Europe neglects integration of refugees as humanitarian tragedy looms

A refugee family arrives at the Presevo refugee centre, on the border between Macedonia and Serbia, in October 2015. [Trocaire/Flickr]

Refugees and asylum seekers risk suffering “long-term damage” due to ill-prepared policies to integrate them, the OECD has warned, while European nations start preparing for the worst.

One year after refugees started arriving ‘en masse’ in Europe, integration policies are absent from the debate, as member states seem overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the numbers seen.

“This sudden arrival of so many brings challenges for infrastructure, facilities and communities,” commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, Marianne Thyssen, told EURACTIV on 2 March.

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The refugee crisis erupted while European economies were still reeling from the worst recession in decades, posing a huge challenge for struggling social security and health systems.

Europe is now preparing for the worst as the continent faces a humanitarian crisis on its soil, caused by nations’ failure to protect the EU’s external borders and share the burden of refugees landing mainly in Greece.

The European Commission’s proposal to mobilise €700 million of existing EU funding for humanitarian aid within the EU borders represents a turning point in the refugee crisis.

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A successful integration of refugees now seems to be a remote dream, although Marianne Thyssen still wants to believe.

“I am convinced that the only way we can promote social cohesion is by facilitating the active participation of people deserving our protection,” she told EURACTIV.

Integration policies are key to avoid tensions between newcomers and their host community. But the young, mostly educated workers coming from Syria or Irak can also help bridge the generation gap in an ageing Europe.

A study by OECD and the European Commission predicts that the working age population will decline by 7.5 million by the end of this decade.

Yves Pascouau, Director of Migration and Mobility Policies at the European Policy Center (EPC), says today’s emergency exposes EU member states’ lack of preparation to the demographic challenge.

“It is pretty clear that policies over the last months did not address the integration of refugees, it is not a key priority in the response because we are in an emergency situation,” he told EURACTIV.

National governments “were not willing to prepare for what it was coming,” he said, describing the national government’s reactive response as “normal” given the situation.

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In most member states, it will take months — if not years — before asylum seekers start receiving language training or any other integration support in a European host country.

The consequence is that “when they are eventually granted humanitarian status, their ability to integrate may have suffered long-term damage,” the OECD said in a recent report, suggesting to shorten the time it takes to process applications.

Asylum applications may take only for two months to process in countries like Denmark, but they can take more than ten months in member states like Luxembourg. If it is not possible to speed up the process, the OECD recommended to provide early assistance to the refugees, including language and job-related training, civic integration courses and skills assessments in reception facilities.

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 global risks report, the lack of effective integration policies can lead to the “radicalisation” of migrants.

On top of this, the report warned that the massive wave of refugees “challenged local financial and absorption capacities and exacerbated the trend towards polarisation of societies and the political spectrum, which in turn undermined the efficiency of European governance structures.”

To date, civil society organisations, supported by EU funds, have taken a leading role in supporting the integration process, Pascouau explained.

Thyssen said that since the refugee crisis erupted, “the Commission has not left any stone unturned to find money in our EU budget”.

The executive has mobilised more than €10 billion since 2015 to this end. On top of this, the executive proposed on Wednesday (2 March) a new instrument taping €700 million of existing EU funding to address the humanitarian emergency in EU countries like Greece.

Targeted actions

The OECD pointed out in its report that refugees are a “particularly vulnerable group of immigrants who require clearly targeted, coordinated and comprehensive policies responses”.

But Pascouau warned that “in a Brussels office, people do forget that asylum seekers have lived very traumatic experiences and may suffer psychological distress, so it is very difficult for them to learn and adapt in such circumstances”. Moreover, “refugees in their new host nation don’t want to be trained, they want to work in order to get money to pay their smugglers or to send cash back home”.

This turbulent background makes it “particularly difficult” for refugees to access the local labour market and their integration generally “lag well behind” those of other migrant groups, the OECD said.

With self-sufficiency difficult to attain, the possibility to reunite families also narrow. In this context, various member states are in the process of introducing bills against family reunification as a way of easing pressure on integration systems, Pascouau noted, citing Germany, Austria, Finland and Sweden among them.

Against this complex backdrop, Pascouau’s guiding principle is to be “extremely pragmatic when dealing with the integration”..

Experts highlight that refugees contribute to the host country’s economy through increased demand, inflows of remittances, promoting the use of technology and engaging in international trade. In advanced, ageing economies, incoming refugees can contribute to keeping aggregate demand high and the workforce stable.

The OECD lists ten actions for a successful integration policy. These are:

  • Provide activation and integration services as soon as possible for humanitarian migrants and asylum seekers with high prospects of being allowed to stay.
  • Facilitate labour market access for asylum seekers with high prospects of being allowed to stay.
  • Factor employment prospects into dispersal policies.
  • Record and assess humanitarian migrants’ foreign qualifications, work experience and skills.
  • Take into account the growing diversity of humanitarian migrants and develop tailor-made approaches.
  • Identify mental and physical health issues early and provide adequate support.
  • Develop support programmes specific to unaccompanied minors who arrive past the age of compulsory schooling.
  • Build on civil society to integrate humanitarian migrants.
  • Promote equal access to integration services to humanitarian migrants across the country.
  • Acknowledge that the integration of very poorly educated humanitarian migrants requires long-term training and support.

The European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS)’s report on global trends to 2030 warned that  “according to political developments, new waves of migrants to Europe should be expected.” However, “an overall decline in South-North migration will see Western Europe no longer the destination of choice it once was”, as Asia and South America will become the prime destination for immigrants.

  • Document: Making Integration Work (OECD, January 2016).
  • Website: UNHCR overview of the refugee crisis.
  • Report: Global risks (World Economic Forum, 2016).

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