Integration and the European Migration "Crisis"

June 16, 2016

CREDIT: Ggia - Wikimedia (CC). Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive at Lesvos, Greece, October 2015.

While migrants seeking to escape conflict, persecution, poverty, and environmental disaster have been crossing the Mediterranean by boat to seek sanctuary in Europe for a number of years, in 2015 the scale of arrivals increased beyond all expectations. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported in excess of one million arrivals, with migrants arriving from more than 100 countries and with over 4,000 people drowning on the crossing. So far in 2016, some 205,000 have arrived by sea, with 90 percent coming from the top 10 refugee-producing countries. The largest number is from Syria (49 percent), followed by Afghanistan (25 percent), and Iraq (15 percent) (figures from UNHCR, 2016). In addition, over 2,500 migrants have drowned so far this year. The media and EU governments are clear that this is a "crisis" but vacillate between terming it a migration, refugee, or humanitarian crisis. Many have proclaimed it to be the greatest crisis since World War II. Italy and particularly Greece have encountered the majority of arrivals—many of whom then continue to Germany, Sweden, and Austria to claim asylum. Others, generally with relatives in the UK, wait for an opportunity to cross the English Channel in makeshift camps. 

Europe's response to the crisis has been far from coherent and is constantly evolving. German Chancellor Angela Merkel initially set the bar for a humanitarian response, welcoming all-comers and arguing wir schaffen das (we will cope). Daimler's Chairman Dieter Zetsche argued that the new arrivals should be seen as a great opportunity for Germany to address its skills and labor shortages. Elsewhere response was less effusive, with Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban proclaiming the arrivals as the end of "Christian Europe." Open borders in Sweden, Austria, and Germany have rapidly been closed as Schengen was suspended in many parts of the Union and a fence built between Austria and Slovenia and in parts of Hungary.  The New Internationalist's "bordernomics" infographic shows "who's cashing in on keeping migrants out," highlighting $10.6 million spent on securing the French/British border at Calais, $1 billion spent on border patrols (since 1999) and $12 billion spent on deportation. The overwhelming message from politicians and policymakers is that of panic as the "crisis" is portrayed as out of control and increasingly draconian measures taken to control numbers, including outsourcing the "problem" to neighbouring middle income countries with dubious human rights records.

No wonder then that the public are reported to feel the crisis is out of control. A recent poll showed 56 percent of French and 47 percent of UK people polled wanted to receive no refugees while 38 percent of Germans reported feeling frightened of refugees. The media has portrayed refugees as bogus or as security risks while the Paris attacks and sexual assaults in Cologne were partly blamed on refugees. Evidence demonstrates that even subtle shifts in the language used by the media to describe immigration has an impact on public opinion about the desirability of migration (Blinder and Jeannet, 2014). Immigration and the crisis has been hyper-politicised – the key concern of the public and politicians and perhaps the main bone of contention in the UK's Brexit debate. Mainstream politicians have declared that multiculturalism has failed and espouse the need for all new migrants, refugee arrivals included, to become more like us. Talk of assimilation is intensified further by the new right-wing parties who have risen fast to take advantage of anti-immigration rhetoric and claim that they, unlike existing politicians, will regain control.

In all of the chaos and panic around the crisis, policy has focused upon numbers and how to reduce them. Rather than experiencing a migration crisis, it's been suggested that Europe is in crisis. East and West have disagreed over quotas and North and South argued over the continued viability of the Schengen and Dublin agreements that allow free movement and hold the first state a refugee arrives in responsible for processing their asylum claim and providing support. Souverainism dominates. 

The question of how Europe might integrate over one million new migrants has yet to make the agenda. Indeed, there is no European Integration Policy but instead some Common Basic Principles (CBPs), the first of which defines integration as "the dynamic, two-way process of mutual accommodation by all immigrants and residents of Member States." The CBPs focus on respect for basic EU values, economic contribution, basic host society knowledge, language, education, and social interaction whilst noting the importance of offering understanding and respect for migrants' own cultures. In academe, debate about what constitutes integration has rumbled on since the 1930s with emphasis either on interactions, values, and identity (Bhatia and Ram, 2010) or functional integration indicators such as wage parity and equal opportunity to access education and housing (Ager and Strang, 2004). Policy places migrants as the central focus of integration with some academics arguing that the term should be abandoned altogether because as such it has become too assimilationist (Vertovec, 2010). In recent times there has been disagreement about the target of integration policy, with many EU governments arguing that integration can only begin when migrants are granted to right to remain, but NGOs such as the Refugee Council contending that it begins on arrival. 

