UN World Youth Report



WYR 2013 Chapter Four

The Everyday Lives of Young Migrants in Destination Societies

Access to social networks

These stories illustrate how important social networks can be both for potential young migrants and for those who have already migrated. Immediate and extended family, friends and acquaintances, community groups, religious centers, and other individuals and organizations frequently help these young people adjust to their new surroundings by offering them a place to stay, information on how to find work, and an introduction to the lifestyle of their new community or country. Support from social networks is often temporary, with emphasis on meeting basic survival needs and facilitating the integration of newly arrived migrants. Such networks provide critical assistance, though they can also be a source of tension and conflict among young migrants.


Youth migrants’ perspectives on social networks

Nicholas, male, refugee Liberia → Ghana: Like some migrants, my movement was not voluntary but forced because of the Liberian civil war between 1999 and 2003. I was recruited as a child soldier, but thanks to my migration experience I have a relatively safe life and I am a child activist. My movement was not well planned; I had no information about how to move safely and no contacts in Ghana, my destination country.

Itzel—female, adventure and labour migrant Mexico → Spain: My name is Itzel Eguiluz, and I am a Mexican living in Spain. My journey to Spain began with internal migration to Mexico City. For 24 years I lived in the metropolitan area of Mexico City. When I grew up and completed my B.A. in International Affairs, I worked for a year, then took a postgraduate course and a language course for another year. I moved with my boyfriend to Cuernavaca and the move offered us a new life together. For us, migrating to the city didn’t really represent a risk; it was an adventure for the two of us. It wasn’t easy, but we did it. The challenges were simple: find a new home in a new city and understand the social construct of that city. Our experience was great. Thanks to the phone and the Internet, especially Skype and Google Talk, I was in touch with my family almost every day.

Access to adequate shelter

Securing appropriate accommodations is essential to the well-being of youth migrants and their ability to adjust to their new life. Although some youth are able to find a place to stay before they arrive, others may have to search for lodgings upon arrival. Finding decent and affordable housing may take time—sometimes several months—which can affect their health as well as their educational or employment prospects. Because young migrants are often poor or have limited financial resources when they first arrive, cost is usually a major obstacle to securing decent housing.

The housing situation is particularly complicated for undocumented youth migrants. These individuals are vulnerable to abusive landlords who may threaten to report them should they attempt to exercise their rights, so they may hesitate to complain about their deplorable living conditions. Moreover, their migration status often makes them ineligible for participation in housing assistance schemes. Some of them end up homeless or living in slums, with limited access to heat, safe drinking water, hot water, sanitation services, and other basic needs. In fast-growing urban areas receiving large numbers of international or internal migrants, homelessness among immigrant populations has risen.

Newly arrived youth immigrants may tap a number of different sources in their search for adequate accommodations. Some rely on relatives, friends, acquaintances, religious institutions, or diaspora community groups for help, while others obtain housing with the support of employers, educational institutions, or local authorities, or through the use of the Internet. Housing agents in destination societies may also provide assistance to young migrants looking for a place to live.

As illustrated below, young migrants’ housing experiences have varied widely. Some havebeen able to negotiate fair terms for safe, comfortable accommodations, while others have been victimized by unscrupulous landlords preying on vulnerable newcomers. Discrimination, difficulty identifying genuine housing agents, and questionable legal and financial practices were only a few of the challenges voiced by youth immigrants.

Youth migrants’ perspectives on the availability of decent housing

Anonymous, female, aged 19-25 years Ireland → Sweden: I was very lucky to find a place to live through a work colleague I met during my participation in the Erasmus programme. Stockholm has a huge housing deficit, and many people fall victim to scamming. The situation is so bad that it might lead me to leave the country if I ever have to give up the apartment I have now. Rents are extremely high, deposits are sometimes equal to two months’ rent, flats are sometimes of poor quality, and leases are often for only six months. It can be extremely stressful. I know several people that have had to resort to sleeping on a friend’s couch while they’ve tried to find a new place to live.

Junilto, 24, went in search of better opportunities Guiné Bissau → Portugal: To migrate always means to leave our home, people, and things and go in search of a better life or simply a different life. It's been four years that I have been living in Portugal. When I arrived here I was welcomed into a housing estate, where the quality of life was not the best and a lot of young people my age had accepted a way of life that I did not support—not because it was bad, but just because I hold different values. This and my difficulty with the Portuguese language hampered my adaptation. I had little interaction with other people; I barely noticed them and they barely noticed me. Through a group of young people (JOC) who held the same values that had, I began to feel more at home. The light of life (God) has not left me alone and has guided me in the darkness of life. It is that truth that erases my pain and sustains my joy when I am here far away from my normal habitat.

