Response of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles to the Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions

On immigration, integration and employment

(COM (2003) 336 final)

1. Introduction

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) is a network of 74 non-governmental refugee-assisting organisations in 31 European countries. ECRE welcomes this opportunity to comment on the Communication on immigration, integration and employment, published by the European Commission on 3 June 2003. Following a brief summary of the Communication, this paper outlines ECRE's response to the Communication and provides detailed comments on some key aspects of it as it relates to the integration of refugees.

2. Summary of the Communication

The Communication sets out the European Commission's thinking on integration of third country nationals, including refugees and people granted international protection. It does so by:
reviewing current practice and experience with integration policy at national and EU level
examining the role of immigration in relation to demographic ageing in the EU and its impact on economic growth
outlining policy orientations and priorities to promote the integration of immigrants and refugees
As such, the Communication forms part of one of the building blocks for a common EU immigration and asylum policy adopted in Tampere 1999, by responding to the conclusion to develop policies for the fair treatment of third country nationals.

Starting by examining the economic and demographic challenges in the EU, the Communication suggests taking a holistic approach to integration by consolidating the legal framework in a range of socio-economic policy areas and in the fight against discrimination. It argues for reinforcing policy coordination across the EU by sharing good practice on introduction programmes for newly arrived immigrants and refugees, language training and participation in civil and political life. Several concrete proposals are suggested, such as establishing a group of national contact points on integration to strengthen coordination of relevant policies at national level, and to promote exchanges of best practice on naturalisation and nationality laws. In addition, the Communication sets out proposals for reinforcing EU financial support for integration through the European Refugee Fund and pilot projects on the integration of migrants. The Communication concludes by stating that the "economic and social benefits of immigration can only be realised if a higher degree of successful integration of migrants can be achieved."

3. The challenge of integration: a holistic approach

ECRE supports the Commission's holistic approach to tackle the integration challenge through looking at a range of policy areas such as employment, education, housing, health and culture, and by involving a range of actors from different sectors, including the voluntary sector. In this regard, it is crucial that mass media take greater responsibility in their role as educators of public opinion, and that politicians assert political leadership to promote positive attitudes in the public towards refugees. Furthermore, ECRE agrees with the importance of an approach that is rooted in the refugee experience, and therefore reiterates the need for refugees to be directly involved in the conception, development, organisation and evaluation of integration programmes and policies affecting them.

3.1 Definition
The Communication defines integration as a "two-way process based on mutual rights and corresponding obligations of legally resident third country nationals and the host society which provides for full participation of the immigrant. This implies on the one hand that it is the responsibility of the host society to ensure that the formal rights of immigrants are in place in such a way that the individual has the possibility of participating in economic, social, cultural and civil life and on the other, that immigrants respect the fundamental norms and values of the host society and participate actively in the integration process, without having to relinquish their own identity."

This definition mirrors ECRE's own definition of integration as a two-way process placing demands both on receiving societies and the individuals and/or communities concerned. The definition also reflects the ever-changing nature of society and the importance of taking into account the permanent presence of refugees and the positive contributions refugees can make to the host society in all spheres of life. However, by focusing exclusively on the vocational aspects of integration and participation in society it runs the risk of neglecting the personal aspects of integration such as refugees' perception of membership in the host society and feeling of belonging. This social aspect of integration is equally important in creating a welcome and contributing to the integration of newcomers.

ECRE welcomes that the Communication goes on to explicitly state that refugees and persons enjoying complementary or temporary protection should also be eligible for integration measures, and that policies aimed at the induction of asylum seekers also are necessary to facilitate integration. In our view, refugee integration is closely related to the phase of reception and the quality and length of the asylum determination procedure, and we consider the integration process to begin directly after arrival in the country of asylum. In addition, immediate access to integration services for persons with complementary or temporary protection upon status determination is very important for promoting independence and facilitating refugee participation in all aspects of the economic, social, cultural, civil and political life in the country of asylum.

Furthermore, ECRE shares in principle the Commission's views that integration "involves the development of a balance of rights and obligations over time, thus the longer a third country national resides legally in a Member State, the more rights and obligations such a person should acquire." However, ECRE argues that for refugees the starting point for rights and obligations should be greater than for other migrants. This is because refugees, unlike voluntary migrants, cannot make use of rights and obligations in their countries of origin, as they cannot return there. In addition, refugees often arrive destitute and with special needs as a result of fleeing persecution. Therefore, refugees need greater rights, particularly in terms of access to secure residence permits and socio-economic rights.

