4.4 Roots and routes to migrants’ economic participation in the Netherlands: the constraining and facilitating impact of home and host society contexts (1970-2021)

Roots and routes to migrants’ economic participation in the Netherlands: the constraining and facilitating impact of home and host society contexts (1970-2021)

 Challenge 4: Accomodating Newcomers (threat: external shocks)

 Project aims

This project investigates through a historical approach how migrants’ home and host society contexts and their interplay facilitate or hamper the sustainable economic participation of different groups of African migrants in the Netherlands. In particular, we seek to explore how home and host country institutional contexts influence differing economic participation between two specific groups: Somali refugees, who have widely struggled in the Netherlands, and Ghanian economic migrants, who have experienced greater success. By “economic participation” we mean both labor market participation as well as self-employment. Economic participation is sustainable if (self-)employment is long term and income is sufficient to cover living costs (i.e., the opposite of precarious work).

A historical approach will provide causal insights that are only possible through a long-term view that tracks how initial conditions (i.e., migrant and home context characteristics and integration policies upon arrival) affect ultimate integration outcomes. Moreover, the particularities of Dutch integration policies regarding refugees and economic migrants have shifted markedly at various points over the past 50 years, making a historical analysis especially important. Such critical junctures in integration policy allow us to explore how significant policy changes have influenced the capacity of migrants to successfully integrate economically. By exploring when and why policies have proven more or less successful, we may shed light on the appropriate constellation of integration measures for migrants from different backgrounds and with different migration statuses. 

Research problem

Europe, the Netherlands included, is facing severe labor shortages. Some propose that one potential solution to address these shortages is allowing more non-European migrants to enter Europe. However, this solution is widely contested, not only for political and ideological reasons, but also because, historically, compared to native workers in the Netherlands, migrants of non-Western backgrounds have struggled to integrate into the labor market, with refugees in particular being the least likely to have a (sustainable) job (Bakker et al. 2017).

This especially holds for refugees and economic migrants from sub-Sahara Africa who, since the 1970s, have increasingly migrated to European countries in search of refuge and economic opportunities. These groups often work in short-term jobs and do not earn sufficient income to sustain their livelihoods. This holds in particular for the Netherlands, which has the largest reported employment gap in the continental EU between low-skilled African immigrants and the native-born population (Widmaier and Dumont 2011). Moreover, only a small portion of the sub-Saharan immigrant population has successfully engaged in self-employment compared with the native Dutch population (0.1% vs. 15%). This lack of sustainable labor market participation, together with limited opportunities for self-employment, hampers African migrants’ and refugees’ further social and political integration into Dutch society.

At the same time, there are considerable differences in labor force participation between African immigrants with different national origins and migrant statuses. Somali refugees, in particular, have experienced the lowest participation rate of all immigrants in the Netherlands, while Ghanaian economic migrants have performed considerably better in economic integration (Confurius et al. 2019). This raises the question what explains the low overall economic participation rates of African migrants in the Netherlands as well as these differences between groups.

Theoretical Background

A rich body of literature provides explanations for migrants’ lacking economic participation in host societies and group differences therein. Much of the literature focuses on migrant characteristics as explanatory factors, such as their human capital (Risberg & Romani 2021). This may suggest that successful economic integration in the host country depends mainly on the migrant’s background, but recent research has found that initial human capital disparities account for less than ten percent of the African immigrant employment gap (Confurius et al. 2019). Scholars have therefore argued that attention must also be paid to the structural conditions in the host society that may hamper or facilitate the successful economic integration of migrants, such as the impact of visa requirements, type of political coalition, and educational and economic opportunities (e.g., De Vroome & Van Tubergen 2010; Van Liempt 2011a; 2011b).

Only a few studies have combined the characteristics of migrants with the home and host society contexts (Van Tubergen et al 2004; Van Tubergen 2014). Crucially, these studies suggest that interplay between home country context, migrant characteristics and receiving country policies and/or institutions likely account for differing economic integration outcomes. In other words, these studies emphasize the process of integration as a two way street that requires the cooperation of both migrants and host society.

This project follows this latter line of research by engaging with migration transition theories (Zelinsky 1971; De Haas 2010), which link social and economic transitions with internal and international migration developments, as well as with integration studies that explore both migrant and contextual characteristics of home and host societies to explain how and why migrants succeed in receiving countries. This approach closely aligns with SCOOP’s focus on the interplay between institutions and communities since we study how institutional contexts in home and host societies relate to differences in economic participation of different migrant groups in the Netherlands.  

Focus of the project: a historical perspective on two groups of African migrants

In this project, we add to the existing body of knowledge on the importance of institutional contexts a historical perspective by (1) focusing on changes over time in the institutional contexts in both the home and host country of two groups of migrants and (2) relating these changes over time to opportunities and constraints for economic participation that these different migrant groups may face in the host country.

