Obstacles to Refugee Integration in the European Union Member States

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  • Obstacles to Refugee Integration in theEuropean UnionMember States


    Sextant Group, Department of HealthManagement Organization,National School of Public Health, Athens


    Sextant Group, Department of Sociology, National School of Public Health, Athens

    Biographical interviews with refugees in all 15 Member States of the European

    Union indicated some of the major obstacles to integration they experienced inthe host societies. One of the most fundamental barriers came from the racismand ignorance of some Europeans, experienced at both the personal and

    institutional levels. Negative attitudes were compounded by the enforceddependence and marginalization of refugees in Member States with highlydeveloped welfare systems. Personalities of refugees appeared to be the othercritical factor in the ability and wish to be accepted in the new host society. The

    paper contains quotations from the interviews that illustrate the process andexperiences of refugees that relate to the issue of integration in the EuropeanUnion.

    This paper presents data from a study undertaken in 1999 in the context of aEuropean funded project carried out by the ECRE Task Force on Integration1

    aiming at understanding refugee perspectives on integration in the EU, one ofthe accepted durable solutions for refugees. Other work by the Task Force wasconcerned with information about good practice2 by European agencies suchas NGOs and governments who work for refugee integration. The mainobjective of the study, undertaken in all Member States and with refugees froma wide range of backgrounds, was to gain insights from refugees themselvesabout their experiences of adapting to and integrating in the new host society.In particular the role of NGOs and other agencies, including government, insupporting integration, needed to be explored from the experiential perspectiveof refugees.A representative set of voices from refugees throughout Europe was thought

    to be essential in understanding the impact of policy and services onintegration. It is common for many agencies to speak on behalf of refugeeswith the attendant danger of ignoring their lived experience. This study focusedon refugees personal survival and dynamic integration strategies, recognizing

    Journal of Refugee Studies Vol. 15, No. 3 2002

    &Oxford University Press 2002

  • this as a way of empowering them. The context of these interviews is aEuropean Union of 15 Member States whose economies, welfare and socialinfrastructure, attitudes and practices towards migrants and refugees are verydiverse. The state welfare systems emerged as continuing important parametersin helping refugee integration, with Southern Member States offering onlypiecemeal and low levels of support. The attempt to move towardsharmonization in refugee practices and policies in Europe is neither easy nora short-term proposition given these continuing difficulties in welfare stateprovisions. Nonetheless it is important that the perspectives and activities ofrefugees themselves are taken into consideration. Despite these expecteddifferences originating in welfare state support and citizenship rights, there alsoemerged shared views, experiences and expectations.The research goal was to explore the great variety of experiences of

    refugee integration in these very different national contexts, amongstindividuals who originate from divergent socio-economic, cultural andpolitical backgrounds and who are also diverse in terms of age, genderand their family and kinship ties. Studies on the mental health of refugeechildren (Westermeyer and Wahmanholm 1996, Rousseau 1995), havebrought to light some consequences of adaptation to the new societyincluding depressive symptoms and other mental health problems. Theresearchers expressed the need for further investigation on post-flightresettlement as well as on post migration community environment, as littleinformation is available on these issues.The research presented here provided the opportunity for refugees to

    refer to issues and problems they faced in adapting and living in the hostsociety and thus contributes to knowledge about processes of settlement inEurope.

    Concepts of Integration

    There are extensive debates amongst social scientists as to the nature of thecontemporary relationship between minority cultures and the dominant cultureand society. According to perhaps a conservative estimate by Premdas (1996)there are 4,000 ethnocultural groups worldwide, often living uncomfortablywithin the existing 185 national states. Theories of globalization point to theimportance of increasing mobility and migration in the world today (Cohenand Kennedy 2000). Thus an overwhelming majority of states are now multi-ethnic, often leading to conflicts between different ethno-cultural groups.Hence the debate as to the national identity of those living within the modernstate, the degree to which people should and do belong to the overall politicaland social system. The nature of the relationship between minorities and themajority and in particular the political and social rights of minorities vary inline with prevailing national ideological debates. Countries heavily composedof immigrants such as the USA, Canada and Australia, developed theoriesabout integration of which the melting pot theory (Gordon 1964) is most

    Obstacles to Refugee Integration in EU States 305

  • widely known. Gordon argued for an assimilation sequence over generationsfrom cultural to structural assimilation, and finally the conscious choice toassimilate accompanied by intermarriage.3 The reality of relations between thedifferent ethnic minorities in these countries was highly diverse and, accordingto Rumbaut (1997), the process of assimilation remained incomplete withCanada, Australia and post apartheid South Africa shifting towards anacceptance of cultural pluralism.In Europe, where immigration became an issue only after 1945, this theory

    was not widely propounded since the national states did not perceivethemselves as receiving countries. Rex (1996) has pointed to the differentnational reactions in Europe, though debates are generally within a democratictradition which stresses incorporation on equal terms (p. 133); up until the1990s, German policy denied the permanent presence of immigrants withassociated political and social rights (Peterson 1999: 8, Sonntag-Wolgast 1999);the French policy position assumed the cultural and political integration of allthose within its territories as citizens and the disappearance of minoritycultures (Murard 1999: 30); while the UK and the Netherlands accepted thatmulticulturalism should be the policy ideal (Atkin 1996). This was clear in thestatement in 1968 by the then British Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, thatintegration had to be understood not as a flattening process of uniformity,but cultural diversity, coupled with equal opportunity, in an atmosphere ofmutual tolerance (Rex 1996: 134). In the paper presented here the perceptionsof refugees concerning integration are near to the perspective of Roy Jenkins:despite the varying national contexts, refugees shared the common dream ofequal opportunities and rights, democratic participation and the acceptance ofcultural diversity without discrimination and racism. In this research refugeeswere left to define the term integration in their own way. While for themajority it was understood to mean a process of learning to accept and beaccepted in the new society, there were those who reacted negatively to theword as if it were equivalent to assimilation, i.e. forced to become like those inthe dominant culture.Clearly integration can be measured using objective indicators that compare

    refugees position to that of the dominant majority, including access to jobs,education, housing, political representation and participation. This papermakes no attempt to measure the degree of integration overall since this is bestexamined quantitatively, over time and comparatively. Nonetheless refugeesown experiences of the dominant societys stance towards them in key areas ofintegrationemployment, housing, education and healthand their experi-ences of racism and discrimination, are reported in this paper as evidence ofnational policies and ideologies of cultural pluralism in practice.

    The European Context of Integration

    Refugees arrive in societies with very different histories and attitudes towardsimmigration and reception. The EU Member States implement different

    306 Elizabeth Mestheneos and Elizabeth Ioannidi

  • policies and practices towards refugees not only in terms of the varyingduration of asylum determination procedures but also the very different levelsof socio-economic rights accorded to asylum seekers, those with subsidiaryforms of protection and recognized refugees. In some EU Member States someor all of these categories are the targets of integration policies and governmentsponsored programmes, while in other States a more laissez faire attitudeprevails. This tends to reflect the more recent phenomenon for the Southernstates of being receiving countries of refugees and immigrants (Naxakis et al.2001). At the same time refugee policy is in line with the national socialprotection and welfare system.These varying factors provide the context in which refugees must try to

    adapt to their new host society and obviously have a significant influence ontheir perception of integration, recorded in the interviews.4 In practice all thesefactors emerge in the experience of the refugees interviewed. Thus in responsesgenerated by the biographical-interpretive method to the question concerningintegration, their answers varied. Refugees in Southern Europe werepreoccupied with meeting their material needs, whereas in countries wherethese needs are norm