The challenge of integrating beneficiaries of international protection in the European Union
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The integration of beneficiaries of international protection in the EU: a national remit with a European scale
On 22 July 2020, on the occasion of the launch of an EU-wide public consultation, Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, called for the integration and social inclusion of migrants and beneficiaries of international protection (IPP) who “still have great difficulty in finding housing or access to employment, education or care” within the European territory.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines integration as “a complex process of increasing legal, economic, social and political participation of refugees in their host society, up to and including the acquisition of nationality”. Nevertheless, the term ‘inclusion’ is often preferred in debates because it removes the idea of erasing an individual’s identity, which would be necessary to be accepted in a host society.
The integration of refugees takes place at several levels, all of which are crucial: professional integration, language learning, access to housing, education, care and civic and political rights, as well as the possibility of being reunited with one’s family. The integration of persons who have received international protection in the Union must therefore be supported by the public authorities in the host country, since, unlike asylum policies, integration is first and foremost in the national jurisdiction.
Nevertheless, the “migration crisis” that Europe experienced in 2015 – 2016 has had consequences on the integration of refugees. The increase in the number of people recognised as refugees or who have received another form of protection has led to a saturation of support systems in some countries to enable them to access housing and employment. Without this support, many refugees have found themselves on the street. In France, for example, NGO field workers have estimated that in the Ile-de-France region, refugees accounted for between 15-20% of people living in homeless migrant camps in 2019. This situation, which is the case in Greece in particular, highlights the need to continue supporting refugees to enable their integration once they are protected
What is the link between the action of the Member States and the European framework?
Even if the European institutions are trying to create a common framework in this area, the 27 have considerable room for manoeuvre to put in place integration policies dedicated to refugees.
In fact, Article 34 of the “Qualification” Directive of the Common European Asylum System provides for the guarantee by Member States of “access to integration programmes which they consider appropriate” and “preconditions guaranteeing access to such programmes“. In Italy, this is illustrated by the National Plan for the Integration of Refugees drawn up in October 2017, which defines the commitments of beneficiaries of protection on Italian soil. They must commit themselves to learning the Italian language, to sharing the fundamental values of the Constitution and to participating in the economic, social and cultural life of the territory in which they live.
The European Commission has emphasised the important role of the local level in the programming and implementation of public policies for the integration of newcomers, asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection. In December 2019, Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, called for the strengthening of the role of local authorities in reception and integration policies. The statement is the result of initiatives carried out in recent years, such as that of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR). In April 2019, this EU consultative body advocated the inclusion of local and regional perspectives in EU policy making by launching the initiative “Cities and Regions for the Integration of Migrants” (#Region4Integration). The initiative includes “the sharing of good practice in the local integration of refugees” and “the enhancement of peer learning, linking more experienced cities with those just starting to receive migrants”.
In order to facilitate the link between the action of national public authorities and the European framework, forms for debate and exchange on integration are involved in the development of a ‘common vision’ of the integration of third country nationals, including refugees. For example, the European Migration Network, working under the aegis of the European Commission, provides “up-to-date, objective, reliable and comparable information for EU institutions and Member State authorities and institutions” on various migration-related topics, including integration.
Towards enhanced EU coordination in a Europe marked by disparities
Broad common principles, set out in November 2004, provide a framework for EU integration policy. They refer to the conclusions of the Thessaloniki European Council of June 2003 and guide Member States in the implementation of their integration policies at national level. Among them, the eleventh principle, which refers to “the [necessary] development of targets, indicators and evaluation mechanisms for adapting policies, measuring progress on integration and improving the effectiveness of information exchange“, helps to grasp the European stake in the issue. It is through the transfer of ideas, expertise, recommendations and guidelines that the EU guides and tries to coordinate Member States’ policies. In the context of increasing migration flows to Europe, the “Action Plan on the Integration of Third-country Nationals” adopted in 2016 by the Commission summarised five priority areas for public integration policies. This was replaced on 24 November 2020 by an “Action Plan for Integration and Inclusion” for the period 2021-2027, announced when the new European Pact on Migration and Asylum was presented in September 2020.