A historical perspective allows for a more dynamic analysis of the implications of changing institutional contexts, which can influence migration flows as well as integration opportunities. The effects of changes in home country institutional contexts (e.g., increasing political oppression and violence, and/or depressed economic and educational opportunities) may influence the choice to migrate at differing points in time but also impact upon the human capital and mental health of migrants, influencing their preparedness to enter the host country labor market (Tubergen et al 2004). In the host country, changes in the policy climate may affect shifting levels of economic participation of migrants over time. For example, some Somali refugees who arrived in the Netherlands prior to the 2000s reported decades later that while they had initially found a welcoming environment in the Netherlands, they increasingly faced economic and social constraints as the political climate and policies in the Netherlands shifted from 2001 onward with rising skepticism toward non-western immigration. This, in turn, influenced decisions to leave the Netherlands for the UK, where they faced fewer barriers to economic integration (van Liempt 2011a; 2011b; see also Ahrens et al. 2016).  

More precisely, this project will provide a historical comparison of two groups of migrants from the same continent but with a different status in the Netherlands: refugees versus economic migrants. We focus in particular on the cases of Somalia and Ghana, which provide especially fertile ground to comparatively explore the relationship between migrant characteristics, Dutch integration policies, and integration outcomes over time. In terms of similarities, Somali and Ghanaian migrants comprise two of largest sub-Saharan African migrant groups in the Netherlands and began arriving in significant quantities during the last quarter of the twentieth century. However, while Ghanaians have experienced comparatively successful economic integration, Somalis have notably struggled more than any other significant group of sub-Sharan African migrants (Confurius et al. 2019). Through comparison, we can explore how both home country characteristics and Dutch policies have influenced this divergence. In terms of home country characteristics, Somalia has experienced persistent and often violent political turbulence since independence, which has perpetuated flows of refugees from the country. Ghana, in contrast, has experienced a much higher degree of peace and prosperity over the past fifty years, resulting in a comparatively high degree of human capital development relative to most of sub-Saharan Africa (Oketch 2006). Consequently, while Somali migrants have largely traveled to the Netherlands as refugees, Ghanaian migrants have typically arrived as economic migrants seeking labor opportunities.  We will study if and how these differences in migrant status affected the integration policies and procedures these groups have faced upon the arrival in the Netherlands, and how this affected their economic participation.

By studying how refugees and economic migrants have fared in the same country, and what potentially different constraints and opportunities they have faced, the project contributes to current debates about the differential effects that asylum and integration policies may have on refugees’ chances on the labor market, compared to economic migrants.[1] In addition, the focus on African migrants is relevant since they are not often included in migration research, whereas at the same time their economic participation is very low, especially in the Netherlands.

Research Design

This PhD project utilizes historical and sociological methods and theory to explore how characteristics and conditions in both the home and host country influence the ability of migrants to join and succeed in the labor market of their host country. We will study and compare the cases of Somali refugees and Ghanaian economic migrants in the following steps:

  1. Analysis of (changes in) the economic, institutional and political contexts of migrants’ home country in relation to characteristics and motives of migrants, specifically for Somali and Ghanaian migrants (refugees vs economic migrants). An overview of relevant historical shifts in the countries of origin is necessary for developing a clear view of the context from which migrants derive. Migrant characteristics are strongly influenced by shifting home country contexts and are thus crucial to bear in mind in any analysis of the relationship between migrant characteristics, receiving country integration strategies and policies, and ultimate integration outcomes. For the two selected migrant groups, we will pay particular attention to: their economic circumstances in home countries, which may have influenced employment opportunities at home and thus choices to migrate; institutions that helped or hampered their human capital development, particularly schooling; and the political environment of these two groups, which may have encouraged out-migration in the case of political oppression and violence. Taken together, these factors may affect the choice to migrate as well as the toolkit of migrants upon arrival in the Netherlands. In addition, the political context of home countries influences the categorization of migrants upon arrival in the Netherlands: either as refugees or as economic migrants.

This crucial foundational step for this research project will largely involve extensive reading of secondary literature (and, where applicable, government reports) on developments in Ghana and Somalia. This portion of the research will ultimately be complemented with oral histories collected from migrants who first arrived in the Netherlands at various points in time from 1970-2021 (see part 3a below).

  1. Analysis of (changes in) institutional opportunities and constraints resulting from Dutch policies relevant to migrants’ economic participation and integration in the host society, with a specific focus on policies targeting economic migrants versus refugees. This will be done by means of primary and secondary source analysis, including government policy briefings, agency reports on the development and implications of integration policies (e.g., from the Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau), and secondary literature on shifting migration and integration policies in the Netherlands.

We will study the period 1970 (the first beginning of migration from Africa to the Netherlands) to 2021. In these fifty years, the focus in Dutch integration policies shifted from multiculturalism to assimilation (Vasta 2007): starting with integration as part of welfare state policies, with a guiding role of municipalities, and then shifting to the marketization of language and civic exam training and the introduction of the notion of the “self integrating migrant.” This historical analysis will result in an overview of key characteristics of both economic and integration policies through the years and differences between policies for economic migrants and refugees. We pay particular attention to the implications of specific shifts in policy (as occurred, for example, in the early 2000s) to uncover if these policy transitions proved to be critical junctures for the economic integration of economic migrants and/or refugees. This will help us evaluate the relative success (or failure) of particular policy choices pertaining two these two groups.

