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Integration of refugees: a pressing issue that needs to be tackled in a holistic and pragmatic manner

The number of asylum seekers coming to the European Union (EU) has declined in recent months. Yet, challenges posed by these new arrivals are actually only starting. Likewise, the McKinsey institute expects that roughly 1,3 million out of the 2,3 million newcomers will soon attain refugees status and remain in the union in the long term. A real integration of those refugees within the Union is therefore not an option, it is a necessity.

          Beyond the moral imperative argument that already makes a case, member states can simply not afford to keep such a huge group of individuals unintegrated as it would present social, economic and political risks. In its last report, the McKinsey institute argued that if not integrated properly, those people would “face the risk of isolation, unemployment and poverty, while destination countries might experience strained welfare systems and segregated societies” (McKinsey and Company, 2016).  

On the other hand, if managed successfully, integration would open up many economic and social opportunities. Refugees could contribute to the GDP of Europe by 60 billion to 70 billion annually. Their integration could ameliorate the European demographic crisis. A change of the age structure and a rise of the fertility rate which would help balance the Europe’s aging societies, improve the old age dependency ratios which could in turn help stabilise pension schemes. It could also increase Europe’s competitiveness, as a study launched in 2012 showed that refugees were more active in business start-ups that non-refugees and had a disproportionate share in the creation of new business, innovation and job creation (Global entrepreneurship monitor: 2012)

Integration is a process that can be broken down into five parts: socio-cultural integration, language integration, housing integration, health integration and integration within the labour market. While each is challenging in its own ways, those five aspects need to be tackled simultaneously in order to be successful.

  1. Socio-cultural integration

“Discrimination is one of the most devastating obstacles limiting the full participation and integration of refugees and their offspring” (Caritas, 2016)

            According to the European Agenda of 2011, Integration is “a dynamic, two-way process of mutual accommodation by refugees and by the societies that receive them”. While refugees need to put all of their efforts in the process, no constructive integration will happen if host societies are not ready to do their part. Yet this might be the greatest obstacle preventing a real integration within the Union. The massive arrival of asylum seekers in the European Union followed by the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris and Copenhagen, paired with a polarising rhetoric by some political actors have fuelled xenophobic sentiments against those newcomers.

Likewise, in a recent Pew Research Center poll, among a total of 10 000 European citizens, almost 60 % expressed concerns that refugees increased the likelihood of terrorism, and half of the respondents said that refugees imposed an economic burden by taking jobs and social benefits (Pew Research Center, 2016). For Caritas, “Discrimination is one of the most devastating obstacles limiting the full participation and integration of refugees and their offspring”. (Caritas, 2016).  A complete integration process will hence only start once discrimination within host societies has been tackled. Governments, charities and the civil society need to set up projects to facilitate the encounters of citizens and refugees. This would be the most efficient way to fight discrimination, address cultural barriers and help societies to overcome the fears that have been constructed. So far, this work has often been done by regional or local charities. A number of initiatives can be cited and can inspire future projects:

Young Caritas in Germany launched they “Refugees welcome” labs in 2015 in Bochum. Youth, including refugees, gathered together to exchange and learn more about each other. The project aims to reduce prejudices against refugees, foster a “culture of welcome” and engages youth who want to give refugees a voice and support. This initiative is funded 50 % by Caritas Germany and 50% by public funds. For more information, you can email mail@youngcaritas.d” (Caritas, 2016)

Another initiative is a cooking atelier, which was created in 2011 by Caritas Hauts-De-Seine in France. It aims to promote socialisation through convivial moments while exchanging different cooking skills and recipes. The atelier takes place once a week. Refugees propose a recipe and volunteers meet them to do the grocery shopping and the cooking. By making the volunteers taste a different cuisine it aims to emphasize on of the contributions that refugees can bring to host countries. Around 250 ateliers have already been organised with more than 1000 refugees and volunteers. The initiative is 100% privately funded. The initiative costs less than 400 EUR per month. For more information:

A group called “Mutual understanding and Christian-Muslim dialogue group” has been established in Burgos in Spain. In Burgos, 16% of the total populations are Muslim. The group hence aims to foster dialogue, deepen mutual understanding between Catholics and Muslims. The group organises meetings and visits churches and mosques, and carries out awareness-raising activities. In a largely Christian environment, learning more about the Islam and fostering dialogue has proven to break down some long-held fears and stereotypes. 12 interfaith meetings are organised every year.  The initiative is fully financed with private funds, and costs less than 2,000 EUR per year. To know more:

  1. Language integration and education

Refugees education has different aspects; it needs to take into account language classes for adults, children schooling, higher education and diploma recognition.

Language classes

Acquisition of the host country language has to become obligatory for all refugees. This should be the member states’ priority as this step will enable or at least ease all the other stages of the process. McKinsey and Company calculated that 910 000 class opportunities will be needed if all adults refugees were to take language courses in Europe. Yet this number is far from the reality and illustrates the lack of emphasis of the issue.

Member states are today spending very different sums of money on language classes. In Sweden, the government spends around 4000 euros per students while in France, classes are still mainly given by charities. There is indeed a real need to standardise language classes and make them compulsory, in order to ensure that all refugees get a chance to learn the language. Once this will be done, structural incentives and sanctions will have to be set up to ensure that all refugees make the effort to learn. Appropriate European certificates could be provided to acknowledge each step of the way, and could help with the integration within the labour market.

Children schooling

Adequate schooling with teachers trained to meet the needs of refugees children need to be set up.  Between 2015 and 2016 roughly 30% of the refugees were children. Education is the gateway for refugee children to be integrated.

They will need special attention as many have experienced trauma and will have difficulties learning in a new language. Governments will have to give additional training to prepare teachers.  The opportunity to learn basic Arabic to help children upon arrival would be advantageous. Likewise, the Austrian government has invested 23,75 million to improve the integration of child refugees in schools and has notably invested in the training of psychologists for children. 15 million will go in language training and 3,2 million to ”mobile intercultural teams” that will advise schools (Austrian Federal Ministry for Education and Women, 2015).

Higher education

More than 50 percent of asylum seekers in Europe are between 18 and 34 years old, and 9 percent are between 14 and 17 years old (Eurostat, 2016). Those young people will need help to obtain access higher education. Likewise, some French or British university services already gives scholarships to refugees to attend university. In France those scholarships are funded by the ministry of interior and the EU (Entraide Universitaire Français, October 2016).

Diploma and competence recognition

« 50 percent of asylum seekers in Europe are between 18 and 34 years old, and 9 percent are between 14 and 17 years old » (Eurostat, 2016)

Diploma and competences recognition will have to be tackled in order to ensure that refugees can quickly find work that corresponds to their existing qualifications and skill levels. During the 2016 Erasmus+ conference, many charities advocated for the creation of an academic test to be used in all member states. This system would have to be completed by a competence check system which would test informal professional qualifications.  Some harmonised procedures are badly needed as it would ease the integration process. Some member states have already experienced good results. Norway, for instance, introduced a really successful skill recognition system, thanks to which 50% of those who had their skills recognised in 2014 have now found employment of professional training (McKinsey and Company, 2016).

In the same manner, France has a legislation that enables refugees with more than 3 years of experience to take tests to review their skills in order to award them a full or partial diploma.  Every year, roughly 65,000 people participate in this scheme, and roughly 50 percent manage to obtain a full-fledged diploma as a result (Social Modernization Act, 2002).