Akhtar, male, aged 19-25 years, asylum-seeker Afghanistan → Luxembourg: I went to the Ministry of Immigration in Luxembourg; they asked me to come back in two weeks’ time. After staying two weeks on the roads, I was given a bed in a foyer. I am not homeless right now, but I was homeless for a period of two months—November and December 2012. I used to keep my clothes with friends and sleep here and there.

As these stories suggest, securing housing can be risky, expensive and stressful for youth migrants. The young immigrant from Ireland alludes to the disadvantaged position of migrants in an already fiercely competitive housing market. Junilto and others like him have had to deal with language barriers, prejudice, and ethnic and gender discrimination in their interaction with landlords, housing agents, and members of the wider community in their destination societies. Akhtar’s experience is not uncommon among refugees. There is usually a lag between their arrival and the point at which they are able to identify their settlement needs and obtain the necessary support from institutions mandated to provide them with shelter and housing assistance. During this period, refugees may be homeless and especially vulnerable to various types of risks.

Access to labour markets

Many youth migrants move to urban areas within or outside their countries of origin in search of new employment and skill development opportunities. Although internal and international migration can increase young people’s access to work (including entrepreneurship opportunities) and facilitate social integration and maturation, it also carries certain risks, particularly for young women, those involved in irregular migration situations, and other vulnerable populations.

In recent years, the economic slowdown experienced by many countries has translated into reduced employment opportunities for migrants and, in some areas, has intensified negative public perceptions of non-native residents. Evidence from previous periods of economic downturn suggests that young immigrants are more likely than other workers to lose their jobs in a recession both because of their low human capital (including limited educational attainment, pre-migration work experience, and proficiency in the working language) and because they are often employed in sectors that tend to be hardest hit in times of crisis, such as construction and manufacturing.

Box 4.1

Declining prospects for young migrant employment in some OECD countries

Statistics indicate that the current economic downturn has had a serious impact on employment among young immigrants living in certain Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries:


  • Half of all unemployed youth migrants need more than a year to find a job.
  • In 2012, the unemployment rate among youth migrants aged 15-24 years as a share of the youth labour force totalled 16.2 per cent in the United States, 14.3 per cent in Canada, and 16.3 per cent for the OECD countries as a group.
  • Between 2008 and 2012, unemployment rose by only 3 per cent among native-born youth but increased by 5 per cent among foreign-born youth.
Source: OECD iLibrary, OECD Employment and Labour Market Statistics database. Available from http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/employment/data/oecd-employment-and-labour-market-statistics_lfs-data-en 2013).Accessed 3 September 2013


Youth migrants’ employment experiences in destination societies:

Silvia, economic immigrant/job-seeker, Italy → Turkey

I am a twenty-five-year-old girl from a well-off Italian family and have a master’s degree in political science and international relations from a private university. I decided to follow the flow of opportunities my academic freedom was offering me and move to another country to find a job. The first problem I had to deal with when I got here was practical in nature and was a daily struggle: the language. Among all the social issues an immigrant has to face every day, the most awkward is that of employment. It is not easy to get a work permit, as a company must make a considerable investment in you. You might have a lot of advantages on your side—for example, speaking languages others don’t—but it isn’t enough. Then you start asking yourself whether it is appropriate or not to struggle that much against a bureaucracy that is even tougher than your country's.

For many youth immigrants, securing employment is a top priority. One of the first things they do when they arrive in a new place is look for work, but finding a job may take a considerable amount of time and can prove difficult. As mentioned, the human capital characteristics of young immigrants are likely to affect their employment prospects in destination societies. Their level of fluency in languages of commerce, their educational qualifications, and their work experience prior to immigration are all key factors in determining how quickly they can find a job and the type of employment they can secure.

Youth migrants from poorer economic backgrounds with fewer skills and lower educational attainment often remain unemployed or are forced to endure substandard working conditions. Many low-skilled migrants as well as first-time young migrant job seekers find work in what is sometimes termed as the ‘3 Ds’ (dirty, dangerous, demeaning) sector.  Moderately or highly skilled youth with higher levels of education, knowledge of the working language(s), and some work experience stand a better chance of finding a decent job after migrating. Such youth are also more likely to come with the intention of pursuing higher education before integrating themselves into the labour market of their destination societies, which gives them a distinct advantage over their lower skilled counterparts.