In this regard, the Council Directive concerning the status of third-country nationals who are long-term residents is to be welcomed as it grants significant social and economic rights to immigrants who have resided in one EU Member State for at least five years. ECRE regrets the fact that refugees are excluded from the scope of the Directive as this directly contradicts the aim of this Communication by excluding an important and sizeable group of third country nationals. However, we welcome the intention of the European Commission to draft a separate long-term resident instrument for refugees, and urges Member States to quickly reach an agreement on this, granting refugees access to a more stable status with enjoyment of important social and economic rights, and the opportunity to make full use of freedom of movement within the Union, on equal terms with other third-country nationals.

3.2 Integration into the labour market
ECRE agrees with the Commission's view that access to the labour market is crucial for the integration of third country nationals, and that currently immigrants and refugees have a lower employment rate than EU nationals and that they are over-represented in risky sectors of employment. In addition, many refugees who arrive in Europe are well educated and have many years of professional work experience. Yet, they struggle to find work on a par with their education background due to a combination of factors, including inflexible systems for assessing and recognising previous qualifications and past work experience. The financial barrier to recognition of qualifications is particularly severe with costs of exams and administrative procedures sometimes being prohibitively high.

ECRE recommends that refugees, including persons with complementary form of protection, are granted unconditional rights to employment and automatic access to work permits on the same basis as nationals, as stipulated in a number of international conventions. In addition, ECRE suggests that a system of recognition of previous experience and qualifications from third countries should be set up at EU level. This should establish EU-wide verification and assessment criteria and a set of recommended practice for bridging gaps between refugee qualifications' levels and industry or education standards in countries of durable asylum, similar to what exists between EU Member States. In the case of certain professions, attempts should be made for the creation of recognised "top up" courses.

ECRE also urges Member States to rationalise the process of recognition of qualifications, by removing unnecessary restrictions, bureaucratic hurdles and complex legal and other procedures. One example of "good practice" is the systems of "certification of competencies" that exist in some countries, which aim to facilitate recognition of foreign qualifications and work experience on an individual basis. In other cases, methods, such as AP(E)L [Assessment of Prior (Experiential) Learning], have been developed to help refugees evaluate past experiences. Sufficient resources must be made available for individual refugees to support the recognition of their qualifications.

Another problem leading to high refugee unemployment is inflexible legal requirements regarding, for example, linguistic competencies and nationality in work requirements. Where these exist, they must be justifiable on clear and transparent grounds, such as safety at work or national security concerns. ECRE therefore urges Member States to remove any unnecessary legal work requirements for refugees by following the same approach used when EU citizens received access to work previously only open to citizens of a particular Member State.

3.3 Education and language skills
Another key factor in integration is education and language skills, where poor language ability is seen as the main barrier to successful integration. ECRE agrees with this statement as education in general, and language skills in particular, promotes personal development of refugees while at the same time improving their chances to contribute to the host society through participation in the labour market.

For this to be most effective, ECRE recommends that Member States make language tuition arrangements accessible and tailored to the needs and educational requirements of refugees. A range of courses should be made available including intensive/accredited courses, courses dealing with problems of literacy and/or geared towards vocational training/career development or socio-cultural orientation in the country of durable asylum. For asylum seekers, it is also paramount that arrangements are in place during the asylum determination phase, so that they can start acquiring basic language skills as early as possible.

Furthermore, ECRE agrees with the Commission's understanding that the "education system plays an essential role not only when it comes to knowledge acquisition but also as a place for acquiring formal and informal information on norms and values in society". As such, schools form important meeting places between newcomers and the host society. With regards to refugees, ECRE is therefore concerned that the EU Council Directive laying down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers stipulates that schooling and education of minors "may be provided in accommodation centres". This runs the risk of further isolating and segregating refugees and their children, and does little to encourage pluralism and diversity in society.

3.4 Housing and urban issues
ECRE shares the Commission's view that "ethnic residential concentration or so-called ghettos tends to isolate communities and prevent their participation in the wider society." Although both 'constraint and choice' factors are at play here, ECRE believes that 'constraint' reasons such as economic realities causing limited opportunities of finding work and affordable accommodation, coupled with discrimination, are more influential than 'choice' factors such as wishing to live close to relatives and members of a particular ethnic group to maintain community links. This is particularly the case for countries with centralised systems of refugee allocation in public housing. To avoid 'ghettoisation' it is paramount that refugees are able to exercise choice and make an 'informed decision' when deciding where to live, and ECRE urges Member States to make available information about housing options and the profile of individual regions; financial resources in the form of income support and full housing assistance; and an unrestricted right to employment.

