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Lessons learned from integrating refugees into labour markets and society could benefit everyone

The successful integration of third-country nationals into the European Union's labour markets should be seen as a real opportunity for society as a whole, and the measures taken in this regard could be used to create better opportunities for all citizens and especially for other disadvantaged groups such as minorities and the long-term unemployed, revealed a conference held this month at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

Speakers at the conference "Lessons from the integration of refugees for future labour market and social policies: From crisis management to everyday practice" warned that a failure to integrate refugees who will stay in the EU might lead to destabilisation and a rise in populist movements across Europe, making integration a top political priority.

"Yes, the investment in integration in the short- and medium-term is costly. However, it is not only an investment in refugees themselves but in the whole society, in measures that could be used for all, leading to more social cohesion and to economic growth," president of the EESC's Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship Pavel Trantina said in his opening speech.

"We have to give all possible support to the integration of migrants. Their work provides added value to our societies," said Carlos Trindade, president of the EESC's Labour Market Observatory (LMO), which organised the conference together with the European Commission. "But positive initiatives must be extended to other vulnerable groups in the welcoming society so that social cohesion becomes a reality," he added.

Taking stock of recent efforts in this field, the conference featured various relevant initiatives and projects that have been undertaken by civil society, EU institutions, national authorities and foundations across Europe. The projects were presented at several workshops which focused on job seeking and job matching, skills and qualifications, housing and inclusion, children and young adults and fast-track integration on the labour market.

One of the projects presented was the EU Skills Profile Tool for Third Country Nationals, developed by the Commission and launched at the conference for the first time. This multilingual tool should help to document and identify skills possessed by refugees and serve as the basis for offering personalised advice on next steps such as validating skills and the recognition of diplomas.

The event also showcased fast-track integration initiatives from Nordic countries, which consist of targeted and integrated measures for refugees and asylum seekers, in particular where there are skills shortages.

There are currently 20 million third-country nationals who legally reside in the EU, making up 4% of the total EU population and this number is expected to rise. Some 54% of migrants of working age were employed in 2015, compared to 66% of host country nationals in that age group. Only 45% of women with migrant background were in employment in 2015.

Migrants also have higher poverty rates and often work in jobs below their qualifications, according to Manuela Geleng, acting director at the Commission's DG Employment. "We need to change the way we integrate people with migrant backgrounds into our society. Their successful integration is a priority for Europe now and will remain so in the long term," she recalled.

Although integration of refugees who stay does improve with time, it still takes them up to 20 years on average to have a similar employment rate to the native-born.

Matthias Oel, director of DG Migration at the Commission pointed out the importance of an EU wide framework which enables the Member States to adopt an integrated approach and cooperate on this matter across policy areas. This was provided by the Commission's Action Plan on the Integration of Third-Country Nationals in 2016.

Speakers at the conference identified several areas which need to be tackled to foster and speed up integration, such as the legal framework, policy measures, education and the recognition of existing skills.

A combination of language and on-the-job training, "early intervention" initiatives to shorten the time taken to access labour markets, the provision of clear legal information and the lifting of legal barriers were among the solutions that allow faster integration.

Avoiding one-size-fits-all responses and cooperation with local authorities and social partners were also seen as crucial. "Social partners can help provide effective action on integration where public policy is weakly enforced," said Claire Courteille-Mulder from the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Heather Roy of Eurodiacionia, a Christian NGO network for social justice, stressed the importance of giving the refugees a voice on this matter and emphasised that for social inclusion, participation in society was equally as important as economic growth and jobs – as is a change in attitudes.

"Our society is not made up of sides. It is a circle and the question is how to enlarge it so that all are included," Ms Roy said. "We, the privileged, have issues with hospitality in our society. We need to widen the circle."