Box 4.2

Children of immigrants doubly disadvantaged in labour markets

Among young adults in their twenties living in European OECD countries (with the exception of Switzerland), education and labour market outcomes tend to be much less favourable for the children of immigrants than for those with native-born parents.

Controlling for socio-demographic characteristics, children of immigrants from Turkey and certain non-OECD low- and middle-income countries such as Morocco often have less positive outcomes than children of immigrants from high-income countries.

The female offspring of immigrants appear to be at a particular disadvantage. In 2009, OECD figures indicated that employment rates were lower for children of immigrants than for children of native-born residents, with gaps of about 8 percentage points for men and about 13 percentage points for women.

Social and economic factors aside, migrants and their children are likely to experience discrimination in labour markets. This sometimes reduces the incentive for parents to invest in education, with some repercussions for social cohesion in the long term.

Sources: Thomas Liebig and Sarah Widmaier, “Children of immigrants in the labour markets of EU and OECD countries: an overview”, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 97 (Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2009), available from http://www.oecd.org/berlin/43880918.pdf; and Organization for Economic Cooperations and Development; and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, International Migration Outlook 2013 (OECD Publishing, 2013), available from http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/migr_outlook-2013-en


Youth migrants’ perspectives on seeking and securing employment

Lonneke, 34-year-old female The Netherlands → Hong Kong: The kinds of jobs young migrants get at destination totally depend on their background and skill/education levels and whether they are documented or undocumented immigrants.

Eva, labour migrant Portugal → France: After a year without work, disheartened, I decided to move to France to work in my area of specialization—physiotherapy. I'm well paid and have good working conditions, and my colleagues and customers are fantastic. Furthermore, the people of France and my hosts from Portugal say we have adapted well and that we are workers! It was difficult to leave my family. When asked about having to choose between my love for my family and chasing my future, I say that work is more important at this stage of my life.

Claudia, labour migrant Italy → United States: As an Italian, I migrated to the United States, hoping to avoid the recession in my native country. With an official unemployment rate hitting 15 per cent, youth unemployment of up to 35 per cent, decaying pension plans, decaying ethics, and decaying politics, Italy was no longer allowing me to fulfil my ambitions, to dream big and be constantly learning. Like me, many young Italians have taken flight outside of their motherland to found a tech start-up in the Silicon Valley or to work for companies that still value meritocracy.

Young migrants with few marketable skills or those who are first-time job-seekers often find employment in what is sometimes termed the ‘3D sector’, compelled to accept work that is dirty, dangerous and demeaning. Moderately to highly skilled youth immigrants with low-paid, low-status jobs may acquire some work experience and skills over time. However, this experience is often not recognized by potential employers when they try to find better jobs.


S.W., female, age 15-35, labour migrant: Cameroon → Finland

Finding a job is a nightmare, and when you get one, you have to work twice as hard as the locals. Most often you have to accept a job (such as cleaning or newspaper distribution) that is not linked to your field of study or qualifications so you can settle your bills.

Depending on the labour market conditions in destination societies, even highly educated and skilled migrant youth may be forced to take jobs that are not commensurate with their qualifications. The mismatch between the educational and skill levels of young migrants and the employment opportunities open to them, resulting in part from the failure of receiving countries to recognize foreign qualifications, amounts to what is often referred to as ‘brain waste’.

George Tweneboah Kodua, male, age 32, Ghana

I know of endless lists of university graduates … with backgrounds in engineering, to mention a few, whose migration situations have pushed them to work in salons or security jobs, as Internet café consultants, or as cobblers. Simply put, a lot of skilled migrants end up working in unrelated fields and eventually abandon their professions. Some have voluntarily gone back home, as situations have not been favourable.


Large numbers of young female migrants from developing countries are engaged in domestic work. While some will end up empowered by the migration experience, many of them—particularly those in irregular situations—endure abuse, violence, and physical and financial exploitation. Some migrants seem to be ‘stuck’ in the destination country, often because their passports have been seized by employers, debt collectors or human traffickers.


Box 4.3

Domestic Workers Convention

In acknowledgment of the numerous challenges domestic workers face, the General Conference of the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers—also referred to as the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189)—at the 100th Session of the International Labour Conference in Geneva on 16 June 2011. The Convention entered into force on 5 September 2013.

