Netherlands | Distance to the labor market

Assimilating faster and better

4 oktober 2021 17:00

Asylum seekers in the Netherlands have trouble finding jobs, but paid employment is vital in order to assimilate into society. The social enterprise Refugee Team works to break through that vicious circle. ‘The shorter people have been in the Netherlands, the faster you can guide them to employment.’

Two people working on a beach

Volunteers are the invisible engine driving Dutch athletics and club life. But there are never enough volunteers to go around. Martijn Berghman, founder of Refugee Team, knew that from personal experience. So in 2017, he decided to ask the residents of a nearby asylum seekers’ residence to help set up a running event. “I thought: there’s a lot of people with time on their hands, so maybe they wouldn’t mind helping out. At first, nobody understood what I was talking about, because we didn’t have an interpreter. So I went back the next day to pick them up. We set off together towards the woods in a long line of bicycles.”

“When you work together, you learn the language faster and assimilate easier”

As early as possible

When the main sponsor offered one of the asylum seekers a job as an electrician after the event, Martijn realized that he might be on to something. So he founded Refugee Team, which has grown into a social enterprise with 13 employees and three freelancers in just three years. Their goal: to help asylum seekers assimilate into Dutch society. They start by doing volunteer work at sports and music events and festivals. Then Refugee Team matches them to the business network around the event to help them find a paying job. “A language class is fine, but it doesn’t really help people become fluent in the language”, says Martijn. “But when you work together, you learn the language faster and assimilate easier.”

Refugee Team aims to be involved in the asylum seekers’ assimilation process at the earliest possible moment. “The shorter people have been in the Netherlands, the faster you can guide them to employment. The moment we can help the most is when the asylum seeker gets their own roof over their heads. At that point people haven’t been beaten down by the system, the language classes and the job application rejections. There’s no point in trying to start earlier than that: without a place of their own, people still have too many other concerns.”

New initiatives

In 2019, Brabant Outcomes Fund offered the social enterprise funding to grow, but the coronavirus pandemic broke out soon thereafter and all of the scheduled events had to be cancelled. So Martijn decided to switch to working online. He introduced Video Vrienden (Video Friends), where a Dutch volunteer and a newcomer have half-hour video chats every week for five weeks to talk about a variety of topics. That way, asylum seekers were able to meet new people and practice using Dutch. And with the four-week course Digitaal aan de Slag (Working Digitally), Refugee Team prepared newcomers for the job market via online workshops, in-depth podcasts and 1-on-1 coaching.

Asylum seeker in control

Refugee Team also developed the Starttraject Inburgering + (Integration Introduction +) program together with six municipalities to prepare for the Assimilation Act going into effect in 2022, and to facilitate more custom-tailored programs. “So far, the municipality has been in control of the assimilation process. But we’re turning it around. With workshops, volunteer work, visits to companies and orientation activities, newcomers get a good impression of the value of their backgrounds, qualifications and characteristics. It also gives them a better idea of what opportunities are available in the Netherlands. At the end of the program, they presented themselves and their plans for the future to the city. This is who I am, this is what I want, and this is what I can contribute.”

Changes, big and small

Measuring impact is important to Refugee Team. “At the end of the process, we don’t want to have to report that Mohamed wasn’t able to find a job. You have to intervene before that. So we monitor people’s professional development. How’s it going? Do we need to make any changes? When the coronavirus pandemic hit, we sat down to talk with the Brabant Outcomes Fund again. All of our agreements dealt with a business model that had to be turned upside-down. So together we decided how we could still make an impact under the circumstances.”

Hit hard

Refugee Team managed to support many asylum seekers even during the pandemic. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t do it the way we like, by getting to work together. But we were still able to reach a lot of people through Video Vrienden and Digitaal aan de slag. And more Dutch people volunteered to help than ever before. I sometimes call 2020 ‘the best worst year ever’. We’re proud that we were able to make a difference. But we’re not entirely happy about the situation, because that impact was only due to the fact that this vulnerable group of people was hit so hard by the circumstances.”

Rabo Foundation and Refugee Team

Rabo Foundation provided Refugee Team with a loan in collaboration with the Brabant Outcomes Fund (BOF). Through the fund, investors earn a return on their investment by contributing to a social result together with entrepreneurs. “Our earning model consists of contracts with municipalities”, Martijn explains. “That keeps us in business. But in order to innovate and accelerate our growth, we’re partly dependent on funds like Brabant Outcomes Fund.”

Martijn believes it’s important to grow as a social entrepreneur as well, so he attended Rabo Foundation’s Social Entrepreneurship course together with other social entrepreneurs. “We all share the same goal: to make the Netherlands a better place. It was educational to share experiences with like-minded people. It made me more aware of my own role. As a social entrepreneur, you run the risk of becoming absorbed by your business. But our conversations made me realize that I shouldn’t just work in my company, but also on it. A social enterprise is always a work in progress.”

Three tips for entrepreneurs from Martijn Berghman

  1. Keep growing as a social entrepreneur. “Don’t just work in your company; work on it too. A social enterprise is always a work in progress.”
  2. Measure your company’s impact. “At the end of the process, we don’t want to have to report that Mohamed wasn’t able to find a job. You have to intervene before that. Measuring impact allows you to make adjustments along the way.”
  3. If it doesn’t work one way, try another. Refugee Team’s business model revolved around personal contact. But during the coronavirus pandemic, Martijn switched to working digitally. So the social enterprise was able to support asylum seekers despite the lockdown.


Rabo Foundation has partnered with Refugee Team to contribute to a more inclusive society. One of our objectives is to offer people who have trouble finding jobs more opportunities for paid employment, so that they can participate fully in society. Via Refugee Team, we aim to help asylum seekers get ahead in the Netherlands.