Based on the above historical analyses, we will identify which periods in the Netherlands were more or less favorable for the economic integration of migrants (with attention to differences between economic migrants and refugees). Studies using sociological methods will be conducted to explore the impact of these facilitating and/or constraining contexts for both groups.

  1. Analysis of the interplay between home country and host country institutional opportunities and contraints in relation to the economic participation of different migrant groups in Dutch society.


We envision to explore this interplay via a qualitative study in which we sample migrants and refugees in different time periods to gather their motives to migrate as well as their experiences and perceptions of their attempts to participate economically in the Netherlands.

In addition, if time would allow and the candidate would have the appropriate skills. we are open to the option to conduct a quantitative study to investigate whether there is a relation between the type/degree of opportunities and constraints for Somali refugees vs. Ghanaian economic migrants per policy phase and the economic participation of these groups. Prof. dr. Frank van Tubergen (UU) has expressed his willingness to advise us on this part of the research.


  1. Ahrens, J. Kelly, M. & van Liempt, I. 2016. “Free movement? The onward migration of EU citizens born in Somalia, Iran and Nigeria.” Population, Space and Place 22(1): 84-98.
  2. Bakker, L., Dagevos, J. & Engbersen, G. 2013. “The importance of resources and security in the socio-economic integration of refugees. A study on the impact of length of stay in asylum accommodation and residence status on socio-economic integration for the four largest refugee groups in the Netherlands.” International Migration & Integration 15: 431-448.
  3. Bakker, L., Dagevos, J., & Engbersen, G. (2017). Explaining the refugee gap: a longitudinal study on labour market participation of refugees in the Netherlands. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies43(11), 1775-1791.
  4. Confurius, D., Gowricharn R. & Dagevos, J. 2019. “Labour market participation of sub-Saharan Africans in the Netherlands: The limits of the human capital approach.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 45(13): 2328-2347.
  5. De Haas, H. 2010. “Migration transitions: A theoretical and empirical inquiry into the developmental drivers of international migration.” International Migration Institute Working Papers, No. 24.
  6. De Vroome, T. & Van Tubergen, F. 2010. “The employment experience of refugees in the Netherlands.” International Migration Review 44(2): 376-403.
  7. Edin, P.-A., Fredriksson, P. & Åslund, O. 2003. “Ethnic enclaves and the economic success of immigrants: Evidence from a natural experiment.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 118(1): 329-357.
  8. Gowricharn, R. 2002. “The integration and social cohesion: The case of the Netherlands.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 28(2): 259-273.
  9. Oketch, M.O. 2006. “Determinants of human capital formation and economic growth of African countries.” Economics of Education Review 25: 554-564.
  10. Risberg, A., & Romani, L. (2021). Underemploying highly skilled migrants: An organizational logic protecting corporate ‘normality.’ Human Relations, 001872672199285.
  11. Spörlein, C. & Van Tubergen, F. 2014. “The occupational status of immigrants in Western and non-Western societies.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 55(2): 119-143.
  12. Van der Linden, M., Weeda, L. and Dagevos. 2022. “The pains and gains of reception centres: How length of stay in reception centres is associated with Syrian refugees' mental health during early resettlement”, International Migration.
  13. Van Liempt, I. 2011a. “’And then one day they all moved to Leicester’: The relocation of Somalis from the Netherlands to the UK explained.” Population, Space and Place 17: 254-266.
  14. Van Liempt, I. 2011b. “From Dutch dispersal to ethnic enclaves in the UK: The relationship between segregation and integration examined through the eyes of Somalis.” Urban Studies 48(16): 3385-3398.
  15. Van Tubergen, F., Maas, I. & Flap, H. 2004. “The economic incorporation of immigrants in 18 Western societies: Origin, destination, and community effects.” American Sociological Review 69: 704-727.
  16. Vasta, E. (2007). From ethnic minorities to ethnic majority policy : Multiculturalism and the shift to assimilationism in the Netherlands. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(5), 713–740.
  17. Widmaier, S. & Dumont, J-C. 2011. “Are recent immigrants different? A new profile of immigrants in the OECD based on DIOC 2005/06.” OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 126.
  18. Zelinsky, W. 1971. “The hypothesis of the mobility transition.” Geographical Review 61(2): 219-249.

Project Initiators

Dr. Katharine Frederick (Utrecht) 

Dr. Liesbet Heyse (Groningen) 

Prof. dr. Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk (Utrecht) 






History, Sociology


[1] This relates to the current situation of Ukrainian refugees having been granted a special EU status that allows them to work immediately, whereas other refugee groups have not been granted this exemption.

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