On the Frontlines of Integration

With the onset of Brexit, Trump, and several European nations ‘lurching to the right,’ it is easy to assume that the futures of recent immigrants and refugees in these areas are bleak. They face discrimination, higher rates of unemployment, and language barriers—to name just a few of the challenges waiting for them upon arrival. However, many immigrants and refugees do not fit neatly into this broad categorization. In fact, media coverage has overlooked the work of city and state governments in Europe in developing innovative integration policies. According to Giorgos Kaminis, mayor of Athens,

“Cities in arrival, transit and destination countries in Europe are in a central position regarding the social, humanitarian and financial challenges caused by this situation. We have a particular role in the guarantee of basic protection to asylum claimants and in the reception and integration of newcomers in our society.”

Local and state-level initiatives, while a promising start, deserve more from their national governments—in terms of funding, refinement, and assessment.

There are already anecdotal stories of small-scale success; small towns like Riace in Italy have provided apartments and job training to refugees, revitalizing a formerly aging village economy. However, this kind of program actually extends to multiple larger metropolises across Europe. The most prominent evidence is the creation of Solidarity Cities, an initiative of EUROCITIES. Founded in 1986, EUROCITIES functions as a coalition of the local governments of 170 European cities. Under their new initiative, which facilitates programs like ImpleMentoring and the Integrating Cities Project, these cities are allowing refugees access to a sort of urban citizenship. Their acceptance of refugees into local political structures is similar to, but more formalized than, policies adopted by sanctuary cities in the United States.

The Solidarity Cities projects rest on participating cities assessing themselves in various areas, chief among them commitment, access to equity in employment and educational opportunities, and engagement in regards to refugees. The results of even these assessments reveal much about what refugee integration looks like on the front lines. Only ten out of the twenty signatory cities are confident enough to claim that they ensure adequate access to social services for refugees. However, most signatories have undergone major overhauls in their integration policy approaches. Some streamlined them into departments for welfare or culture; others separated out the mission of refugee and immigrant integration into dedicated offices, devoting more full-time staff or allocating more money and resources to the effort.

What stand out are the efforts of cities like Munich, Nuremberg, and Nantes to give refugees a voice in local politics, even if their rights are restricted in national politics. To this end, migrant councils, participation in local elections, and other ways to give refugees voting rights have become prominent in these cities—and have become more common in other cities. Although the voting rights of immigrants and refugees are restricted on the national stage, many European countries have embraced limited voting rights since the 1970s based on certain conditions. These include residency requirements, type of residency status, and reciprocal agreements with the country of origin for some nationalities. Although immigrant voting is still a small phenomenon, research has shown that immigrants given the right to vote in some contexts are more likely to become politically active and civically engaged in their communities.  

Although young and still underdeveloped, programs like Solidarity Cities show promise. By holding cities accountable and facilitating information exchange, such local-level initiatives have the potential to integrate refugees and new immigrants more successfully than nationalist rhetoric and governments would let on.

Predictably, the progress made on the ground is slowed by challenges caused by the top-down structure of refugee integration policy in Europe. Specifically, with the right wing gaining power in national governments, it is becoming harder for local governments to find the funding and the political power to start new initiatives, or even continue ones that are already clearly beneficial to refugees.

The budget challenges for this endeavor are unique to Europe. Funding for refugee integration comes from a combination of national allocations, the European Security Fund, the European Integration Fund, and the Asylum Migration and Integration Fund. As numerous as the sources are, there have been issues transferring the funds from these international organizations to local city governments. This is due to the way they are structured: rather than allocating funds directly to local governments, these international organizations distribute funds to national-level departments and programs. The monitoring and evaluation departments of these funds only observe the end results. Therefore, there is little to no accountability with regards to national allocations being funneled to local governments which need them. Another layer of complexity arises with the shifts in responsibilities happening between local and national governments. Despite suffering from missing funds and overall budget cuts, municipalities are now being held responsible for more of the integration process—for example, in Sweden and the United Kingdom, formerly nationally funded job training or language assistance programs suddenly fall under the purview of local governments. On top of already suffering from reduced budgets, they are now being told to do more with each Euro.

The European response to refugees thus presents a number of internal contradictions. Whereas national rhetoric is harsh and unwelcoming, cities and larger municipalities show a trend of formalizing an approach of respect for and integration of refugees. On top of being stripped of funding and political willpower from their national and international superiors, cities are being forced to shoulder even more responsibilities, threatening their effectiveness. Now more than ever, national governments must acknowledge their smaller-scale counterparts for their efforts and successes in making refugee and immigrant integration a reality. They must provide them with the necessary funding to continue existing programs and to accommodate their new responsibilities. National governments should provide feedback and guidance to initiatives like Solidarity Cities, so they can move from being a loose association to a solid network that facilitates the exchange of information and technical expertise on refugee integration.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

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