What Hungary Can Teach Europe About Absorbing Immigrants

Far from becoming welfare cases, foreign-born workers are likelier to be employed than native-born Hungarians. Or is that the problem?

Migrants who have just crossed into Hungary wait for buses to take them to an intake camp on Monday.

Photographer: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

As refugees pour into Europe in historic numbers, one of the fears is that they will become wards of the state, unemployed and living on the dole. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has led the fight to restrict the flow of refugees and migrants into what he has called the "Christian welfare states."

Interestingly, though, by one key measure Hungary has done a better job than Germany and most other upper-income countries in absorbing immigrants. In Hungary, foreign-born workers, far from living on the fringes of society, are more likely to be employed than native-born Hungarians. In 2013, the last year for which statistics are available, 67.9 percent of the foreign-born aged 15 to 64 had jobs, vs. 58.2 percent of the native-born in that age range.

absorbing migrants

This chart, which I created from data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, has a number of other surprises. The Netherlands and Sweden were at the bottom in absorption of immigrants into the labor force. And the U.S., while not on a par with Hungary, was among the minority of countries where the foreign-born were more likely to have jobs than the native-born.

The absorption of immigrants is far too complex to be summed up in a single statistic, of course. In Hungary, for example, a substantial share of immigration consists of ethnic Hungarians resettling from neighboring countries Romania, Ukraine, the Slovak Republic, and Serbia, according to a book published by the OECD, International Migration Outlook 2014. And since the data are from 2013, they don't take into account the most recent surge, which could change everything. It's nevertheless intriguing to see big differences between OECD countries in how well immigrants fare in the labor market. 

Now, if immigrants aren't underemployed, then politicians can complain that they're overemployed, and stealing jobs from natives. That's what Orban's government has done in Hungary, notes Jacob Funk Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. One billboard said: "If you come to Hungary, you cannot take away Hungarians' jobs." In Hungarian, of course, which most asylum seekers couldn't read.

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