For Europe, integrating refugees is the next big challenge

    For Europe, integrating refugees is the next big challenge

    Jan 13, Copenhagen: In a scene from a compelling documentary called “Dreaming of Denmark,” two teenagers sit on a snowy European slope, chatting in Danish. When one of them, Mussa, describes himself as Danish, the other, his Afghan friend named Wasi, reminds him he’s Ethiopian. “Oh, yeah,” Mussa says, giggling. He had just obtained his Danish passport, after three years of living in a shelter for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Denmark, and was clearly well on his way to building a life in his new homeland.

    The scene was filmed in 2014, but couldn’t be more relevant today. The question on the minds of many in Europe these days is how their societies are coping with a sharp increase of asylum-seekers and migrants that began several years ago but reached crisis proportions this year. Over 1 million asylum-seekers and migrants reached the European Union via the Mediterranean in 2015, nearly five times as many as the previous year. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), the organization’s refugee agency, estimates that 84 percent are from countries that, because of war or other circumstances, qualify them as refugees. Fully half are Syrians, while 20 percent are Afghans. Iraqis, Eritreans and Somalis make up another 13 percent. This is quite clearly a refugee crisis, and it poses many immediate challenges. But how the EU integrates the men, women and children who remain in Europe after the crises that sent them fleeing from their homes subside will be the real long-term test.

    What we’ve seen so far in terms of rhetoric and practice is far from ideal.

    Between Integration and Assimilation

    The EU response to the refugee crisis has been chaotic and divisive, characterized by squabbling over sharing responsibility, cascading border closures and finger-pointing. Many EU governments are focused on preventing arrivals and deflecting responsibility to neighboring countries. The possibility that some of those responsible for the horrific attacks in Paris in November entered the EU posing as refugees amid the influx into Greece and the Western Balkans has interjected fear of terrorism into the mix. Those who seek to keep refugees out with appeals to prejudice and panic are exploiting that anxiety.

    Historically, the EU track record on integration is at best mixed. To varying degrees, European societies have been grappling with increasing diversity for years. Popular opinion and, as a result, policy debates in many EU member states have been increasingly shaped in recent years by concerns about cultural identity, social cohesion and security, as well as concerns about the economy, access to public services, crime and employment. The debates have largely been focused on immigrant populations as a whole rather than asylum-seekers in particular—that is, on second- or even third-generation Europeans in addition to recently arrived ones—with a wide variety of views about whether and how integration policies have failed, and who is to blame.

    The debate has often been fractious, pitting those who favor more assimilationist policies, in which the newcomer adopts dominant values and a perceived common identity, against those who argue for variations of multiculturalism, based on respect for the newcomer’s cultural identity and protection of cultural diversity. In 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously agreed that multiculturalist policies had failed. Deep unease with diversity had led to a rise in far-right extremist parties, and even acts of violence, epitomized by the appalling attack by Anders Breivik, which killed 77 people and wounded hundreds of others in Norway that year.

    The plethora of academic and policy prescriptions on integration demonstrates that there are few absolute answers. International human rights law is largely silent on the issue. The rights to nondiscrimination and equality before the law are bedrock principles of international law as well as European law, and they should guide integration policy as well. But there is no “right” to integration, nor is there a “right” to live in a homogenous society where diversity poses no challenges.

    Beyond the guidance of international law, practical outcomes on the ground can also be useful in guiding policy. The Migrant Integration Policy Index, or MIPEX, ranks 38 developed countries, including EU member states, on how they invest in equal rights and opportunities for newcomers with respect to the labor market, health, education, political participation, permanent residence, family reunification and anti-discrimination measures. In 2014, Sweden and Portugal had the highest ranking in the EU, followed by Finland, Norway and Belgium. Those five European countries beat out Canada, Australia and the United States.

    MIPEX researchers have concluded that ambitious integration policies do work, and that countries with “inclusive integration policies” tend to provide the best conditions for social cohesion, to the benefit of both newcomers and general society. Similarly, restrictive policies can lead to xenophobic attitudes and the inability to see the benefits of diversity. That said, good integration policies do not necessarily inoculate a society from extremism—Sweden has had rising support for the far-right Sweden Democrats; Norway was home to Anders Breivik; and Belgium was used as a base by many of those involved in most recent deadly attacks in Paris.

    The European Union does not mandate any particular integration approach, though it does have soft law on the issue, and EU funds support integration measures. The EU Common Basic Principles, adopted in 2004, define integration as “a dynamic, two-way process of mutual accommodation by all immigrants and residents of Member States,” and include reference to the importance of employment, education, civic and community participation and of cultural and religious diversity.

    Actual policies are the province of national governments, however, and national integration policies in EU countries have too often tended toward coercive integration. These include discriminatory measures such as religious-dress bans in France, Belgium and parts of Italy and Spain; or, in the case of the Netherlands, overseas integration tests that are required only of certain nationalities before they can reunite with family members in the country.

    Much of the focus on integration now has shifted to asylum-seekers and refugees. Even as various EU countries scramble to find basic, decent housing for asylum-seekers, the bigger issues of how to help them rebuild their lives, find their place in their new home countries and participate productively in society loom. Merkel has shown important leadership within the EU in guiding Germany to welcome almost 1 million asylum-seekers in 2015, but she faces political dissent amid a growing sense that there are only so many that the country can receive. In a recent speech, she insisted that “we [Germans] can do this”—or “wir schaffen das” in German—but also reiterated her concerns about multiculturalism and insisted that newcomers to Germany must assimilate to German values and culture.

    Undoubtedly, many of those who have risked their lives to reach Europe this year will have strong motivation to do what they can to rebuild their lives in their new homes. But integration policies that require people to shed fundamental aspects of their identity are unlikely to succeed. Sustainable integration should aim at giving migrants a real stake in their new home, encouraging participation rather than exclusion, while requiring full adherence to laws and respect for the rights of others.

    In contrast to the relative dearth of hard-and-fast rules on integration of migrants generally, international refugee law and binding EU asylum laws do impose certain obligations on states when it comes to helping those in need of international protection. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, known as the Refugee Convention, sets out key rights refugees should enjoy to achieve legal, economic and socio-cultural integration, including the general principle that refugees should have a facilitated pathway to naturalization. Existing common—and binding—EU standards and laws also provide a pretty good road map for reception and integration of asylum-seekers and refugees.

    The starting point has to be respect for the right to seek asylum. That right is enshrined not only in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, and what it entails is detailed in binding EU directives. However, it is not enough just to make sure that everyone can exercise their right to apply for asylum or that the adjudication process is fair and efficient, though these are paramount. States also should provide decent conditions while asylum claims are pending, prepare the host population with accurate and fair information about who refugees are and the importance of welcoming them, and ensure that there are structures and programs to promote an inclusive society for recognized refugees that benefit both the refugees and the host community. 

    The Oslo Times