The challenge of integrating beneficiaries of international protection in the European Union
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The integration in the EU, the responsibility of the refugee or the host country?Shaza Al Rihawi, Founding member of the Network for Refugee Voices (NRV), member of the Advisory Board of New Women Connectors and Research Assistant at the Leibniz Institute for Educational Trajectories (LIfBi)
EU integration policies towards migrants and refugees allow for some interpretive leeway among member states, but the challenges posed are constant, especially for women. As a female Syrian refugee living in Germany, I can personally attest to this. In my own case, I was accepted as a refugee in Germany only after a difficult 2.5-year journey from Syria to Sweden to Germany, and professional ‘integration’ has been difficult despite having a postgraduate degree from a major American university and a UNHCR position in Syria for 8 years (assisting female refugees and those affected by sexual and gender-based violence). The challenges I faced drove me to become an advocate, with certain findings consistently standing out from the many interventions I have had with refugees, migrants, and European organisations.
An exact definition of ‘integration’ is highly contested within both policy debates and academic literature. From the refugee point of view, ‘integration’ carries a negative connotation for the newcomer of having to shed lifelong identities in order to be accepted by a host community. While there is obvious practical use to language and custom sensibilization, a complete eradication of incoming cultures and knowledge create exclusionary realities for the newcomer and the host community loses value it was not aware it was gaining. ‘Inclusion’ would be less problematic to adopt than ‘integration’.
This current version of ‘integration’ is an especially prevalent ideal in places where the political will to honour refugee conventions is low. The populist opinion that migrants and refugees are a burden is not statistically supported, but is continuously used by those in power when convenient for their rhetoric. The removal of ‘Integration’ from the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (formerly AMIF, now just AMF), illustrates the reality of EU solutions focusing on securitized borders rather than inclusionary programs around migration. If states invested in refugee populations and their inclusion as much as in securitised borders preventing refugees from entering, the results would be far more accretive for everyone.
Another challenge lies in integration monies being allocated to national governments who can then opt out of EU integration programs instead of to cities where real integration responsibilities lie. Media profiles are imbalanced, too often portraying migrants and refugees as thieves, burdens, and causes of health issues, with positive actions and contributions from newcomers ignored. This deters host communities welcoming newcomers, and makes newcomers feel ostracized and vilified – further denying positive integration.
In large scale consultations with refugees, three key areas that reoccur as integration challenges are housing, labour, and participation. Refugees report widespread discriminatory attitudes by landlords, and housing that does not meet minimum standards for dignified living. Further, when housing is allocated outside city centres, limited access to essential services and public transport mean employment opportunities and integration are severely undermined. Difficulty in finding suitable work close to areas of residence is in addition to other challenges identified by a large number of migrants and refugees: support for learning the local language, having native qualifications recognized, low wages, and unrealistic skills requirements from employers. As one refugee from Germany noted “Integration is not only about learning German and drinking beer, it is about having equal rights in labour markets and social life”.
With regards participation, refugee and migrant involvement in political decision-making and policy formulation is generally quite low and the tone of political discussion about migration and integration in host countries was quite negative. Meaningful participation of refugees and migrants should be required for all refugee and migrant policy and planning. This would facilitate better solutions, ensure ownership, and avoid mere tokenization. Refugees should be involved in designing, monitoring and evaluating specific programs in partnership with civil society – both in member states and at the EU level. As refugees in our consultations noted, ‘we have the right to be treated in dignity in the host communities – it is not a privilege’.
The challenges highlighted here are even more pronounced for women. A lack of support (financial and otherwise) for women RLOs is still a main obstacle, but NGOs are stepping up where governments fail to assist women. From an EU vantage point, migrant women-specific integration efforts are marked at least as much by bottom-up, civil society-led responses as by top-down policies and public funding. NGO activities often fill the policy vacuum by campaigning for rights and integration conditions and by offering integration support to migrant women. However, specific attention at the policy and strategy levels is still needed in several domains:
- Social integration: more training and language courses specific to women are needed; counselling, advice and info sharing in native languages; strengthened networks would combat social isolation;
- Discrimination and access to rights: specific reference to migrant women as a distinct category would be more effective than general anti-discrimination and gender equality legislation; increased participation in civic and political life would raise awareness of rights and combat gender-based violence; broader initiatives focusing on newly arrived migrant women (not exclusively refugee women) would be beneficial;
- Labour market integration: allowances for migrant mothers and their childcare needs; professional mentoring, vocational training and internship opportunities; and improved financing and facilitation of entrepreneurship are needed.
These are some guideposts to achieve a more dignified and inclusionary ‘integration’ model.