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Refugees in Europe: The road to integration

How to avoid a lost generation of Syrians? Practitioners and academics discuss integration.

By Robert Westermann

What do we know about the refugees coming to Europe? How can we avoid a whole generation of Syrians losing out on an education? What are the pitfalls and windfalls for European labour markets and how will this change integration policies and societies on the ground?

Expert practitioners and academics discussed these crucial questions during a panel debate at the Hertie School on October 26th 2015, moderated by László Andor, former EU Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs. The objective was to contribute to a “constructive agenda”, as Mr Andor put it, by talking less about (geo-)politics and focusing more on “people and practical solutions”.

“Während die #EU Kommission über 100.000 #refugees versucht abzustimmen, diskutieren @thehertieschool ganzheitliche Lösungsansätze #notbad — Orkan|ÖZDEMIR (@orkanoezdemir) 26. Oktober 2015”

Origins, motivations and aspirations of refugees

The first input was given by Martijn Pluim, Director for the Eastern Dimension of the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), who made it clear right at the beginning that the current situation challenges the basics of the European asylum system, not just because of the high numbers of people arriving, but also in terms of the ambitions of the refugees to fulfill further expectations beyond finding a save place to live e.g. to have an education and earn a living.

This new situation creates challenges as well as opportunities for host societies, as Pluim said, but in order to find practical solutions, it is essential to get more detailed data about these people. As the results of an interview project at the refugee camp in Traiskirchen (conducted for the Ministry of Interior of Austria) showed, many of the Syrian refugees are highly skilled: 98% of the refugees in this case study had at least secondary education, 93% described their reading and writing skills as very good, 66% were able to speak English as well as Arabic, and 87% had worked before coming to Austria.

Based on these empirical findings, Pluim recommends collecting information about the educational and professional skills of refugees as early as possible. This could be the basis for the redistribution of refugees to different regions, depending on their individual skills. Additionally, if further education is needed, a redistribution system based on prior qualifications could improve the current integration processes.

““Ppl coming from war-torn countries have other worries” @AnkeHassel making an important point @theHertieSchool on #refugees & #labourmarket — Theresa Niederle (@resanied) 26. Oktober 2015”

Avoiding a ‘Lost Generation’: Education Responses

The second part was dedicated to challenges in the field of education; Tom Ling and Jenny Corbett, analysts at the RAND Europe Corporation, reported about their experiences in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan where over 81,000 refugees reside. Speaking to students within the camp’s schools, they realised that there is a lot of “resilience, strength and the very human will to seek a better future”. However, half of all school-age Syrian children are not enrolled in school.

For this reason, a great deal of national and international effort has been made to provide more educational opportunities in Jordan, such as UNICEF’s Emergency Education Response Programme (implemented in April 2012). An evaluation of this programme showed that the measures to expand access to education were quite successful; 130,000 children were enrolled in formal education in Jordanian schools by opening the public school system to Syrian refugees and building new schools in the camps. Although the enrolment numbers were impressive, protection issues (safe ways to get to school) or gendered barriers (child marriages and child labour) still keep Syrian children out of school.

“@westermr bei @thehertieschool zum Senats-Strukturprojekt #Berlinbrauchtdich!
— BQN Berlin (@bqn_berlin) 26. Oktober 2015”

Corbett and Link recommended that the improvement of quality (more teaching resources and better facilities) must be a priority. Nonetheless, some of the experiences in Jordan may also be helpful for the organisation of an inclusive education system for refugees in European countries.

A Pitfall or Windfall for European Labour Markets

The third section focused on the question of whether the economic integration of refugees will be a pitfall or a windfall. At first, Károly Pataki, CEO of the Trenkwalder International AG, formulated a clear message: there is a high demand for labour in many European countries, and temporary employment companies in particular can provide real opportunities for refugees to enter European labour markets.

However, for successful integration processes, asylum procedures must be sped up. As Pataki said, it will become more and more problematic to let people come without allowing them to earn their own income. Furthermore, companies will not recruit refugees if they do not intend to stay in the country long-term. He also reported that his company has already created hundreds of jobs, mostly in the industrial sector, for people from the Middle East and that this works very well.

This input was followed by a comment from Anke Hassel, Professor for Public Policy at the Hertie School. She was much more sceptical about the prospect of economic integration, and raised concerns about new struggles of expulsion between refugees and marginalised groups. However, some specific areas and sectors may be more suitable for “integration through employment” than others. For example, the vocational training system; there is partly a high demand for new trainees in Germany and Austria, and many refugees could meet these requirements. 

Integration in Berlin: the local perspective

At the end, Robert Westermann, project manager for the Berlin Senate initiative Berlin needs you!, reflected the opportunities for the integration of refugees into existing labour and education systems on the ground. He concluded that the situation in Berlin is very tense because of certain difficulties in handling the increasing number of asylum requests and in finding appropriate accommodation for refugees, but there is also already a lot of effort being made to integrate refugees, both from the “official” side and from civil society.

“Dean @Helmut_Anheier @thehertieschool “Why the #EU was so unprepared for this #refugeecrisis?”
— László Andor (@LaszloAndorEU) 26. Oktober 2015”

Whether there is a straight road to integration depends, as he said, on future policy decisions and on the discourse surrounding ‘diverse societies’. In his view, the current situation is a chance to avoid the mistakes made during the ‘guest worker’ period. That is to say, avoiding the segregation of refugees and/or migrants through housing policies, and organising inclusive education systems in schools and universities, whilst also offering ways into the labour market by providing internships and mentoring programmes. An even bigger challenge is whether society as a whole embraces this long road to integration. There is an urgent necessity to adapt laws, structures and procedures to generate an up-to-date political framework for immigration and asylum in Europe. But this will only work if the establishment of a long-term, inclusive ‘welcoming culture’ succeeds.

Future Outlook

Helmut K. Anheier, Dean of the Hertie School, concluded the event by asking: Why was the EU so unprepared for this refugee crisis? Considering the fact that this issue will define the political agenda for many years to come, he emphasised the need to continue and intensify this debate in the future.

More about the author

  • Robert Westermann is the PR coordinator for “Berlin needs you” (Berlin braucht dich!). He has a background in political science (MA), focusing on international migration as well as policies on integration, inclusion and diversity.

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