In terms of problems in ethnically mixed and often deprived areas where racism is a real obstacle to integration of refugees, ECRE argues that there is a greater need for local projects involving both the immigrant and host community. Local government, service providers and the wider public should be informed of the presence and needs of refugee populations moving into their area. Public awareness activities should focus on increasing understanding among the general public, building links between refugees and local inhabitants and highlighting the positive contributions refugees can make if made to feel welcomed and included.

3.5 Nationality: civic citizenship and respect for diversity
ECRE welcomes the concept of civic citizenship introduced by the European Commission and congratulates the Member States for reaching a political agreement on the long-term resident directive, which confers important social and economic rights to third country nationals who have been resident in a Member State for at least five years.

However, ECRE regrets that refugees are excluded from the scope of this directive, although notes that there are plans to agree a separate long-term residents directive for refugees. Since one of its aims was to address the Tampere Summit's call to grant third country nationals rights and obligations comparable to those of EU citizens, it is important that refugees - a significant and often visible group of third-country nationals - are covered by this key instrument. ECRE therefore calls on Member States to grant refugees who have already lived for at least five years in one Member State access to this more stable status and the enjoyment of important social and economic rights.

In addition, as a result of their escape from persecution, refugees - unlike other third-country nationals - often have very little choice of where they reside in Europe. The opportunity to move within the Union, which the Directive grants, is therefore of particular importance to refugees who can relocate to a country where relatives and family may be residing, or where a refugee's language skills might better be used. This right to freedom of movement was envisioned in the Communication on a common asylum procedure and a uniform status , and is likely to enhance the chances of refugee integration and of their contribution to European societies.

Finally, ECRE is concerned that political participation is left out of the Directive on long-term status. Several Member States already provide third country nationals with the right to participate in local and regional elections , and ECRE considers access to local decision-making processes and political life key to ensuring a two-way process of integration involving immigrants and refugees and host society on an equitable basis. As participation in local and European elections across the Union is already assured for nationals of EU Member States, we encourage Member States to grant the same right to long-term resident third country nationals. This would be in line with the Tampere conclusions to approximate their legal status as far as possible to that of nationals of Member States.

In accordance with the Commission, ECRE also considers citizenship to be an important policy instrument for facilitating integration and acknowledging full membership in the host country. We therefore welcome the Commission's proposal that "nationality laws should provide automatic or semi-automatic access" to citizenship in the host country for the children of refugees and persons granted complementary forms of protection.

Regarding naturalisation of first generation refugees, ECRE believes that emphasis should be placed on providing support through government sponsored integration programmes with the aim of successfully integrating individuals as soon as possible after they have received the right to remain in the host country. ECRE argues for the removal or at least reduction of legal obstacles to naturalisation such as the minimum period of residence when it exceeds five years. In addition, language tuition, education on citizenship and social responsibility should form part of the integration programme. Integration programmes should incorporate methods for assessing the progress made by participants in order to inform further service provision, particularly in regard to the length of time that services are provided, and a successfully completed programme could form the basis for meeting the citizenship criteria.

3.6 The main actors in a holistic integration policy
ECRE considers integration policies to be the primary responsibility of national and local governments, and therefore welcomes the Commission's assessment that while governments should take the lead, collaboration around policies should involve a range of other actors, including civil society. In this regard, ECRE wishes to stress the important role refugees and their communities play. Refugee empowerment is critical in integration. Some countries focus on the development of immigrant community organisations, as these can provide a focal point for community activities, facilitate the development of political self-confidence, and act as intermediaries between individuals and the host community. In order to promote the active participation of immigrants and refugees in European host societies, ECRE therefore stresses the importance of enabling refugees to use their own resources and skills to help each other, particularly newcomers, and urges Member States to make available national funding to facilitate the development of these organisations and self-help groups.

3.7 Reflecting the needs of specific groups in integration policy: the case of refugees and persons enjoying international protection
ECRE agrees with the Commission's view that "refugee-specific programmes should be designed to supplement normal services or act as bridges to them", in particular for vulnerable groups such as children and victims of torture. ECRE proposes that within the spirit of the 1951 Convention, European governments recognise refugees as "individuals with special needs" and therefore provide distinct service requirements during the process of their integration in the host society. To this effect, it is important that policy makers and service providers, particularly in the areas of health, social services, education and employment advice, should be trained in the consequences of language difficulties, physical and psychological trauma and cultural/religious differences on the integration process of refugees.

However, ECRE is concerned about the statement that Member States may revoke residence permits to persons who fail integration tests, and stresses the point that a secure, long-term and automatically renewable residence permit, which flows from refugee status, is one of the corner stones of the 1951 Convention. In terms of integration tests, ECRE believes that the basis for assessment should be limited to whether the applicant understands and demonstrates a commitment to good citizenship and social responsibility, and has a basic understanding of the language of the host community.

