Feel at home! – Local Integration Programs for Immigrants and Refugees

By Keith Best

Paper presented to the 9th Congress of Local Governments on 4/5 March 2024 in Mikołajki, Poland

Immigration policy is not for the politically squeamish – there are strong and implacable arguments on both sides. Historically, immigration has benefited the economies where it has happened but it has also been socially disruptive and has led to popular antagonism. The main argument is usually about the numbers arriving and the nature of the immigrants – sometimes displaying some unpleasant traits of racism. Yet every modern economy, unless it is wholly self-sufficient, needs an inflow of labour and talent that cannot always be satisfied domestically.

There is more political energy spent on the background and origin of immigrants than on what happens to them once they have arrived, so this debate on integration practices is welcome. There has been trial and error but some remarkable achievements. The starting point must be empathy and understanding. Many refugees coming from those five countries that spawn the majority of those who flee across international borders have little knowledge of the countries that take them in. There is a clash of culture and even what is regarded as everyday life by the indigenous population can seem daunting to the refugee: how to pay for public transport, how to greet a stranger, understand the sense of humour, what to expect of officials or the local police when many will have come from places where these are corrupt and brutal; mastering the language with all its nuances; where best to shop for essentials – a whole confusing array of potential barriers.

The European Commission on its website sets out the task: “The successful integration of migrants is key to the future well-being, prosperity and cohesion of European societies. Although Member States are primarily responsible for integration, the EU supports national and local authorities with policy coordination, exchange of knowledge and financial resources.” The Action plan on Integration and Inclusion 2021-2027 proposes concrete actions to support Member States and other relevant stakeholders in overcoming integration-related challenges for migrants and EU citizens with a migrant background. Although national governments are primarily responsible for implementing social policies, the EU plays a key role in supporting Member States through funding, capacity-building and the creation of new partnerships. The Action Plan itemises inclusive education and training from early childhood to higher education, focusing on faster recognition of qualifications and language learning, with support from EU funds; enhanced employment opportunities and skills recognition to fully value the contribution of migrant communities, and women in particular, and ensure that they are supported to reach their full potential; equal access to health services for people born outside the EU and opportunities for Member States to exchange best practice and access to adequate and affordable housing funded through the European Regional Development Fund, European Social Fund Plus, Asylum and Migration Fund and Invest EU. 

Indeed, the European Commission has a whole website on integration and the Partnership of the Urban Agenda for the EU on the inclusion of migrants and refugees brings together cities, EU countries, the European Commission and civil society organisations to develop common actions to promote integration.

We need to be clear as to what we mean by integration. The object should be not to make refugees invisible or melded into a homogenous society so as to lose their identity as the preservation of their individual culture is important to their own sense of who they are.

In a paper in 2022 entitled “Integration models and repopulation: Promising resettlement projects in Europe” Massimo Spinelli, formerly of London School of Economics, considers how Europe can improve its capacity to integrate migrants and simultaneously tackle depopulation in rural areas, looking at case studies in Germany and Italy. He makes the point that a lack of coordination on the ground, flaws in the reception system, and unexpected increases in numbers of arrivals have forced many European countries to reconsider their strategy to deal with refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. As a result, overcrowded reception centres have quickly become an unfeasible option for new arrivals. He maintains that Italy and Germany are not isolated cases in Europe. Similar positive instances of refugee integration within small communities can be found in Finland, Spain, Sweden and elsewhere. Some initiatives were not initially aimed at integrating refugees in the destination community at all. Instead, they aimed to redevelop urban spaces on the brink of failure through temporary work and joint projects between volunteers, NGOs and refugees. Yet, as an indirect consequence, this facilitated the inclusion of refugees in the receiving community. 

What are the essential ingredients in any successful integration programme? First, the indigenous local population has to be given full information in advance of arrivals. Preferably, this is delivered in a consultative way through local councils, amenity and neighbourhood groups with opportunities for questions and clarification which, in themselves may alter the format of provision. If the local population feels that it is not being taken for granted and is alerted to the privations suffered by and the cultural norms, habits and religious practices of the incoming refugees then it is more likely to be sympathetic and welcoming. This is true of any sizeable new population. In East Anglia of the UK when large numbers of seasonal workers from Eastern Europe arrived they did economically valuable work but there was some local resentment manifested by parents suddenly discovering that their children had become a linguistic minority in their own country. So much of this could have been averted by increasing the numbers of bi-lingual teachers and adequate advanced preparation of the local community. Secondly, the issues already identified such as education, access to work and health, skills recognition and housing need to be addressed.

In a paper published in June 2023 entitled “Understanding social innovation in refugee integration: actors, practices, politics in Europe” the authors explore social innovation as a promising approach to refugee integration maintaining that socially innovative practices are based on the active engagement of policy-makers and assorted stakeholders—including target groups through co-creation. In the realm of asylum policies, social innovation can thus facilitate the meeting of refugees’ needs as well as the benevolence of receiving communities, ultimately strengthening social cohesion in regions of settlement. Families hosting migrants at home, community-based cooperatives and self-managed social spaces are all instances of socially innovative practices that are often initiated by non-state actors but that might be upscaled and transformed into fully fledged public policies—especially by policy-makers at the local and regional levels. They focus on labour, housing and social integration of refugees (especially in the stages after their first reception) in the context of Central European cities and regions.

Time and space here does not admit of the various EU initiatives: the Common Basic Principles for Immigration and Integration policy in 2004, the Common Agenda for Integration in 2005 and the European Commission’s European Agenda for the Integration of Third-Country Nationals in 2011 plus a subsequent Action Plan in 2016 for promoting the diffusion of policy ideas and creating a European Integration Network and a European Integration Forum for exchange between civil society and EU institutions. This is a large subject.

How is it going? There is much good practice that can be shared but in May 2016 the World Economic Forum published “10 ways countries can help refugees integrate.” These ranged from providing integration services as soon as possible for those asylum seekers most likely to be allowed to stay, When dispersing humanitarian migrants across the country, take into account whether the jobs available in the particular regions match their skills, Treat refugees differently, depending on their backgrounds (back to my contention that all refugees should not be regarded as an homogenous group), giving particular attention to unaccompanied minors who arrive past the age of compulsory schooling, affording equal access to integration services to humanitarian migrants across the country, allowing those asylum seekers likely to stay to find employment (and, I would add, fast-tracking through questionnaires and other mechanisms those from countries who are most likely to get refugee status), ensuring that that foreign qualifications and work experience count, dealing early with mental and physical health issues (and, I would add, being mindful of the likelihood of trauma in those from war-torn countries), encouraging and facilitating  and civil society to integrate humanitarian migrants and being realistic that integration can take a long time, particularly for the least educated.

Migration is a feature of the modern world: the global population is now more mobile than at any time in history; it is easier and cheaper relative to other costs and modern technology means that people can make informed decisions of where they wish to go based on real knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of their intended destination. War, tyranny, economic privation and climate change let alone ambition for a better life are pushing people to move. Yet so many countries are now trying to stem the tide of migration putting up both physical and practical barriers, visa controls and measures to deter inward migration. Human ingenuity and the push factors mean that they will not succeed. All of us must life in the knowledge that our own communities are becoming more multi-racial, multi-cultural and more multi-religious. That poses problems but also brings great benefits. The answer to the phenomenon of migration is improved integration for which we all are the richer.