The Convention delineates the basic rights of domestic workers, requiring that all signatories establish legal provisions for their protection. The 27 articles of the Convention address a wide range of issues, including human rights violations, age standards, mechanisms for dispute settlement, and terms and conditions of employment (work hours, remuneration, occupational safety, and health and social security).

The Convention is legally binding on countries that have ratified it (a total of eight had done so by 1 August 2013). Ratifying Governments are obligated to take measures, in consultation with the most representative organizations of employers and workers, to ensure that national laws are in compliance with the Convention.

Source: International Labour Organization, NORMLEX, “C189 - Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189)”. Link to the full text of the Convention available from http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/domestic-workers/lang--en/index.htm.2013-en


Lonneke, female, age 34, The Netherlands → Hong Kong

I know young women who are indeed stuck in some Asian countries and would love to go back to their home [but cannot do so] because [travel intermediaries] charged them enormous amounts of money (US$ 10,000 – US$ 25,000), which they have to pay back. These youth migrants work under harsh conditions in destination countries. There’s often a thin line between the victims of legal migration and the victims of irregular migration.

Access to educational opportunities

Over the past several decades, there have been increasing numbers of youth migrating to other countries in pursuit of higher education. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics reported that the international tertiary student population jumped from 2 million in 2000 to 3.6 million in 2010, and was expected to reach 8 million by 2020.

The marked increase in international student mobility has been driven by the rise of a middle class with a strong interest in higher education in several developing countries. Other factors supporting this trend include the growing prevalence of English as the language of global communication, relatively low education costs in some destination countries (often through increased scholarship opportunities), relatively easy and inexpensive transportation options for international travel, and the high value placed on multiculturalism among youth.

Daniela Di Mauro, female, age 28, labour migrant, Italy → Switzerland

My name is Daniela Di Mauro, and I’m a young, 28-year-old woman currently living and working in Geneva. I first arrived in Switzerland in 2006 because of a European exchange-student programme called Erasmus. Once I finished my studies abroad, I decided to go back to Italy to finish my bachelor’s degree and then to move again to Switzerland to study for a master’s degree. One of the main reasons for that decision was the high level of education offered in Geneva and the fact that the cost of studying at a public university was much cheaper in Switzerland than in Italy, in spite of the higher cost of living. Once I’d finished my master’s, I couldn’t find anything interesting because I was perceived as overqualified, having a graduate degree from a foreign country. Luckily, I found a job in Geneva, a very competitive city.

Like Daniela, youth who move to other places to study are likely to receive a higher-quality education than would be the case in their home countries. Those studying abroad benefit not only from higher academic standards, but also from broader social, cultural and economic exposure and expanded networking opportunities—all of which enhance their employability. The migration regulations of several OECD countries allow foreign students to work while studying and for a specified period of time after they complete their studies. Student migrants who earn an income from work are likely to use those resources to finance their education. Some countries also allow foreign students to adjust their status to ‘long-term migrant’ or ‘resident’ if they find long-term employment.

Orientation and language services provided by educational institutions

Research has shown that international students provided with an initial orientation by their educational institutions tend to be much better prepared for their foreign academic experience and life abroad. Such support can make a critical difference to their adjustment to unfamiliar surroundings. A student migrant who feels disoriented or unwelcome is likely to have difficulty learning and is more vulnerable to risks within a new community.

Youth Voices: Language and Orientation Services

Anonymous, female student aged 19-25 years Kenya → United Kingdom: The orientation [I received] was detailed, informative and relevant. It covered all issues that were likely to affect a foreign student. The international office played an important role in my educational achievements.

Shanique, female student aged 19-25 years Jamaica → St. Kitts: I attended a 2- to 3-hour seminar on the school. I was told what to expect, cautioned about how to act on the island, and shown how to protect myself. I was also given a short tour around the island’s main spots.

Student migrants, in particular those living in countries where English is not the official language, frequently benefit from language instruction offered on arrival. The cost can be a major obstacle for some, however—especially those who migrate under forced circumstances with limited or no access to socio-economic resources.

Pawser, aged 19-25 years, refugee Thailand → United States of America

I think that it’s not about where you come from; if you want to get a good job, you need a better education and to speak English well. Working in the library taught me that I need to get an education and get a better job. My community college has an English as a Second Language programme for all foreign students to take before they go to regular classes with all American students. … Now I work in the ESL office.


