.A. (1999), The effect of unemployment on mental health, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 72(1), 83-99.

Porter, M. and Haslam, N. (2001), Forced displacement in Yugoslavia: a meta-analysis of psychological consequences and their moderators, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 14(4), 817-834.