A bifurcated approach to labour market integration for different migrant groups in Rotterdam

Leonieke van Dordrecht and Maria Schiller from Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB) research the role of economic considerations in policymaking on migration-related diversity in Rotterdam. Besides studying relevant policy documents, they conducted six semi-structured qualitative interviews with policymakers and other relevant actors in Rotterdam. In this blog, they share their first findings and invite readers to think along.

Developments that raise questions about how to support migrants

During the past years, two important and seemingly unrelated developments took place in postindustrial European cities such as Rotterdam. First of all, following the 2015 so-called 'long summer of migration' many such cities received a relatively high number of refugees. 

Second of all, postindustrial cities have been working on their transition from economies relying on manufacturing to service-based economies, which often implied competing for highly skilled labour migrants. 

These developments are related because both the accommodation of refugees and the attraction of highly skilled labour migrants raise the question of how cities can support immigrants in accessing and participating in the labour market. 

Migration-based diversification and its governance challenges

Whilst migration to large cities is increasingly approached, discussed and treated as a fact; there are also related governance challenges (Schiller 2016; Scholten and van Breugel 2018). 

Municipalities need to create acceptance among established populations for newcomers and facilitate living together in diverse cities. At the same time, municipalities need to have structural policies in place to ensure that newcomers are received well and supported to participate in the labour market, which may require dedicated support measures (WRR 2020). 

Addressing these governance challenges requires not only resources but also administrative structures, either by having specific departments dedicated to addressing migration or by having these responsibilities mainstreamed across departments. 

Different migrant groups receive different support

In our exploratory case study of Rotterdam (read more about this research below), we found that a different rationale of economic participation is applied to different categories of migrants. In other words, we see a bifurcation of the city's support for highly skilled labour migrants and refugees. 

What do we mean by bifurcation of policies?!

In Rotterdam, different departments/actors, policies, and frames are responsible for highly skilled labour migrants and refugees ("statushouders"). While highly skilled labour migrants are first and foremost served by the Rotterdam Expat Center, refugees ("statushouders") are the foci of attention of the municipality's departments that are responsible for integration ('inburgering') and welfare. The narratives, responsible departments, and policies in place tend to target specific groups of immigrants with relatively little overlap between them. 

Whereas there is currently no official municipal policy targeting highly skilled expats, refugees ("statushouders") are covered in a separate plan titled 'Rotterdamse Aanpak Statushouders', or Rotterdam's Approach for refugees. 

Different narratives and different expectations 

For refugees ("statushouders"), the dominant narrative among interviewees is that this is a group in which one has to 'invest' so that they can participate equally in the future. Other migrants, such as highly skilled expats, are considered to bring economic benefits and thus deserving of a "red carpet treatment". Unlike refugees, these expats are not expected to 'integrate'. 

Equality versus profit

Municipal actors differ in how they conceive of the economic potential of immigrants. Those working on the integration of refugees ("statushouders") emphasized economic self-reliance (“zelfredzaamheid”) and participation as an ideal that comes before profit, while those working on highly skilled labour migrants foregrounded the economic profitability of immigration more straightforwardly. 

The danger of reifying categories 

While the support needs of different types of migrants for labour market participation and societal integration may differ, there is also a danger of reifying categories. 

This is especially the case as not all immigrants entering as highly skilled labour migrants may gain a high income, nor may all refugees face similar obstacles in their capacities to succeed in the labour market. As has been argued by several scholars, such categorizations do not reflect social realities and tend to misrepresent individuals or groups based on stereotypes, with the risk of discrimination (for instance, see Mügge and van der Haar, 2016; Hercog and Sandoz 2018). 

Some people may not receive the proper support

As a result of such classification, there is the risk that some people do not receive the proper support to fulfil their full potential due to the immigrant group in which they are classified (De Lange et al. 2020) and hence that policies are limiting their life chances. For instance, entrepreneurial or highly-skilled refugees may be steered towards accepting any type of 'low-skilled' employment that can be accomplished as soon as possible. Conversely, highly skilled may be expected to be self-sufficient as regards their own societal integration but may find themselves isolated or segregated in expat bubbles. 