Recognition of qualifications obtained abroad

As noted in the labour section of this chapter, a key challenge for many student migrants is the non-recognition of qualifications across borders. Such students may face problems in both directions—when enrolling abroad and upon their return home. Failure to recognize the validity or equivalency of their academic or professional qualifications can have a serious impact on their employment prospects, extending periods of unemployment or forcing students into work for which they are overqualified or poorly remunerated. Recognition of academic and professional qualifications is fundamental to reconciling the best interests of individual migrants with the development objectives of countries of origin and destination.

Box 4.4

Recognition of higher education and academic qualifications

Recognition by education authorities of formal studies abroad and of foreign academic certification is critical for student migrants, facilitating the pursuit of higher education in other countries and improving long-term employment prospects.

UNESCO has supported the adoption, ratification and implementation of one interregional and six regional conventions on the recognition of studies/qualifications:


  • International Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Diplomas and Degrees in Higher Education in the Arab and European States bordering on the Mediterranean (1976);
  • Regional Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Certificates, Diplomas, Degrees and other Academic Qualifications in Higher Education in the African States (1981);
  • Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Diplomas and Degrees concerning Higher Education in the Arab States (1978);
  • Regional Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Diplomas and Degrees in Higher Education in Asia and the Pacific (1983);
  • Council of Europe/UNESCO Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region (1997);
  • Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Diplomas and Degrees in Higher Education in the States belonging to the Europe Region (1979);
  • Regional Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Diplomas and Degrees in Latin America and the Caribbean (1974).


These conventions are legal agreements between countries willing to recognize academic qualifications issued in other countries that have ratified the same agreements.

International agreements and regional exchange programmes represent progress in the right direction; however, implementation of these agreements have only been slowly or not at all been implemented, and problems with credit calculation, grade transfer, bureaucratic documentation, and perceptions and attitudes among professors often interfere with full recognition of academic qualifications.

Source: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, “Conventions on the recognition of qualifications”. Links to each convention available from http://portal.unesco.org/education/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13880&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html.


Access to health care

The level of access youth migrants have to affordable, quality healthcare has a direct impact on their socio-economic welfare. Other factors influencing their overall health and well-being include their migration status (regular or irregular, forced or voluntary) and how they live and work. Student and labour migrants who can avail themselves of healthcare services are more likely than those without healthcare access to stay healthy and be productive in school and at work. Those who have medical coverage through their employers or have access to free public medical care consider themselves fortunate.

Eva, female aged 30-35 years Ireland → United Kingdom

I have had private insurance when living in countries where it was essential, such as the United States. Now that I am in the UK, the National Health Service provides excellent free health care.


A number of factors effectively limit young migrants’ access to healthcare services. Language difficulties initially constitute the biggest barrier to becoming aware of and using services. Some young migrants have foreign health insurance that is invalid or offers only limited coverage in destination countries, and out-of-pocket expenses can sometimes be very high. In extreme cases, access to healthcare can mean the difference between life and death. Migrants who are ill or injured may not receive the care they need, and those who are healthy worry about the potential repercussions of a health crisis.

Youth Voices: Health Insurance

Raymond, male, aged 30-35 years: I don't have medical insurance; I have to stay healthy or else I die.

Itzel, female, aged 26-29 years, student migrant Mexico → Spain: I have private healthcare insurance that my scholarship pays for now. It was difficult, initially, to get healthcare because you need your resident number, which they give you six months after you arrive in the country.

Ana, female, aged 26-29 years Moldova → Greece: Whenever I need healthcare, I pay. In 2008 I had an operation. I was on my mother's insurance, and the hospital said that I didn’t have to pay anything. After four months, I received a hospital bill of €12,000. This came as a heavy cost to me.


Migrants in irregular situations tend to be especially vulnerable; even when they have the right to access to basic healthcare (and other services, such as education), lack of awareness or the fear of being arrested and deported may keep them from using available services in some countries. One young man, a migrant himself and coordinator of Bué Fixe, describes his organization’s efforts to facilitate access to healthcare and promote awareness of sexual and reproductive rights among other young migrants in his host country:

Dynka, male, age 28, migrant and activist, Sao Tomé and Principe→ Portugal

Regular and irregular migrants are sometimes unaware of their right to health, so we work to inform and engage them on a wide range of HIV/AIDS and sexual/reproductive health issues as well as their right to health using media platforms such as radio and social media.




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