26 Aug 2018

The Challenges Facing Refugee Integration in Europe

Emina Osmandzikovic

According to Eurostat, an unprecedented number of asylum seekers arrived in Europe in 2015, the majority of whom were primarily fleeing the civil war in Syria. As of early 2018, Germany has been host to the largest number of people, having granted protection to 593,410 asylum seekers in 2015 and 2016, including approximately 400,000 Syrians. The lack of institutional preparedness across the EU in the face of the refugee crisis primarily led to the formulation of ad-hoc policies, which fail to protect European values. The systematic state disengagement with the process has led to integration being outsourced to unvetted organizations with questionable political agenda, resulting in two exploitative narratives. On the one hand, unvetted organizations have used government funding to establish an overwhelming presence in the integration process despite refugees’ wishes and successfully promote the idea of victimhood, especially in regards to Muslim refugees in a non-Muslim context. On the other hand, populist politicians and media have been using the presence of these organizations as a defining voice for all Muslims and a basis for arguing that refugees’ religion and culture diverge from the European values. Not only do these exploitative narratives harm refugees, but their arguments on existential divisions have the potential to cause future security concerns.

To that extent, a 2018 report on refugee integration by the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD), a Brussels-based policy institute, provides a qualitative insight on how different EU Member States have been engaging with a higher number of refugees and their integration. Through the lens of both official policy-makers and individuals from the refugee communities, the EFD report uses a cross-country analysis of multiple integration dimensions: liberal-democratic values, social inclusion, key support services, housing, language and work, socio-cultural inclusion, and socio-economic vulnerabilities. In its examination of the current status quo, EFD promotes the seemingly obvious, but largely disregarded, idea that integration is a complex process that needs to be approached from the perspective of both governments and refugees. The report analyzes the on-ground situation with a high level of nuance and engages with a substantive number of stakeholders whose role in the integration process is crucial to long-term success. Moreover, the EFD’s research process is one of a handful of opportunities to bring together views and opinions from government officials and members of the refugee communities to discuss concerns and challenges in the integration process.

There are three main problems that the EFD report identifies: (i) the lack of inter-institutional coordination in state-based refugee processes, which lags collaborative efforts between governments and other actors, thus leaving ample room for conservative religious organizations to maneuver their agenda among vulnerable refugee communities;  (ii) the widely-practiced outsourcing of services to unvetted entities, especially in regards to outsourcing basic integration services that are a prerequisite of successful integration to conservative religious organizations; and (iii) the absence of on-ground monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, which results in failed standardization of integration policies on national levels and further isolation of refugee communities.

Firstly, the EFD report finds that domestic legislation on asylum and integration is not clearly defined, nor is the jurisdiction of different governmental entities that deal with refugees. Within this system of legal ambiguities and policy overlaps, the repercussions are such that governments prefer a light footprint and choose to outsource key aspects of integration to conservative religious organizations without vetting them. The risk of uncritically allocating resources to conservative religious organizations is that they can influence the integration process negatively. Herein, they argue that their work protects Muslims from influence by the majority society by building up a parallel Islamic sector of public bodies, a so-called Muslim civil society. The danger within this narrative is their claim to be representative of the entire community without any substantive evidence. Moreover, the dilemma of giving conservative religious organizations the possibility of developing their activities is that the state offers funding to a small group of actors who spread messages that undermine the dominant values in European societies. The values called into question by activists in these organizations concern freedom of speech, the value of equality between men and women, and in general, understandings on how society is governed. On the ground, all seven countries in the EFD report have acknowledged issues with conservative religious organizations and individuals.

