Effective integration of legal migrants and refugees will benefit Europe's labour markets, plagued by skills and labour shortages. If tackled properly, the migration challenge could be turned into a real opportunity not only for our economies but also for our society as a whole, participants in the European Migration Forum (EMF) concluded last week.
The 2018 Forum, jointly organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the Commission, focused on the theme of labour market inclusion of migrants, whose unemployment rate in the EU remains high, standing at 18%, which is double the EU average.
Discussions at this year's Forum revealed that the obstacles on the path towards successful integration of migrants were numerous – ranging from insufficient or inefficient funding, via discrimination, prejudice and language barriers, to the lack of proper validation of migrants' skills, which often go unrecognised in job markets or are mismatched with local needs.
The Forum was established as a platform for dialogue between civil society, institutions and authorities on issues relating to migration and integration of third-country nationals. This time, in its fourth consecutive year, it gathered more than 280 participants.
They took part in panel discussions and in a variety of workshops, clustered around a number of cross-cutting themes, such as integration in the labour market through stronger cooperation – including at a local level, capitalising on the skills of migrants, promoting regular employment and decent work, and a more diverse and open labour market.
Opening the Forum, the Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said that failing to integrate migrants would not only create discrepancies in the EU's social fabric and economies, but would also further feed populism, with the risk of destabilising and further dividing societies.
"Whether it is in Athens or in Stockholm: migrants want to work, participate and be involved", said Mr Avramopoulos, dismissing claims that migrants were being prioritised over vulnerable groups in the existing labour force.
"This is not true. All these efforts go hand in hand, to create stronger and more cohesive societies for everyone, where each and every one participates fully," he said.
In his opening speech, EESC President Georges Dassis said that migrants needed to benefit from the same rights as EU nationals but must respect the EU's model in terms of issues such as gender equality, adding that integration went in both directions.
He stressed that welcoming refugees who were trying to flee war and persecution was not only a moral imperative, but also a legal obligation that each country committed to as a member of the EU, and argued that Member States had to be held accountable.
"With the help of available funds, such as the ESF, measures can be implemented to solve problems and promote employment opportunities for migrants", said Mr Dassis.
Member States have several funds at their disposal to invest in integration, including the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) and the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF).
Speaking during the Forum session on access to EU funding, Catherine Woollard, Secretary General of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), said that under the current Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), 88% of AMIF funding, totalling some EUR 3.1 billion, went to national programmes managed by the Member States. This meant that money was largely controlled by state agencies.
"This for us does raise some concerns at this point in time, as some Member States are now in flagrant violation of the EU asylum law and some have governments that are anti-migration", she said.
Another concern was that some Member States were not actually using the available funds for integration or that they were disproportionately spending on return programmes for migrants.
“Our concern is that prerequisites for a dignified return are often not in place," Ms Woollard said.
The participants recommended that more funds should be provided to those who actively work in a practical way to support the rights of migrants and refugees as well as to local authorities; mechanisms should be set up to reabsorb and reallocate unspent money for integration projects; and it should be made obligatory under the next MFF for a certain percentage of AMIF funds to be spent on integration. They also considered it essential to simplify the rules for obtaining different funding.
Beate Gminder of the Commission said it was recognised across the board that there was a need to continue funding and perhaps even to increase it under the new MFF, but this was difficult at the moment and it was not clear how big the financial envelope would be in the end.
Another session focused on ways to achieve successful integration into labour markets; the audience heard testimonies by two migrants, Maria Lourdes Gernan from the Philippines and Ramin Shadani from Iran, about their experiences with the EU's labour markets.
Speakers agreed that the validation and development of migrants' skills as early as possible could prove crucial. The importance of learning the language of the host community was also stressed.
"Learning the language can make the difference equal to be in paradise or hell", said Mr Shadani, who recently opened a translation and interpreting start-up company in Slovenia.
A failure to listen to and talk to migrants is a "major shortcoming in the EU's policymaking", said Eugenio Ambrosi, Regional Director for the European Economic Area, the EU and NATO at the International Organisation for Migration.
With their proper inclusion into the labour market, migrants become more self-reliant, less vulnerable and less marginalised. "This is the best security response – far more efficient than sealing borders that can't be sealed anyway", Mr Ambrosi argued.
EESC member José Antonio Moreno Díaz said it was important to change the way we communicated about migration: "We need to change our toxic speech, most of all at the institutional level, so that our citizens stop being afraid of their neighbours."
Discussions held during workshops also resulted in several recommendations, including: matching migrants' skills with labour market realities; providing support both for migrants as job seekers and also for employers; taking a bottom-up approach which acknowledges different contexts; close cooperation with civil society; fighting against exploitation of and discrimination against migrants in the workplace by implementing EU laws effectively at national level and battling prejudice; establishing a multi-stakeholder approach that could allow the issues to be tackled from a number of different angles; promoting enterprises that serve as role models for successful integration, and many others.
Cristian Pîrvulescu, president of the EESC Permanent Study Group on Immigration and Integration, closed the Forum, concluding that "migration is not a problem, it is a solution. The problem is political, not legal or social."