  1. Housing integration

« ‘A refugee in my home’ program has been very successfully implemented throughout Italy » (Caritas, 2016)

For Caritas, the housing situation for refugees today is extremely worrying. In many member states, refugees living in overcrowded accommodation have become the norm; while in others, refugees’ homelessness has become the norm (Caritas, 2016: 9). This issue needs to be tackled urgently as refugees need to move out of the reception centers and settle in more permanent homes in order to integrate. There are different ways to tackle the issue at the national and local level. Germany for example, allocates asylum seekers across the country to ensure distribution, fight discrimination and increase opportunities for the refugees to find jobs. Germany allocates refugees to federal states according the state’s population and financial means.

Refugees tend to arrive and stay in the big cities, yet the price of living is higher there than in more rural areas. Refugees hence need to be allocated evenly across regions in order to avoid concentration and segregation. This would notably avoid the creation of “ghettos”.

Housing issues have more often been tackled by charities so far. Likewise, “A refugee in my home” program has been very successfully implemented throughout Italy. Italian families and individuals can welcome a refugee or asylum seeker for 6 to 9 months at a time. This project has been successful as it has helped tackling socio-cultural, language and housing issues at the same time and could be recreated in many member states (Caritas, 2016).

  1. Health integration

Refugees will represent, at first, a real burden for member state’s health care system and governments need to be aware of it. Governments will have to invest in their health care system as refugees will arrive with different issues than most natives usually do. Likewise, the issue of psychological support will need to be tackled appropriately as many refuges have witnessed horrors. Post-traumatic stress disorders, depression and anxiety will have to be dealt with in the language of the newcomers in order to help them learn how to fit in a new country after experiencing deep traumas. Healthcare as it is provided today does not always take into consideration the cultural practices of refugees, notably regarding women. If not dealt with, this issue could become problematic as it might prevent some of them to ask for their right to be treated (Caritas, 2016).

« Refugees need to know about their right to be treated »

In Belgium, charities such as BON in Belgium have realised they did not have the expertise to help those newcomers overcome their trauma but could at least be there to listen to them. While the sessions they organise enable refugees to express what they have gone through, it shows the real need for experts to be there to help refugees the first years after their arrivals

Refugees also need to be told about the way the healthcare system works in their host country.  They need to know about their right to be treated. Likewise, the German Ministry of health has produced information brochures in seven languages to introduce the German healthcare system to refugees. In Sweden, the government provided counselling from health communicators speaking the language of the newcomers to ensure that each refugee would receive a tailored treatment.

         5. Integration in the labour market

« 5 to 6 years after refugees’ arrival; only half were integrated into the European labour market » (OECD, 2015)

In Germany, in 2015, refugee unemployment reached 52.6% while it averaged 6.1% for native born citizens. In 2016, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) launched an EU-wide labour force survey found that in average, 5 to 6 years after refugees’ arrival; only half were integrated into the European labour market (OECD, 2015). This situation is problematic as it shows that integration within the labour market is one of the most complicated stages of the integration process.

Yet, member states must ensure a fair access to the labour market to refugees. If they failed to do so, it would force refugees to accept employment in unregulated and sometimes dangerous and exploitative conditions. This would and has already started to expose some of them to high risks such as sexual exploitation or human trafficking. Furthermore, governments need to make sure they give refugees strong incentives to enter the labour market, and even sanctions when no efforts are made. Otherwise, refugees will be attracted by the informal economy and be tempted to rely on social benefits. This would not only weaken their integration within the host country but would further polarise societies where native workers see refugees as a negative population, not doing their part to contribute to the well-being of the country (Caritas, 2016: 13).

« 25% of native born pupils with immigrant parents still lacked basic reading skills at the age of 15 » (OECD, 2015)

The failure to fully integrate refugees would also have negative consequences on their children. The OECD study shows that children of refugees, while born in the host country, do not achieve the same results as other native children. Likewise, in 2012, 25% of native born pupils with immigrant parents still lacked basic reading skills at the age of 15. The study also shows that this educational gap is larger in Europe than in other “developed” regions and illustrates a pressing issue that needs to be tackled by member states.

