The cost of migrant integration pays off

On 29 March I attended a refreshing one hour debate held by Friends of Europe focusing on the benefits of migrant integration, with a diverse panel of two refugees, a local politician, an EU official and a business sector representative.

Jacques Bughin started of by setting the scene with a few figures from McKinsey & Company’s studies. Out of all asylum seekers and refugees in 2015, only 10% were located in Europe. Refugees makes up only 10% of all people living abroad. While it can take between six to ten years until migrants manage to access the labour market, they are indispensable for our workforce, especially as we are facing strains on our services and resources posed by an ageing population. Belinda Pyke from the European Commission added that only 4% of the EU’s population are third-country nationals, and only 10% arrived as refugees. Most come for family reunification purposes, secondly for work, and thirdly for studies. The refugee employment rate is 10% below other employment rates, and they earn up to 30% less than the population at large; at the current pace it would take 15-20 years to close that gap. It is therefore in the EU’s economic interest to accelerate integration. To achieve this, coordination on all governance levels is key. Unfortunately, some Member States do not make use of the funding opportunities the EU provides to support integration. This has to change, otherwise we cannot argue for increased money for integration when the next EU budget will be negotiated, said Ms Pyke. One way to speed up migrants’ access to the labour market and ensure their economic contribution is social inclusion, focusing on housing, healthcare, education and civic engagement, concluded Mr Bughin.

Tara Al-Adib, a Syrian refugee, shared her initiative “From Syria With Love”, which began as a simple Facebook page to give migrant housewives opportunities in their new society. The women offer their cooking skills and share their food culture with citizens in their local community that would like catering or someone to cook at their home for a dinner party. The initiative is successful, simple and replicable anywhere, explained Ms Al-Adib. Paul Mbikayi, a refugee from the Congo, works for Refugee Talent Hub in the Netherlands, which approaches businesses to promote the talent and skills that refugees can bring to their companies. He explained that the initiative came not from governments or civil society, but from companies themselves.

“If we don’t invest in refugees and migrants the costs will be higher in the future. A lack of employability is worse than a lack of employment,” said Jürgen Sieben, who said that Siemens in Germany provides vocational training for young refugees. Out of the 64 refugees they have trained so far 48 were hired immediately, many by Siemens, and all got some kind of job opportunity. Next year Siemens will increase its number of placements to 100. While the cost is high, the benefits of home-grown apprenticeships pays off, said Mr Sieben.

I couldn’t help asking how short-term residence permits impact integration. Mr Sieben from Siemens admitted that as a company they would not invest in refugees and migrants that have a short-term permit to stay. Ms Al-Adib agreed that the situation is very difficult for refugees who only have a permit to stay for one year as they cannot plan for their future in their host country. I asked because this is the current worrying policy direction and trend in EU Member States – to favour short-term permits over permanent ones, which unfortunately hampers integration.