Helping refugees re-build their careers in a new country: On the benefits of teaching (and learning) professional intercultural communicative competence

Anna Fardau Schukking and Ruth Kircher

(Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning)

Imagine having to flee your war-torn country, leaving your home, family, and friends behind for a safer place somewhere else in the world. Imagine not being proficient in your host country’s language yet, having to deal with bureaucratic hurdles and cultural differences, encountering racism and discrimination – and having no support network to rely on. These are only some of the challenges that make it so very difficult to integrate into a new country, and especially to find work there.

At the moment, there are about 70 million forcibly displaced people worldwide (UN Refugee Agency, 2019), and in the last decade, the member states of the EU in particular have seen an increase in the number of newcomers. Many refugees are highly educated and have left behind careers as doctors, lawyers, engineers or teachers in their countries of origin (Ganassin & Young, 2020). Unfortunately, politics and media tend to focus on the challenges posed by the arrival of refugees; much less attention is paid to the benefits of their successful integration. Highly-educated refugees, in particular, can make significant contributions to the host society’s economy – for instance by reducing ageing-related ‘demographic deficits’ and workforce shortages among local populations (Critical Skills for Life and Work, 2019). Most importantly, their successful integration can benefit the refugees’ own quality of life.

Becoming part of the labour market is key to refugees’ successful integration in general: it makes them financially independent and helps them establish social connections with the broader community (Hebbani & Khawaja, 2019). However, as noted above, refugees face many challenges in their search for employment. This results in higher unemployment rates amongst refugees (Vončina & Marin, 2019) – and if they do find jobs, these are often low-skilled and badly-paid (Ganassin & Young, 2020). 

This situation made us, at Mercator, as well as our colleagues at the University of Newcastle, the Universität Graz, and the Action Foundation wonder: What can we as linguists do to make it easier for refugees to integrate into the labour market? During work on the Erasmus+ funded project Critical Skills for Life and Work (CSLW:, it became clear that intercultural communicative competence (ICC; Byram, 1997) can play a key role in refugees’ successful integration. In the CSLW project, Byram’s concept of ICC was extended to professional contexts, and the term professional intercultural communicative competence (PICC) was introduced. PICC refers to ‘key intercultural communicative skills, knowledge, attitudes, behaviours, and critical cultural awareness related to the process of successfully entering the professional sphere after a period of forced displacement’ (CSLW, 2019, p. 6).

We have just published an open access article about the Dutch side of this project, in which we compare highly-educated refugees who have already successfully integrated into the labour market in the Netherlands with those who are still in the midst of their integration process (Schukking & Kircher, 2022). The findings of our study suggest that PICC does indeed help highly-educated refugees overcome challenges when trying to find their way in the labour market. For the participants in our study, gaining PICC entailed a shift in perspective regarding the hurdles that are part of the integration process; as one participant put it: ‘I look at them as challenges, not as obstacles’. Also, the more PICC our participants had gained, the more open they were to things being done differently in different cultural contexts, and the more they were able to reflect on the importance of culture-specific differences – as well as the importance of being aware of these. For example, one participant noted: ‘it will appeal more to the host [society] if you speak their language. Because it is not a matter of the language you speak, it is the culture that you are aware of.’ The participant added: ‘When you learn the language, you learn the culture. You learn what people like, don’t like, things like that. Like culture-specific things’. Overall, our findings indicate that acquiring PICC helps highly-educated refugees tackle the integration process in the host society’s labour market in a variety of different ways.

So, what does this mean in practice? One thing we propose is that PICC training should be integrated into the curricula of language schools where Dutch is taught to refugees. To this end, as part of the CSLW project, a toolkit was developed to support educators who work with highly-educated refugees, and this toolkit is freely available online (CSLW, 2019).

However, sadly – but perhaps unsurprisingly – our findings also show that at least some newcomers get pressured to assimilate to Dutch culture. Yet, the goal should be integration, not assimilation: no-one should be made to feel that relinquishing their cultural integrity is the only way they can participate in the host society. Our data thus highlight a necessity for (P)ICC training not only amongst refugees themselves but also amongst members of the host society, who should certainly also play their part in making the integration of refugees as easy and successful as possible. We fully agree with Lønsmann (2020) that it is key not to perpetuate a situation of ‘responsibilisation’, in which integration and employability are deemed the individual responsibility of each refugee. As we say in our paper, (P)ICC training is only a first step, and it will only work if it is implemented in the right manner and with the aim of genuinely helping refugees: ‘A wide range of additional measures is required to ensure that refugees do eventually start off from the same level playing field as the rest of the population – ranging from the removal of unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles to the combating of systemic racism and discrimination in the host society’ (Schukking & Kircher, 2022, p. 52).

The research for our article was conducted among participants from Syria, Sudan, and Iran, most of whom had arrived in 2015. The recent arrival of millions of new refugees from Ukraine once again highlights the importance of thinking carefully about what we can do to help those who have had to flee their homes. As a consequence of their forced displacement, many refugees have to deal with medical problems (Vončina and Marin 2019) and the psychological consequences of traumatic life experiences (Pajic et al. 2018). As members of their host societies, we should not be adding further to their burdens and their trauma – we should be doing what we can to support them. So, please tell us in the comments section below: how else do you think we, as linguists (and other social scientists) can help?


Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Critical Skills for Life and Work. (2019). Critical Skills for Life and Work Training Toolkit: Intercultural Communication for Refugee Professionals.

Available at:

Ganassin, S., & Young, T. (2020). From surviving to thriving: ‘success stories’ of hihgly skilled refugees in the UK. Language and Intercultural Communication, 20(2): 125–140.

Hebbani, A., & Khawaja, N.G. (2019). Employment aspirations of former refugees settled in Australia: a mixed methods study. Journal of International Migration and Integration, 20(3), 907–924.

Lønsmann, D. (2020). Language, employability and positioning in a Danish integration

programme. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 2020(264): 49–

Pajic, S., Ulceluse, M., Kismihók, G., Mol, S. T., & den Hartog, D. N. (2018). Antecedents of job search self-efficacy of Syrian refugees in Greece and the Netherlands. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 105: 159–172.   

Schukking, A. F. & Kircher, R. (2022). Professional intercultural communicative competence and labour market integration among highly- educated refugees in the Netherlands. European Journal of Applied Linguistics, 10(1): 31–56.

UN Refugee Agency. (2019). Global Trends, Forced Displacement in 2018.  Available at:

Vončina, B., & Marin, N. (2019). What issues do refugees face in integrating into labour markets? Evidence from Slovenia. Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research, 25(1), 101–112.

Anna Fardau Schukking (MA, University of Groningen) was, at the time this research was conducted and written up, a researcher at the Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning, which is part of the Fryske Akademy in Leeuwarden (Netherlands). She now works at the Algemiene Fryske Ûnderrjocht Kommisje (Afûk) on projects which focus on the Frisian language in education, as well as working as a freelancer on projects focusing on multilingualism (especially in minority language contexts) and language policy. Her particular interests include language practices, the role of language in education, language policy and planning, and digital language tools for minority languages. This is Anna Fardau’s website and you can also find her on LinkedIn.

Ruth Kircher (PhD, Queen Mary University of London) is a researcher at the Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning, which is part of the Fryske Akademy in Leeuwarden (Netherlands). As a sociolinguist with a specialisation in societal multilingualism, her work focuses especially on language attitudes and ideologies, language practices, and language policy and planning. Ruth has a particularly strong interest in these issues with regard to autochthonous and migrant minorities. This is Ruth’s website and you can also find her on Twitter: @ruth_kircher


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