For Europe, integrating refugees is the next big challenge

Orient Net - World Politics Review 2016-01-30 13:07:00

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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 of them are Syrians. 

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. 

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. 

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. 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.