The challenge of integrating beneficiaries of international protection in the European Union
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What momentum from the European Commission for the integration of beneficiaries of international protection?
© European Parliament
Since the beginning of its mandate on 1st December 2019, the European Commission chaired by Ursula von der Leyen has displayed great ambitions to facilitate the integration of the growing number of beneficiaries of international protection within the European Union. What are the priorities and perspectives of the new Commission in this field? While integration remains first and foremost under the remit of the Member States, will the means it intends to deploy in this area be up to the challenge?
The Commission’s competences in the field of integration, which holds the legislative initiative, implements budgets and manages the dedicated EU funds, are limited, as integration policy is a Member State competence. Since the adoption in 2004 of the non-binding “Common Basic Principles for Migrant Integration Policy in the EU” and the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, the Commission’s main role is to support, coordinate and guide national policies, in particular by identifying and promoting the exchange of good practice between Member States and by conducting surveys and studies.
The Commission’s role has been steadily strengthened since 2015 as the number of people receiving international protection in Europe has increased. In response to the obstacles that an increasing number of refugees face in the integration process, the Commission adopted in June 2016 an “Action Plan for the Integration of Third-Country Nationals” to strengthen the common approach “in key policy areas” of integration, including education, employment and vocational training, access to basic services such as health and housing, and social inclusion.
The Commission also finances actions and projects aimed at promoting the integration of refugees in the EU Member States through various funds. A fund specifically dedicated to the integration of non-EU nationals, the European Integration Fund (EIF), has been created for the 2007 – 2013 budgetary period, which will be replaced between 2014 and 2020 by the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF). For the period 2021 – 2027, a new proposal for an integration fund was unveiled on 12 May 2018 by Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission but is still under negotiation.
The redesign of the integration funds is in fact part of a wider reform dynamic in the field of migration. Indeed, the European Commission intends to succeed in finding a consensus between the European States to reform European migration policy. Unlike the mandate of the previous Commission, which had to deal with the divisions among Member States on how to respond to the increased arrivals of migrants at the EU’s borders between 2014 and 2016, the current Commission has taken office in a context of low migratory pressure. It is now as much about “managing” irregular migration at the borders as it is about promoting the integration of the hundreds of thousands of people who have received some form of protection in European countries in recent years.
As soon as it took office, the Commission made the adoption of a new “Pact on Migration and Asylum”, unveiled on 23 September, as well as a new “Action Plan for Integration and Inclusion”, presented on 24 November, its main objectives. The mission has been entrusted to Margarítis Schinás, European Commissioner for the “promotion of our European way of life” in the Commission’s Directorate General for Migration and Home Affairs. The mission statement for this portfolio shows that the current Commission sees migration and integration of third-country nationals, including refugees, as cross-cutting areas, linked to the fields of education, culture and security. Margarítis Schinás is therefore responsible for “coordinating and ensuring coherence between these policies” and “improving the integration of migrants and refugees into society“, also focusing on combating racial or gender discrimination and enhancing the skills of migrants.
The labour market integration of migrants and refugees, which represents a major challenge in the EU, is indeed seen as a priority for the current Commission, which has repeatedly underlined the “key role” played by migrants and refugees in the functioning of European economies, notably in the context of the COVID health crisis19 . In the eighth section of the new “Pact on Migration and Asylum”, she laments the fact that “too many migrants and households with a migrant background still face challenges in terms of unemployment, lack of education or training opportunities“. Several actions have recently been announced in order to remove these obstacles. On 7 September 2020, the Commission met with a wide range of public and private stakeholders to renew the “European Partnership for Integration” launched in 2017, which aims to create new opportunities for the integration of migrants and refugees into the labour market. In a joint communiqué, the meeting participants called for the continuation of the cooperation initiatives put in place between the different actors in the framework of this programme, in order to support the “entrepreneurial spirit” of migrants and refugees while facilitating the recognition of their skills.
Furthermore, at the same time as unveiling the new Pact, the Commission announced the renewal of the “Action Plan for Integration and Inclusion” for the period 2021 – 2027. Announced on November 24th, this plan aims to tackle the challenges of access to employment, education, healthcare and housing, with a special focus on involving local actors, both public and private. In order to define the priorities of the Plan, the German Presidency of the EU Council had convened an informal ministerial meeting on integration and social cohesion on 9 November, the first in ten years. The new Plan takes into account the recommendations made by civil society actors and people with an immigrant background, who participated in the Commission’s extensive “citizens’ consultation” on the integration of migrants, which was open between 22 July and 21 October 2020. PICUM and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), a network of more than 100 refugee aid organisations in Europe of which France terre d’asile is a member, had also published a series of recommendations for European decision-makers in the preparation of the new Plan, notably urging the Commission to include a monitoring and evaluation mechanism for Member States’ integration policies.
This new Plan will serve in particular as a “guide” for the allocation of the resources that will be granted to the States within the framework of the new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for the period 2021 – 2027. Within the MFF, the Commission suggested replacing the current Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) in May 2018 with the Asylum and Migration Fund (AMF), which waters down the “integration” component. The proposal tried to make a distinction between “short-term” integration measures, financed by the AMF fund, and medium- and long-term integration measures, which would then depend on the European Social Fund + (ESF+) and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).
Despite an increase in the funding allocated to the AMF to €10.4 billion, compared to €3.1 billion in 2014 – 2020, the distribution key of the fund, with 40% allocated to combating illegal immigration compared to 30% for legal migration and 30% for integration, indicates that the Commission prioritises the policy combating irregular migration and the management of returns to the detriment of integration programmes. The Commission’s proposal had been strongly criticised by several associations, including France terre d’asile, which also denounced the separation of funding for short term and medium/long term integration actions, which does not ensure continuous support for refugees in all areas of the integration process.
Although the European Council finally agreed on a new version of the European budget in July 2020, the amount allocated to the AMF/AMIF was revised downwards to 8.7 billion euros. While the MFF still has to be approved by the European Parliament, which will continue negotiations, it must set targets commensurate with the needs in terms of expenditure to be allocated for the integration of migrants and refugees. Otherwise, the ambitions announced by the new Commission with the new “Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion” risk running up against a lack of resources. This new Plan represents a real opportunity for the new Commission to develop an ambitious, more harmonised and coordinated European integration policy within a more inclusive Union. This common vision is more than ever necessary to reduce the remaining disparities between Member States and to respond to the growing challenges of integration, especially in the current context of pandemic and economic crisis.
Article 63 paragraph 4 of the Treaty of Lisbon of 13 December 2007: “the European Parliament and the Council may establish measures to encourage and support the action of Member States with a view to promoting the integration of third-country nationals residing legally on their territory, excluding any harmonisation of the laws and regulations of the Member States“.
 The European Social Fund (ESF), whose objective is to support the education, vocational training and employment of citizens most at risk of unemployment and exclusion, also finances actions for the social inclusion of refugees.
According to the Eurostat database, 2 210 950 asylum seekers received international protection in the EU between 2015 and 2019, which is 0.5% of the total population of the European Union.
In her State of the Union address on 16 September 2020, the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, stated that she was working “to ensure that those who have the right to stay are integrated and feel welcome”.
A study published in June 2020 by the European Union Labour Force Survey showed that 31% of migrants of working age were “key workers”. 12.5% work in the field of home care assistance, 20.9% in the field of health and maintenance and 11.1% in the field of education.