On the official level, the report highlights that only three countries have the same ministry for immigration and integration – France, Denmark and Germany. In systems where several ministries coordinate integration, the division of labor among governmental and non-governmental bodies becomes highly difficult to navigate, especially for refugees. The amount of lag, in turn, becomes intrinsic to and hinders the integration process, allowing unvetted organizations to take advantage of it and promote their agenda without being sanctioned by governments. The dimension of different regional languages in decentralized countries, such as the case of Wallonia and Flanders in Belgium, further strains coordination between municipal and national offices, preventing them from identifying systematic abuses within the integration process. Moreover, such a system makes refugee feedback almost impossible to reach official state circles. Given the lack of clarity in regards to authority over different aspects of integration, the government representatives were not the ones who identified the absence of vetting mechanisms as a problem. Across all seven countries, the refugees were the only actors that identified tangible oversights. Given the absence of institutional channels for voicing concerns, the oversights can become emblematic of the European integration project. As EFD highlights, this point becomes even more pertinent to the integration process where the government is institutionally hostile to refugees and where, in the sea of unvetted NGOs and faith-based organizations, scarce municipal initiatives that are the only official institutions that can receive direct feedback from refugees stand isolated to national policies. This directly harms refugees, undermines the long-term cohesiveness of European societies and increases security concerns.

Secondly, the superficial state engagement has allowed for ideological tensions between unvetted organizations and conservative policy-makers, both of whom have taken advantage of the refugee influx and the poorly defined integration process.  On the one hand, Islamists are promoting the idea that Islam is under attack and this idea is freely disseminated within refugee communities. As one concrete example, the EFD report notes that several respondents cited instances of fearmongering by conservative religious groups, particularly in relation to female behavior and clothing. This occurs in reception centers as well as in society at large, where tensions regarding cultural, religious or political differences were reported, sometimes leading to violence and intimidation. The problem is amplified when refugees gather in closed communities or parallel societies, frequently located in low-income areas of large cities. The housing situation often has no alternative, as many states have legislative requirements for refugees to stay in their allocated accommodation if they want access to social assistance. A lack of integration activities, such as language classes and civic orientation courses, and forced cohabitation of people from different backgrounds in overcrowded reception centers have led to regular incidents of violence in most countries surveyed. These issues often arise due to sectarian tensions, for religious and political reasons. To that extent, one refugee explained that one can find pro-regime Syrians, anti-Assad Syrians and a grey zone of non-affiliated individuals just escaping the war in the same reception center or community. The disagreements among refugee groups are further exacerbated when conservative religious institutions actively promote the convictions of one group over another, providing a platform for more conservative voices to surface. It is alarming that these organizations freely claim ownership over legitimate representation of entire refugee communities, thus positioning themselves as the only channel through which the integration process can flow between European governments and the refugee communities.

On the other hand, the idea of European incompatibility with Islam is being spearheaded by right-wing politicians across the Member States in their populist diatribes within the communities that host refugees. As the EFD report further states, the rise of right-wing extremist groups who oppose immigration highlight the splintered nature of society leading to social and political polarization. In recent years, the far right have also demonstrated a discernible shift from ethno-racial to cultural-ideological forms of extremism. Right-wing political parties across Europe exploit the fear of refugees within local communities by promoting the idea that “the other” is coming to take over Europe. This narrative became increasingly common in many countries during the 2015–2016 election cycle. As one alarming country example, the spectrum of right-wing nationalism became manifest in Germany, home to 1.5 million refugees. Cities across the country experienced passionate demonstrations and right-wing populist parties made gains in local elections, exploiting people’s fear of refugees among other anti-establishment concerns. To address the problems of Islamist extremism, Western governments tend to identify Muslim communities as the most vulnerable to radicalization, without any exposure to the situation on the ground and no deep understanding of the diversity within refugee Muslim communities.

In such a system, key aspects of refugee integration, such as language classes, show too much reliance on conservative religious organizations. Often times, they are the only entities providing certain services that are a necessary condition for refugees to pursue integration. The extent to which these organizations support integration remains ambiguous, thus leaving sufficient space for these organizations to freely disseminate divisive ideologies among the refugee populations. In the Netherlands, some refugees expressed concern that women had been verbally abused for not wearing the veil in some Arabic and Qur’anic schools. They also asked that authorities refrain from assuming that religious organizations were automatically entitled to address the spiritual needs of Muslims in the Netherlands. In Sweden, a number of civil society respondents criticized the government for allowing conservative religious organizations to take over tasks related to refugees’ material needs or education, including preschool education for young refugee children; these were funded by the government but lacked any oversight. In France, respondents reported obscure money-raising schemes in halal butcher shops that were allegedly for relief purposes but outside any state control. The alarming consequence is the potential spillover effect to other aspects of integration that jeopardizes the refugees’ status in the wider community, thus creating highly polarized societies who live in fear of “the other.” Moreover, the evaluation and monitoring of integration-related and government-funded initiatives by religious organizations who directly engage with refugees is not defined. From the viewpoint of governments, however, this type of funding is considered an integration success, as it directly speaks to practicing religious pluralism and bettering the integration process. The unvetted funding of religious organizations that may not align with the refugee communities speaks to the extent of European unpreparedness to engage with and practice religious pluralism. Such practices imply deep cracks in the construction of the secular identity that Europe prides itself in and only leads to potential home-grown security concerns.