Classification based on migration channel and/or legal status 

The basis for this target group differentiation often lies in using the migration channel and legal status of immigrants as basis for policymaking: whether someone entered as an asylum seeker or with a labour market visa or through Schengen decides on the support an individual will receive. Such a bifurcated approach is institutionalized in Rotterdam through existing departmental responsibilities, policies and frames. 

Can migrants and the city profit from a new approach?   

We critically reflect on such bifurcation in policies and ask: 

  • Could the city strengthen its support of immigrants’ socio-economic participation by fostering more cooperation between Expat centre and departments responsible for inburgering and welfare? 
  • If a policy for highly skilled immigrants were to be designed, what could it learn from existing policies for refugees ("statushouders") and support measures for societal integration? 
  • And in turn, what could a 'red carpet treatment' bring to stimulating refugee's labour market participation? 

Create an integrated approach for different migrants

Setting up a general welcome or reception centre à la Canada, open to all immigrant groups regardless of their migration channel, is one example of a measure that could contribute to an integrated approach to supporting immigrants' labour market participation (WRR 2020). 

To prevent a two-tier welcoming culture in cities that addresses highly skilled differently than less qualified migrants (Föbker et al 2014), we second the WRR’s recommendation that the government invests in structures that support all groups of migrants to find their way and are able to participate.  As such, extending the current expat centre to a broader welcome center, where everyone is welcome, could be a first step towards such an integrated approach. 

About the research project

The project, titled 'Diversity Governance Inc.' was a three-month research project funded by the Erasmus Trustfonds and the Vital Cities and Citizens Initiative. It aimed to explore the role of economic considerations in policymaking on migration-based diversity in Rotterdam. Besides studying relevant policy documents, we conducted six semi-structured qualitative interviews with policymakers and other relevant actors in Rotterdam, including the Rotterdam Expat Centre, the departments of ‘Werk en Inkomen’, ‘Maatschappelijke Ontwikkeling’, ‘Bestuurs-en Concernondersteuning (HR)’, and ‘Communicatie’. We analyzed the interview data through inductive coding using Atlas.ti.


De Lange, T., L. Berntsen, R. Hanoeman, and O. Haidar (2021) Highly Skilled Entrepreneurial Refugees: Legal and Practical Barriers and Enablers to Start Up in the Netherlands. International Migration. 

Föbker, S., D. Temme, and C.C. Wiegandt (2014) A warm welcome to highly‐skilled migrants: how can municipal administrations play their part? Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie. 105 (5): 542–557.

Hercog, M., & Sandoz, L. (2018) Highly Skilled or Highly Wanted Migrants? Conceptualizations, Policy Designs and Implementations of High-skilled Migration Policies. Migration Letters, 15(4), 453–460. https://doi.org/10.33182/ml.v15i4.534

Mügge L., van der Haar M. (2016) Chapter 5: Who Is an Immigrant and Who Requires Integration? Categorizing in European Policies. In: Garcés-Mascareñas B., Penninx R. (eds)Integration Processes and Policies in Europe. IMISCOE Research Series. Springer, Cham.

Schiller, M. (2016). European cities, municipal organizations and diversity: The new politics of difference. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Scholten P.W.A. & van Breugel I. (Ed.). (2018) Mainstreaming Integration Governance: New Trends in Migrant Integration Policies in Europe.Opent extern Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan

Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid (WRR) (2020) Samenleven in verscheidenheid. Beleid voor de migratie- samenleving, wrr-Rapport 103, Den Haag: WRR.

Leonieke van Dordrecht
More information

Vital Cities and Citizens

With the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens, Erasmus University Rotterdam wants to help improve the quality of life in cities. In vital cities, the population can achieve their life goals through education, useful work and participation in public life. The vital city is a platform for creativity and diversity, a safe meeting place for different social groups. The researchers involved focus on one of the four sub-themes:

•    Inclusive Cities and Diversity
•    Resilient Cities and People
•    Smart Cities and Communities 
•    Sustainable and Just Cities

VCC is a collaboration between Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) and International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).

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VCC sub-theme Inclusive Cities and Diversity

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