4. The way forward: policy orientations and priorities

While more sustained immigration flows are welcomed to meet the needs of the EU labour market, ECRE urges Member States to look at ways to better include refugees currently residing in the EU. With more targeted integration programmes and a greater effort to remove the obstacles to integration that exist, established refugees will stand a better chance to become self-sufficient and at the same time contribute to the economy of the host community. If this is not achieved, there is the danger that refugees will have very separate integration opportunities compared to labour migrants.

ECRE believes that the suggestion that it is essential to take into account the specific needs of migrants in mainstream policies, which have an impact on their situation, is a positive one. In some countries where there is no tradition of distinct arrangements for refugees, mainstream social policy should make provisions for special interventions - rather than separate treatment - to address the potential disadvantages faced by refugees and cater for specific needs such as in the areas of mental health or legal aid.

4.1 Consolidating the legal framework
With xenophobia and hostility against refugees on the rise in many European countries, the exclusion of refugees from the directive on the status of long-term residents aimed at facilitating integration of third-country nationals could not have come at a worse time. ECRE therefore urges the Commission to quickly draft a proposal for a Council Directive on the status of refugees who are long-term residents in the EU, as this would go some way towards combating negative trends and send a strong message of solidarity with Europe's refugee population.

In addition, ECRE welcomes the Commission's intention to draft further legislative proposals aimed at strengthening the integration of refugees and persons benefiting from complementary, including particular measures for asylum seekers and persons granted temporary protection.

4.2 Reinforcing policy coordination
ECRE supports the proposal from the Commission to prepare an annual report on the development of a common immigration policy, including integration measures, as well as the establishment of a group of national contact points for integration to develop co-operation and exchange of information. Given NGOs excellent track-record of activities aimed at searching for good practice in refugee integration and learning from experiences across Europe, we would welcome the opportunity for the voluntary sector to collaborate with this Integration Group.

With regards to introduction programmes for newly arrived immigrants and refugees, ECRE believes that for refugees the integration process closely related to the phase of reception and the quality and length of the asylum determination procedure. ECRE therefore recommends that the phase of reception be recognised as an integral part of the integration process of refugees, given the potential impact of the reception phase on the process of integration of those eventually granted leave to settle in a European country. Programmes should be tailored to individual needs and take into account educational background, professional experience and aspirations. For asylum seekers, ECRE believes there needs to be further commitments made to ensuring the rights of asylum seekers to employment, education, freedom of movement and material reception provisions, in order to ensure their welfare, to enable them to pursue their asylum applications and to prepare them for possible integration in case of a positive decision or for return in case of a negative decision.

Concerning language training, ECRE recommends that provision should be made for special education or language programmes for refugees during the initial phase of integration. Financial support on parity with nationals of the host country should also be available for general educational purposes and for bridging the gap between refugees' original qualifications and entry requirements for further mainstream education in the host country. Research has shown that for refugees with higher education background, following mainstream education programmes is the most successful route to find employment commensurate with their qualifications, skills and professional experience. All refugees granted leave to stay in a European country should be entitled to a minimum number of hours of free language tuition, and arrangements should also be in place for asylum seekers to acquire basic language skills during the asylum determination procedure.

Regarding participation in civic, cultural and political life, ECRE proposes that refugees are granted political rights at the local and regional level. In addition, in order to familiarise refugees with political processes in the host country and facilitate immigrant representation and participation in local public affairs, ECRE also recommends that institutional arrangements should be made for refugee involvement and participation in local consultative fora and councils.

4.3 Civic citizenship and nationality: tools to facilitate integration
As previously stated, ECRE welcomes the concept of civic citizenship launched by the Commission and looks forward to an exchange of information and of best practice between the Member States in this field. In particular, ECRE recommends that Member States give consideration to Article 34 of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and facilitate the process of naturalisation by taking into account the total period of residence of a person in a host country; reducing legal obstacles to naturalisation, such as the minimum period of residence when it exceeds five years; allowing people to continue holding their original nationality when possible; enabling refugee children to obtain at birth the nationality of the country in which they were born, and where their parents have been granted protection; and removing administrative obstacles by introducing accessible procedures and low procedural fees.

ECRE, September 2003

For further information contact the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) at:

ECRE Secretariat
Stapleton House
Clifton Centre - Unit 22
110 Clifton Street
London EC2A 4HT
United Kingdom
GSM: +44 (0) 7808 295613
Tel +44 20 7729 51 52
Fax +44 20 7729 51 41

ECRE EU Office
205 rue Belliard
Box 14
1040 Brussels
Tel +32 (0)2 514 59 39
Fax +32 (0)2 514 59 22

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