Skip to main content

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. But most EU states are not meeting these requirements.

Rough Journey, Cold Welcome

First and foremost, the lack of safe, legal and orderly channels for migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees to reach the EU has led many to resort to criminal smuggling networks and risk their lives on treacherous journeys. In 2015, over 3,700 men, women and children died or were reported missing in the Mediterranean, the world’s deadliest migration route.

While some critics whip up panic over the numbers of asylum-seekers arriving in Europe, the fact is that these numbers pale in comparison to how many of those fleeing conflict and repression have been taken in by neighboring countries, especially in the Middle East. Syria alone has produced over 4 million refugees, and the vast majority of them are in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. In tiny Lebanon, Syrians now constitute a quarter of the population. EU governments and the non-EU countries of Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Switzerland have pledged to take in and resettle a combined total of over 22,500 refugees over the next two years through UNHCR-coordinated programs, a marked increase over the previous EU resettlement commitments. Discussions are underway for a specific resettlement program for Syrians from Turkey. These are all noteworthy, but efforts remain insufficient given the scale of the global refugee crisis, and the EU can and should do more.

Scenes of chaos and the proliferation of fences at Europe’s borders have signaled the antithesis of welcome. For months on end, daily arrivals of thousands of people on Greek islands created an enduring humanitarian crisis. The tremendous work of volunteer organizations and simple gestures of support by ordinary Europeans have provided a poignant counterpoint to government failures. 

Meanwhile, the divisive debate around a plan to relocate 160,000 asylum-seekers from countries experiencing the most arrivals, beginning with Italy and Greece, is deeply problematic, as is its sluggish implementation. The plan is a modest step toward a more equitable distribution of responsibility for asylum-seekers, which at the moment is concentrated in a handful of countries. But it was adopted over strenuous objections, including on the grounds that certain countries would be unable to absorb and integrate even very small numbers of asylum-seekers.

Slovakian authorities bluntly said they wanted to take in only Christians, claiming that Muslims “would not feel at home” and would be difficult to integrate. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said his country’s actions, including the construction of border fences to keep refugees from entering, were aimed at defending Christian Europe from a Muslim influx. Both countries have challenged the EU relocation plan in the European Court of Justice. Though the first relocation pledges were adopted in May, only 208 people have benefitted from the program.

Finally, words matter. Negative portrayals of migrants and asylum-seekers in the media and by public figures do a tremendous disservice to the vast majority of those arriving, and to the principle of inclusive societies. It is not only far-right, anti-immigrant parties that have distorted reality to prey on people’s fears. In Britain, Cameron referred to a “swarm” of people coming across the Mediterranean. In Hungary, Orban describes those arriving as illegal economic migrants, warriors or potential terrorists. Following the Paris attacks, he ratcheted up the rhetoric, saying, “The factual point is that all the terrorists are basically migrants, the question is when they migrated to the European Union.”

Xenophobic and anti-Muslim rhetoric from people in positions of power risks nurturing a climate of intolerance in a region where minorities, including Muslim communities, and asylum-seekers already face significant levels of discrimination and hate crimes. If not countered forcefully through responsible rhetoric, anti-discrimination measures and accountability for hate crimes, this climate fundamentally undermines the integration of newcomers into European societies. By contrast, French President Francois Hollande’s pledge in the wake of the November Paris attacks that France would stand by its commitment to resettle 30,000 refugees over the next two years, and his acknowledgement that “the people of Syria and Iraq have fled because they are martyred by the same people who attack us today,” were a striking and positive example of the messages the European public needs to hear.

The Makings of a Functional Integration System

Once asylum-seekers are on EU territory and in the system, they should have access to basic conditions and services that can lay the right foundation for further integration measures to enable those who obtain legal status to remain. It’s clear that the integration process has to start early, and the current strains on asylum systems in a number of EU countries receiving the majority of EU asylum-seekers may have long-term consequences if not addressed properly. Broadly speaking, the main stepping-stones to successful integration are legal status, appropriate accommodation, access to employment and education—including language classes—and family reunification.

