The high inflow of refugees and migrants to Europe in 2015 and 2016 put a renewed policy focus on integration, and it also revived the question “integration into what?” considering growing diversity in European societies. What are new developments and emerging issues related to integration and diversity and what will be upcoming challenges in the mid-term future? Representatives from local and regional authorities, civil society, the European Commission and researchers gathered in an expert session in the EU Policy Lab on 18th of June to discuss these questions, and to consider the changing roles of integration actors.
Many integration challenges today are not new – issues related to housing, access to education and the labour market, recognition of qualifications, political participation, and social inclusion amongst others, have been faced by some European countries for decades. Among the topics that emerged in the discussion, however, several centred on matters that have become more prominent in the last couple of years.
The trend of mainstreaming in integration governance in Europe is seen on several levels of government, including at the local level. Alongside addressing challenges in integration and diversity in an all-encompassing way, city authorities have had to reflect upon their role as a provider of services and as an employer. Who is reached? Who is represented? Do policymakers and civil servants working with integration have the skills that they need? In the context of rising populism, communicating about integration or diversity measures also poses a challenge to city authorities, e.g. because of a fear that it may cause backlashes against newcomers or persons with a migrant background.
As new actors form part of integration governance to a larger extent, such as private, non-governmental, and grassroots organisations, some issues have come into view. Initiatives by citizens have in some places been critical in providing support to newly arrived migrants and refugees, but it has also raised issues of professionalism, competition, and distribution of responsibility. The outsourcing of integration programs to for-profit organisations has in some cases led to the sole responsibility of integration being put on the migrants. How can this be handled by national and local authorities and how can partnerships with civil society and private organisations be made in the best way? Another example of changing relationships between integration actors is that in some cities tensions have arisen between old NGO’s and newly established ones.
A challenge with rising significance is how to support the needs of migrants with an irregular status, such as rejected asylum seekers who are not returning to their countries-of-origin. City and municipal authorities are faced with dealing with the unintended effects of policies on national and EU-level – observing the needs of the irregular migrants but being very limited in the support they can offer. At the same time, local authorities need to fulfil its responsibilities to the city population as a whole.
Looking at labour market integration specifically, and considering the rapid change in the labour market with technological advancements and automation, there is a need to make sure that newcomers are equipped with the skills needed for obtaining long-term sustainable jobs. This would require the right investments in education, and supporting migrants so that they are able to choose education over less-skilled jobs which are accessible faster – a decision which is likely to depend on whether they are supporting someone at home or not. The provision of flexible integration programs and customised approaches where e.g. language learning can be combined with vocational training or work are also needed. Addressing migrant women’s access to the labour market will be critical, considering their generally lower labour market participation and the continued inflow of family migrants, as well as supporting the uptake of digital skills.
For the future success of integration, nuanced narratives on migration will be key. Promoting a positive attitude towards newcomers and diversity is essential and even more complex in a time when questions of identity are frequently figuring in public debates – who is considered a national and who is not? In the context of increasing diversity, there is a need to create identities that are reflexive of the people who live in Europe today. Public debates on diversity and cultural values can be expected to continue, for example relating to schools systems and the establishment of confessional schools.
Data and evidence could help to change narratives. Having local level integration-related data is important in this and many other aspects, such as in efforts of putting integration higher on the local government’s agendas. In general, there is a necessity of more data gathering and monitoring of the impact and outcomes of integration policies.
The European Commission is supporting integration primarily through the national level but has some actions aiming at the city level directly. For example, in 2016 the Partnership on Inclusion of Migrants and Refugees was set up under the Urban Agenda for the EU. One of the results stemming from the partnership is the Urban Academy for Integration, a peer-to-peer strategic learning environment for policymakers and practitioners working on integration. Among the challenges that the European Commission faces in supporting the local level in integration is the multiplicity of actors involved, although there is a recognition that more could be done. For the next EU multiannual financial framework (2021-2027) an important question is to what extent there will be more consultation with, and access to funding for local and regional authorities to use on integration.
By Anna Hakami