So from a policy perspective, the majority of migrants who have arrived during the crisis and await determination of their asylum claims are not supposed to be integrating. Yet they have been dispersed across many of their host countries and are living amongst us. This, I would argue, means it would make sense to ensure that at the very least they gain some basic language skills and cultural knowledge to get by. Further, research I have undertaken with colleagues to explore factors that shape the integration of refugees shows that the uncertainty and poor access to resources during the asylum waiting period can have a range of negative impacts on individuals' lives even 21 months after determination and belated access to integration programmes (Baker, Cheung, and Phillimore, 2016). Experiences such as isolation, enforced unemployment, and racism have the potential to be anti-integrative, undermining attempts to integrate once status is received. After determination of their case, states change their expectations of refugees from keeping them (as asylum seekers) at least notionally separated from society to expecting them to rapidly adapt to, and fit in with, that society. Yet integration support is essential to ensure that adaptation following the demographic changes Europe is currently experiencing is as smooth as possible. Given that integration is meant to be a two-way process, we need to think about who the target of integration policy should be and, in light of restricted finance and capacity, coupled with urgent need, how we can provide integration support for so many, so quickly.

In recent years I have undertaken a number of research projects looking at integration from the perspective of migrants. These have demonstrated in no uncertain terms that new migrants, regardless of their immigration status, are extremely keen to integrate through learning the language, gaining work, paying taxes, and mixing with people. They are also clear that integration can only happen when they are accepted. Yet when we interviewed 26 new migrants for the Knowledge into Integration Governance (KING) project we found that none of our respondents had been able to develop a relationship with a white British resident—despite wanting to do so. The explanation related to locals already having "enough" friends and not needing any more. Beyond not being able to form friendships with white British residents many migrants actually face hostility from them. There is no shortage of empirical evidence demonstrating that experiencing harassment or racism is anti-integrative. Migrants who are verbally or physically attacked often withdraw into their own homes. Our analyses of the Survey of New Refugees in the UK showed that those who reported having experienced racism were more likely to report poor mental and physical health, were less likely to be employed, and more likely to have fewer social networks than those who had not had such an experience (Cheung and Phillimore 2013). So, if acceptance is an important part of integration and we are to consider integration as a two-way process of adaptation, then we need to extend the focus of integration programmes to supporting existing populations to be more accepting and to eradicating racism.

A review of what works in integration for the KING project showed that access to many of the aspects of integration sought by the migrants we interviewed for the project were accelerated when they were able to participate in the right initiatives. These include language and cultural orientation classes, stable employment opportunities, support to be socially mobile, enduring opportunities for interaction with local people, forums, networks, and participatory planning arrangements that bring together diverse local residents to work on local issues and encouraging acceptance in majority populations (see Humphris, Rachel. "Integration practice–initiatives and innovations by institutions and civil society." KING Desk Research Paper n. 15/July 2014). We must focus then on migrants and established populations.

At this moment Europe faces possibly its biggest challenge in integration terms. Given the anti-immigrant politics, publics, and media, the arrival of over a million people who have experienced trauma over a period of years and are now facing long waits to decide on their future, we must urgently act to support integration. In order to hasten integration in times of crisis we need to focus on integration for everyone and by everyone. We do not have time or resources to set up the kinds of programmes that have traditionally (with some degree of success) concentrated upon refugee integration in Nordic countries. 

A starting point is responsible media reporting and political positioning around immigration. Current actions promote panic and defensiveness—the general population lack information about the reasons for the current crisis, details about who is coming and why. They believe the scare-mongering of politicians and the sensationalist headlines and have little knowledge of why so many people are arriving in Europe. Education in schools, colleges, and workplaces could provide accurate information, educate about the reality of mobility as a global impact that is irreversible, and teach vital intercultural communication skills. Local, national, and supra-national states must accept responsibility for promoting integration as two-way adaptation. Schools, workplaces, businesses, and places of worship must support, educate, and encourage people to take responsibility for integration, both in promoting acceptance of change and diversity but also providing integration support for new arrivals on a person-to-person basis as they are encountered. That is not to say there is no need for language and orientation programmes for new arrivals, but that one-to-one communication and support provided on an everyday basis between people living in close proximity is likely to promote rapid integration.   

The Sanctuary approach in the UK and its many offshoots is seeing some local areas gear up for the arrival of refugees—to offer not only donations but time, help, local knowledge, and companionship as needed. In Canada, those arriving under the private sponsorship programme receive the same levels of financial support as those arriving on government programs but many more are self-sufficient in less than 12 months, because their sponsors, local people, provide wide-ranging practical support, advice, guidance, and care. This more human approach to integration could be adopted in Europe. It is happening organically in Germany and Sweden, where large numbers of people have volunteered to help the new arrivals. Clearly, for it to be most effective the remainder of the population needs to be supported to overcome their fears and connect with newcomers.

We could continue as we are in Europe—panicking about numbers, politicking about the dangers of becoming more diverse, promising to reduce diversity and to refocus on national values and selling newspapers with more and more sensationalist stories. Or we could take responsibility for our future. What we do now in relation to the millions who have arrived and will arrive affects future opportunity for all of us. We can genuinely welcome people, accept them as part of our world, support them to have the same opportunities as us, and adapt to our increased diversity, or we can exclude them and await the social and economic consequences.

For more statistics, see the BBC's Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts. March 4, 2016.

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