In practice, the EU is also involved in the integration of refugees through funding and evaluation programmes, such as with the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF). This fund, which aims to contribute to the “effective” management of migration flows, supports legal migration to Member States and promotes the integration of third-country nationals. AMIF finances, among others, the “National Mechanism for the Evaluation of Integration” (NMEI), a project which brings together institutions, academics, research centres and associations, including France terre d’asile, to produce comparative expertise on the effectiveness of public policies for the social inclusion and integration of refugees in 14 EU Member States.
In addition to highlighting the gap between the existing legal framework in terms of integration policies and their effective implementation, the recent data produced by NMEI showed contrasting results between the countries involved in the project, reflecting a fragmented European Union on the willingness to include refugees in their host society.
For example, on the employment front, and more specifically in terms of coordination and implementation of integration policies, Lithuania, France and Sweden score encouragingly well, while Poland, Hungary and Greece are poor performers in this respect. The main findings of the project highlight the prevalence of “broad disparities” and a lack of coordination between national governments and civil society actors.
A rise in hostile rhetoric against refugees
In addition to differing national political will within the Union, the rise in populist and hostile rhetoric against asylum seekers and refugees maintains a climate which hinders their integration into the host society.
The economic and political situation in the different Member States also plays a role in governments’ understanding of the importance of developing policies for the integration of refugees. In Greece, a country that is more affected by migration flows due to its geographical position, but which has also suffered from a major economic crisis since 2008, NGOs point to a “black hole” and a lack of coherence in this area. Lefteris Papagiannakis, head of the NGO “Solidarity Now”, denounced in the summer of 2020 “significant housing and cash assistance programmes that are not interconnected and have no continuity“. Indeed, in June 2020, nearly 10,000 refugees were forced to leave their accommodation to make way for asylum seekers, due to the lack of welcome facilities available for new arrivals. In the face of this urgent situation, the HELIOS integration programme, funded by the European Commission and implemented by the International Organisation for Migration in coordination with the Greek state, supported part of the statutory refugees concerned by this expulsion measure. The programme, whose data are regularly updated, helped refugees – up to 3,500 people – to look for new accommodation and provided them with financial assistance for 6-12 months.
Integration, a crucial challenge in the midst of the pandemic
Finally, integration has been a central issue during the health crisis. Indeed, the pandemic represents a moment of precariousness and vulnerability for refugees and asylum seekers alike, threatening their integration and inclusion in the host society.
In this context, the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, has stressed the “triple crisis” of health, socio-economic and protection that displaced persons and refugees have been experiencing since the beginning of the pandemic. In response, some European countries have taken emergency measures, usually temporary, to prevent their situation from worsening.
During lockdown, Portugal proceeded with the regularisation of people who have already applied for residence permits, including asylum seekers. This measure, in force from February to June 2020, has therefore – temporarily – facilitated their access to public health services, signing an employment contract, opening a current account and also the procedures for applying for benefits in the event of suspension of the employment contract.
However, these temporary measures do not erase the impact of the health crisis on the integration of refugees. For example, in the spring of 2020, Denmark suspended all integration programmes for refugees and closed language schools. In Germany, a study published by the Ifo Institute in Munich on the impact of COVID-19 on the integration of refugees shows that beyond the loss of social ties and anxiety, refugees were more affected by rising unemployment and were more exposed to the risk of disease.
Overall, most EU Member States have established a legal framework for the development of policies for the integration of those receiving international protection, with the EU Guidelines being an important common ground in this respect. Nevertheless, countries are investing more or less effort to effectively implement these measures, due to political issues or lack of available means. In this respect, the negotiations that are starting between Member States as part of the new European Pact on Migration and Asylum, and in particular on integration, will be crucial in reconciling the diverging interests of national governments on this issue.
Pre-departure and pre-arrival integration measures, education, labour market and vocational training, access to basic services, active participation and social inclusion.
Measured via three indicators: 1) mechanisms for mainstreaming refugee inclusion in employment policies, 2) coordination with regional and local authorities on refugee employment and 3) partnerships on employment with expert NGOs and civil society organisations.