Integration through work: Flemish agency helps refugees get back on their feet


The employment and training agency VDAB has come up with an action plan that puts refugees into the labour market as quickly as possible and provides them with practical language skills

Get to work right away

Leaving your home for a new country – whether to pursue better material opportunities or matters of the heart – is never easy, despite the prospect of a better life. Leaving because your home is ravaged by war or other man-made disaster can be, at best, traumatic.

To help asylum seekers and others better integrate into Flemish society, a number of government agencies are investing time, money and manpower in practical campaigns.

Integration through Work is one such initiative, set up by the Flemish employment and training agency VDAB. With various partners, the agency seeks to get refugees and others into the labour market as quickly as possible, rather than have them first go through an integration process before they look for work.

The VDAB has taken a number of actions as part of the initiative, including additional recruitment and training of mediators, increased use of language training and expanding existing mechanisms for workplace training.

To further help the job seekers, VDAB spokesperson Shaireen Aftab explains, the VDAB offers a range of opportunities tailored to each person, so specific training can be customised to meet the requirements of the labour market. “We try to evaluate the job seeker to understand what is needed to get them ready for the job market,” she says, “whether through providing training, work placement or other measures.”

Meeting the needs

To promote the action plan, the VDAB is supporting it with a communication campaign, using tools that have been developed according to the needs of the target group. For example, partners can use leaflets in different languages, or turn to online videos about the agency’s services and other pertinent information.

We try to evaluate the job seeker to understand what is needed to get them ready for the job market

- Shaireen Aftab of VDAB

The agency is also active on other fronts in guiding newcomers to a job. Registered job seekers who don’t speak Dutch and lack a degree or certificate obtained in Belgium or the Netherlands can be referred to Dutch language courses.

A person is screened and interviewed by a mediator, who assesses their abilities and expectations before establishing a programme describing the steps they must take in a job search. Based on the mediator’s assessment, the VDAB can refer the job seeker to a reception facility or to the language centre Huis van het Nederlands (House of Dutch).

The reception website familiarises the newcomers with various aspects of Belgian society. They can learn, for example, how the health-care system and public transport work, and what their options are for language training in basic Dutch.

Success stories

Individuals with limited or no knowledge of Dutch go to the House of Dutch for an evaluation of their language level and the type of course they should follow. There, they follow a practical, intensive language training course to prepare them for job opportunities. In addition, they get a realistic picture of the labour market in Flanders and learn interview techniques with other job seekers, each sharing their ideas and experiences.

The action plan also has another perspective, namely an awareness programme for employers who want to help a refugee find a job. The VDAB has a section on its website that describes the legal and practical steps employers must take before hiring a new arrival.

AGII is one of several agencies working with the VDAB. The agency for integration is a private foundation established by the Flemish government as an autonomous body.

The training course is the door to life in Flanders

- Mawad, refugee from Iraq

Anyone who wants to learn Dutch can approach AGII and though it doesn’t offer any courses itself, it refers people to its education partners that offer Dutch courses in their area.

The purpose is to help the newcomer use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases. The students also learn how to present themselves to others in a professional or social context, and how to ask and answer questions about their personal details.

The effort is not without difficulties and frustrations for both the students and the agencies that want to help them in the integration process. However, there are a number of success stories.

One of them is Rami Anis, a refugee from war-ravaged Aleppo in Syria, who took part in the Olympic Games in Rio as a member of the Refugee Olympic team. The talented swimmer was granted asylum in Belgium in December last year and followed a course that teaches the customs and conventions of Flemish society.

Someone else who has successfully crossed the integration bridge is Mawad, an Iraqi who has been living in Flanders for more than three years. Mawad attended a civic integration course and later found a job in Tienen, Flemish Brabant. During the course, he learned how to find all the sources of information he needed for living and working here. He calls the programme “the door to life in Flanders”.

Partners in the VDAB initiative include social aid agency OCMW, the agency for integration AGII, reception centres, local relief initiatives, Fedasil, the Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities and educational facilities.