A properly functioning system that guarantees a fair and efficient procedure for determining who will receive some kind of protected status and the right to remain is key. Protracted procedures, during which asylum-seekers may be idle and living off state-provided benefits, create uncertainty and can impact mental health in ways that undermine integration prospects down the line. Many EU member states have backlogs of hundreds of thousands of cases, with as many people waiting for their first interview. In response to the surge of applications in Germany, authorities there have significantly increased the number of adjudicators. Other countries should follow suit, but also consider measures that could help clear the backlog, such as granting protection to certain nationalities, for example Syrians, on a prima facie basis. 

Living arrangements are also important. The EU Reception Directive obliges authorities to provide for asylum-seekers for the duration of the procedure, including by offering housing. There are no binding rules about what kind of housing should be provided, and most countries have a mix of collective housing, including large reception centers, and smaller family or group apartments. Accommodation that facilitates interaction with host communities is clearly better, but this requires a measure of planning and consultation with local residents that has often been lacking, particularly in the current refugee crisis. It also requires regular updating of the census information often used to determine funding for local services by governments to ensure that increased capacity in education, health and other services is available in places where asylum-seekers are living. 

Too often we have seen authorities in EU member states opting to house asylum-seekers in isolated “camps,” or parachuting groups of asylum-seekers into unprepared communities where residents have at times reacted with violentprotests tinged with xenophobia. Both approaches have an immeasurable negative impact on the long-term integration prospects for the asylum-seekers themselves.

EU law allows for detention of asylum-seekers under certain circumstances, but only for the shortest time necessary. UNHCR guidelines make clear that detention of asylum-seekers should be an exceptional measure, and that members of vulnerable groups generally should not be detained, in part due to the lasting effect on individuals’ ability to adjust following even brief periods of detention.

Almost all asylum-seekers are eager to work, and granting this right and facilitating access to the labor market as early as possible can be enormously beneficial to the individuals themselves, as well as to host societies and the integration process. EU law that entered into force this year requires countries to allow asylum-seekers to work after nine months from the time they file their application, but some EU countries have yet to adapt their national legislation and still bar access to the labor market for up to a year or even until the application has been approved. Others, like Italy, which now allows asylum-seekers to work two months after arrival, have more favorable provisions.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission—the EU’s executive body—has said he is “strongly in favor” of allowing asylum-seekers to work while their applications are being examined. The promise of quick access to the right to work upon relocation, as well as the possibility of vocational training and the recognition of degrees and professional qualifications from countries of origin, could help encourage a larger number of eligible asylum-seekers to participate in that program.

Under EU law, all asylum-seeking children and children of asylum-seeking adults should have access to education within three months of filing for asylum. While education can be provided in reception centers, best practice mandates integrating children into the national school system, with the help of preparatory classes to help them learn the language and adjust to a whole new system. The presence of significant numbers of children from different educational backgrounds who have not fully mastered the language poses obvious challenges for teachers and the entire school community. So it is important to invest in adequate training and support for all professionals. Learning the local language is also an essential step toward integration for adults. Ideally, asylum-seekers have access to language classes, often run by volunteer organizations in many countries, from the beginning of the process.

Finally, experts agree that family reunification is vital to ensuring successful integration. Many of those who flee must leave loved ones behind, and reuniting with them in a safe place is often an asylum-seeker’s most urgent priority. Only recognized refugees have the right to family reunification in the EU, and while they benefit from more lenient requirements than lawful foreign residents do, many obstacles remain. EU-wide rules on family reunification are based on a narrow concept of the family unit: the core nuclear family, and normally only children who have not reached the age of adulthood. This can exclude common-law spouses, adult siblings and extended dependent family members who are de facto parts of the family unit. And those who are granted subsidiary protection—a lesser, more temporary protection—do not have the same rights to family reunification as those with full refugee status. There are concerns in Germany and elsewhere that family reunification may make a just-about manageable influx unmanageable. But ensuring family reunification for all those who have protection in the EU is vital to their long-term integration.

It is often noted that asylum-seekers and refugees have particular needs because of the nature of their flight from persecution or war, but they are also especially resilient. In my conversations with hundreds of asylum-seekers over the years, what I’ve noted is that they want what most of us want: to feel safe, to be on the right side of the law, to work, to be surrounded by their loved ones and to see a better future for their children. If Europe can work collectively to provide those building blocks for a better life, it will turn what has so far been a crisis into an opportunity. As Merkel put it, wir schaffen das.


Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.