One of the first steps to help integration in the labour market is the effective sharing of information related to professional training and job opportunities. Newcomers need counselling to map out a personalised path adapted to their skills. Finding a first job upon arrival is the often hardest part of the process, as host societies do not yet have a proof that the refugee cannot validate their experiences. Governments hence need to give funding for entry level opportunities. Those opportunities could be simple jobs such as helping out in reception centers with translation or the serving of food. After refugees get their first job, strong collaboration between national labour agencies, the government and the private sector will be needed in order to encourage companies to hire refugees for longer term jobs (McKinsey and Company, 2016: 40)

« [In Sweden] about 50% of the refugees who were part of the scheme were offered regular employment after the end of the subsidies »

« [This German] scheme aims to fund 100000 “one euro jobs” where employers would only pay refugees 1 euro per hour, while the government would pay the rest ».

In Sweden, the government has introduced a subsidy scheme to encourage entry level opportunities for refugees. Employers can receive up to 80% of a refugee’s wage from the government, with a maximum of 75 euros per day. They can receive this help for up to 24 months. Thanks to this arrangement, about 50% of the refugees who were part of the scheme were offered regular employment after the end of the subsidies (European Parliament Policy Department, 2016).

In 2016, in Germany, the government allocated 1 billion Euros to its labour market integration scheme. This scheme aims to fund 100000 “one euro jobs” where employers would only pay refugees 1 euro per hour, while the government would pay the rest. These jobs will be limited to charitable and non-profit work to avoid creating competition with actual professional opportunities and will give refugees a first experience in the German labour market.

In Denmark the Danish Center for Research on Women and Gender (KVINFO) established the Mentor Network for migrant and refugee women in 2002. This network aims to connect refugees with working women coming from different backgrounds. Mentors and mentees meet regularly for six to 12 months. This empowers women and helps them create a network in the field that interests them. The Mentor Network is funded by the Danish Ministry of Social Affairs and Integration” (The KVINFO Mentor Network, 2009).

« Integration of refugees within the EU is today a society-wide challenge. »

To conclude, integration of refugees within the EU is today a society-wide challenge. Governments alone will not be able to handle this issue.  Officials will need the help of the private sector, charities, and international organizations but also of individuals. Governments now need to tell the truth about the integration complicated process. We cannot send back millions of refugees and we cannot leave them in our streets only helped by charities, either. Their integration will be positive in the long term and citizens need to be aware of it.

Governments need to set an example and fight all types of discrimination. They need to do so by creating safe spaces for refugees and European citizens to meet. They also need to look at integration in a holistic manner as all parts of the process need to be tackled in order to integrate refugees fully. Governments have to prepare host societies to receive this new population, while adapting their education system to give comprehensive language classes for all, adapted classes for children, make higher education and diploma/competences recognition available.  In the meantime, they will need to find a way to adapt their health system to the short term needs of this new crowd, notably regarding their mental health needs. They will also have to work with regional and local partners to ensure that refugees are evenly distributed within the host country and have a decent accommodation, whether they live with a host family or in their own flat. Finally, efforts will have to be made to help refugees enter the labour market, first with “entry level” jobs and later with longer term employment.

As mentioned in the various examples illustrating each part of the process, there are hundreds of amazing initiatives that could be replicated. Many of them have been successfully managed at the local level by charities. Governments will have to ensure they empower and work with those actors.

« If they manage to create a successful integration template, it could give them a model that would ease potential future waves of arrival »

European leaders need to be pragmatic; migration is part of our globalised world. If they manage to create a successful integration template, it could give them a model that would ease potential future waves of arrival.  The EU needs to play a role in shaping the asylum and integration model across member states. A common strategy for asylum is the only way forward. The EU has started working towards that direction through the organisation of networks, notably the “European Integration Network” enabling officials to meet and share good practices. The next meeting will be in Sweden in February. Sweden is one of the “good students” in Europe regarding its integration process. Member states will hopefully be able to learn from their practices and replicate its successes.

Emma Aubert



Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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