Hearing at the EESC displayed a range of civil society and public initiatives fostering migrant inclusion
When civil society organisations work to fully include refugees and migrants in the social, economic and cultural life of their new communities, their efforts will bear fruit only with political support. Successful long-term integration of newcomers into European society very much depends on efficient cooperation between all stakeholders.
The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held an event on 9 July addressing the complexity of the integration process and considering how its success depends on many factors such as a welcoming attitude on the part of the host society or finding suitable housing or employment for migrants.
The hearing "Hand in Hand: Social and Economic Inclusion of Newcomers" brought together EESC members and representatives of Eurofound and non-governmental organisations, including Caritas Europa, Eurodiaconia, the Dutch Refugee Council, Minderhedenforum and the European Network of Migrant Women.
A representative of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) contributed to the discussion via videolink from Geneva.
A developed society is a democratic and inclusive society. It is crucial to remember this at a time when representatives of the far right and populists try to use immigrants and refugees as scapegoats for all the problems in our society, said the president of the EESC Group on Immigration and Integration, Carlos Trindade.
All panellists pointed to the key role played by civil society organisations, given their expertise in various areas and closeness to the situation on the ground, but stressed the need for a favourable social and political environment and good cooperation with local communities and government organisations.
Although civil society often steps in where the state could not meet the needs on the ground, its effectiveness could be seriously hampered by lack of funding or the right legal framework, said Lukas Humer of Eurodiaconia, a European network of churches and Christian NGOs.
There were many useful examples of public initiatives to facilitate integration. Recent research by Eurofound, presented at the hearing by Klára Fóti, had explored the role of public services in integrating refugees and asylum seekers.
Among the key challenges identified by this research had been efforts to offer suitable language courses to hard-to-reach target groups, such as people unable to read or write or who lacked a basic education. Another finding had been the need to address poor mental health among asylum seekers and refugees, a condition which often went unrecognised.
Ms Fóti singled out the German "Step by Step" project, which showed how important it was to identify trauma early on and to assess the specific mental health needs of different groups of refugees:
Very few other measures paid particular attention to these issues – they were mostly preoccupied with fast labour market integration or language acquisition.
Speakers also stressed the importance of involving host communities in measures targeting migrants, as this would give local people a sense of ownership. Paying particular attention to the most vulnerable people in the host society would also help to tackle prejudice.
The importance of creating welcoming societies as a prerequisite for successful inclusion was echoed by Esther Bohé, who presented the MIND project conducted by Caritas Europe. The goal of the project was to create positive and inclusive narratives for migration in Europe and to raise public awareness of the relationship between sustainable development and migration.
As part of the MIND project, Caritas Europe had just launched the social media summer campaign #whatishome, which asked people to reflect on the meaning of home. Caritas hoped that the campaign would help the public understand what compelled people to migrate and thereby create a more favourable image of migration in Europe.
The Caritas network had also published its Common Home series, a set of national publications exploring the current realities of migration and how it affects economy. The series had produced some interesting findings, e.g. that Bulgaria had 8.6 times as many emigrants as immigrants or that the number of foreign residents in Italy matched the number of Italians living abroad. In Austria, migrants contributed more to social security than they took out in benefits.
Labour market integration
As for labour market integration of migrants, the hurdles and barriers were many, including prejudice, language or cultural barriers, and inadequate skills or skills mismatches. The panellists presented possible solutions and opportunities for migrants to overcome these obstacles and integrate into job markets more easily.
Fulvia Farinelli of UNCTAD highlighted the need to promote migrant entrepreneurship, which benefited both host countries and countries of origin, as well as refugees themselves in terms of their economic independence, social integration and psychological well-being.
Marlinde van Gilst of the Dutch Refugee Council cited recognition of qualifications and skills as another important prerequisite for successful integration. Sometimes migrants had the necessary skills but did not know how to make their professional profiles attractive on the job market or how to "sell" themselves during job interviews, as the recruitment process was very different in their home countries.
Ms Van Gilst presented the European Skills Profile Tool for Third Country Nationals developed by the European Commission. The tool functioned like a "huge CV" and was available in more than 20 languages, including Arabic, Farsi and Somali. It provided an initial assessment of skills and a diploma comparison, but also gave an individual development plan.
Another opportunity, especially for over-qualified or over-skilled female migrant workers, could be volunteering schemes, which – if run properly – helped such migrants develop new contacts and gain self-confidence in applying for jobs that matched their competences.
Women tended to be in particular danger of de-skilling, said Sinem Yilmaz of the European Network of Migrant Women, whose Smart Volunteering project aimed to encourage skilled volunteering among migrant women. Women had such big dreams, but in the end those dreams would come up against the reality of the jobs that were actually available.
Sophia Honggokoesoemo from Minderhedenforum presented Mentor2Work, a programme to improve the opportunities of migrant job-seekers by matching them with mentors.
The project was part of a broader affirmative action initiative in Belgium to promote equal participation of ethnic minorities in the Belgian labour market, as the country now had the lowest employment rate for people of non-EU nationality for more than 10 years.
Discrimination is a huge problem here and we need to combat it. It really is time for some positive action, Ms Honggokoesoemo concluded.
(You can find the presentations of all the speakers at the event page).