The challenge of integrating beneficiaries of international protection in the European Union
"Employment is one of the areas where there has been considerable progress in a number of countries"Alexander Wolffhardt – Integration Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Group (MPG) and coordinator of the National Integration Evaluation Mechanism (NIEM)
On the occasion of the publication of NIEM’s first comparative report in July 2020, the project coordinator for the Migration Policy Group, Alexander Wolffhardt, discusses with us the genesis of the project and its key lessons.
Where did the idea of the NIEM project come from and why were these particular 14 countries chosen for the study?
The project – NIEM stands for National Integration Evaluation Mechanism – originates in a UNHCR-funded pilot project in four East Central European countries concluded in 2014. This pilot and today’s NIEM have been driven by the desire to create a refugee-specific instrument to assess, in a reliable and comparative manner, the quality of integration policies. This is done by benchmarking countries against a comprehensive approach to integration, in line with EU and international law, using a set of indicators to measure their efforts.
Other than the MIPEX index, which concerning the integration of third-country nationals in general has existed for a long time, NIEM is a tool that takes into account the specific needs and the residence situation of beneficiaries of international protection. The pilot is still reflected in the NIEM partnership, with eight countries involved from the East Central/Southeast Central European region. But overall, the 14 NIEM countries are selected to represent the entire spectrum of EU countries, bringing together Southern European arrival states like Greece, Italy and Spain and countries with long-standing protection traditions like France, the Netherlands and Sweden as well. What we learn from the NIEM sample therefore tells a lot about the state of refugee integration in the EU as a whole.
The first evaluation report of the project based on the year 2019 has just been published. Which dimensions of integration are the most challenging in the surveyed EU Member States?
Overall, we compare twelve areas of integration, ranging from legal aspects to fields like housing, employment and education. Other areas include whether governments have an overall strategy, or to what extent they foster the involvement of the receiving society.
The research conducted in all project countries looks into indicators related to the legal, policy and coordination frameworks in place. Concerning the various policy fields, housing, employment and vocational training are the areas where on average conditions are the least advantageous. Even with regard to language learning, which so often dominates the integration debate, countries’ efforts are often rather weak. For instance, in the new report we also looked into provisions for asylum seekers, and for them only half of the countries provide for courses that would help to acquire this most fundamental skill.
A general weakness, across countries, relates to the collaboration of governments with various actors, such as NGOs and local and regional governments. NIEM indicators measuring such coordination generally show much worse results than those on the legal and policy provisions.
In which area of integration are there the most positive developments? Can you give us a particularly interesting example of good practice?
In the new report we analyze the developments that took place since 2017. Employment is one of the areas where there has been considerable progress in a number of countries. In the two involved Baltic countries, for example, there is now tailored counseling, awareness-raising for employers on local level and access to subsidized on-the-job training in Latvia. In Lithuania likewise, a comprehensive Action Plan entails e.g. information for employers, trainings on founding a business and regular monitoring of the implemented policies. Also France scores well here, with its Skills Investment Plan and the National Strategy for the Integration of Refugees. Interestingly, these improved results are largely driven by the fact that all these countries are getting better at coordinating policies across different levels of government and more strongly involve civil society. So at least in some places there is a growing understanding for the need of what is often referred to as an “whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach”.
The good practice that has to be mentioned here certainly is Sweden. In that country, labour market integration is at the very core of refugee integration, bringing together under the coordination of the employment service social partners, state agencies and municipalities with a strong responsibility for e.g. language training.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, do you expect major changes in terms of integration both in the political debate and in the legal framework of the countries under review?
How many countries have reacted at the height of the crisis, by limiting access to protection and with restrictions for asylum seekers in particular, at least does not bode well for integration. At any case the economic fallout of the crisis will be severe for the most vulnerable, including recently arrived beneficiaries of international protection who had just managed to get a foothold on the labour market. If for example the integration gains made by 2015/16 arrivals will be reversed in the recession on a large scale, governments should have a good reason to reinforce their efforts. What is more, those beneficiaries who five years after their arrival are still not in employment – and that’s about half even in the most successful countries – are faced with even bigger obstacles in the current circumstances and will need additional attention by policy-makers.
On the other hand, we know that political debate in times of high unemployment is not necessarily inclined towards solidarity with migrants. A lot will depend on how far mainstream policies, including the emergency support measures taken in the crisis, are capable and prepared to address the specific needs of affected refugees, and whether resources will be available for targeted support such as labour-market re-integration. What we might well see is a deepening of the existing gaps among European countries with regard to their ability and willingness to foster the integration of beneficiaries of international protection.