Thirdly, given that there are no evaluation mechanisms, the governments have no channel of obtaining feedback from refugees and using it to improve reception and integration. In the interviews, refugees expressed that the presence of conservative religious organizations does not better their integration in any substantive way, urging for an evaluation of entities that participate in the process. To that extent, conservative religious organizations are doing a disservice to refugees by promoting an agenda that does not align with their political and religious convictions. As the problematic aspect of the current status quo, the refugees are the ones who identify the problem, rather than the governments, but their feedback remains disconnected from the official state circles. And although commendable, the engagement of local communities in integration is heavily region-specific. The imposition of systematic differences is contingent on the area that refugees have been assigned to, rather than their individual characteristics. The local reception, however, depends on the changing waves of public opinion, which has had the tendency to oscillate.

The political will within the Member States is insufficient to acknowledge grievances among different refugee groups as a legitimate reason to introduce changes in key aspects of initial reception, such as housing. However, there ought to be a security concern in the fact that refugee groups with different religious and political convictions are put in the same reception centers or same communities and that key aspects of integration are led by conservative religious organizations without any vetting or monitoring. In an extreme scenario, refugees might have no other choice but to radicalize if they wish to integrate.

EFD recommends that the Member States take a more concrete leadership role in the processes of reception and integration. This implies changing policies and practices with vetted professionals and a group of trustworthy institutions, streamline language classes to cover regional differences, especially in decentralized countries, and implement more appropriate vocational training for better access to the local labor markets. Coordination needs to start with national governments in a top-down approach both within and among Member States. This implies monitoring the integration process, thus giving populist politicians less material to work with and molding the integration discourse to decrease future security concerns and minimize the creation of parallel societies.

In lieu of EU’s official stance towards Syria, which has oscillated around seemingly strategic indecisiveness, governments continue to avoid distinguishing among refugees’ religious and political beliefs. Such a stance de-individualizes entire refugee communities and bears a great security risk, given that it can lead to rejection by local societies. Moreover, the disinterest in funding refugee led initiatives within their communities, as identified by the EFD report, shows the lack of government trustworthiness towards refugees. EFD did not identify any refugee-led initiatives that have received government funding or have been included in the integration process along with local stakeholders. Moreover, the uneven engagement of local communities with refugees has also gone unaddressed due to a lack of internal consensus. Cities, such as Vienna, Berlin and Gratz, individually stand in stark contrast to a clear need for a systematic municipal approach, which has so far gone under the radar. In addition to pressure from conservative religious institutions and open calls for the rejection of refugees by populist politicians and media, the failure of governments to trust refugees and allow them to participate in the integration process only works to push their unheard grievances towards potentially extremist ends.

To reiterate, the EFD report stresses the importance of introducing refugees to core European values, especially in the early stages of integration. In order to preserve European identity and security, there needs to be a fundamental change in the mentality of acceptance. Forced migration is a consequence, not the problem itself. Within this logic, refugee integration has to be addressed as one stage in the larger process that governments need to tackle together with refugees rather than outsource to unvetted institutions. The aloof outsourcing of integration to unvetted organizations puts Europe at a self-made security risk that it cannot afford to undergo in the near future. In the aftermath of the refugee crisis, refugee integration management ought to be thoroughly re-examined, given its potential to act as a litmus test for European identity and security.  Given that past cases of large refugee influxes demonstrate potential radicalization of refugees, especially among disenfranchised youth in search of identity and extremist groups who work within relief efforts, the  EU Member States need to recognize the importance of listening to refugee voices.

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