Strasbourg roundtable addresses the burning issues of refugee integration and resettlement

Setting the Agenda, 18 November 2010

© UNHCR/W.Spindler
Participants listen to an address at the expert round table in Strasbourg on the burning issues of the integration and resettlement of refugees in Europe.

STRASBOURG, France, November 18 (UNHCR) The integration of foreigners into European societies is the subject of a heated and sometimes acrimonious debate in Europe. What is often missing from this discussion is an understanding of the specific challenges that refugees, as opposed to other foreigners, face when trying to integrate in this important region.

To help bridge this gap and to examine the role of local integration and resettlement as a means of addressing refugee problems and finding durable solutions, UNHCR and the Council of Europe organized a round table of experts this week in Strasbourg.

"The purpose of the round table was to hold a fruitful exchange of views and ideas as to how we can best effect the integration of refugees, many of whom remain in the margins of society, are the victims of discrimination and are often used as scapegoats for all the problems affecting Europe," said Olivier Beer, UNHCR's representative to the European Institutions in Strasbourg.

"It is worth reminding the Council of Europe member states that integration is a two-way process that requires a human-rights based approach and that Europe should do more with regard to the resettlement of refugees."

Government experts, independent researchers, academics and diplomats from the Council of Europe's 47 member states attended the gathering on Monday.

"The Council of Europe's European Committee on Migration has made recommendations to European Ministers on positive interactions, to give migrants and refugees a sense of belonging," said Maria Ochoa-Llidó, who heads the department in charge of social cohesion and migration at the Council. "The approach has to be positive and beneficial for both the individual and the host society. We want to empower the migrant into his or her own integration process."

Emilie Wiinblad, a senior policy officer for UNHCR's Europe Bureau, described some of the challenges: "Most government policies are designed to facilitate the integration of all migrants, but without taking into account that refugees have specific needs."

For example, she noted, refugees are expected to turn to the state for help, but for many refugees the state has not been a source of help or compassion in their own country. "They have lost all trust in government and need to learn to trust the state again. Another crucial difference is that, unlike migrants, refugees don't have the possibility of going home if the difficulties of integrating into a new country prove to be too great."

Nancy Polutan, regional Integration officer at UNHCR's office in Budapest, noted that integration has several dimensions. "The legal dimension, including a secure legal status; the socio-economic dimension, which includes housing, employment, education and health; and the socio-cultural dimension, which includes language acquisition, full participation in society, and so on."

In order to allow national authorities and other stakeholders to measure their policies against agreed benchmarks, UNHCR has designed an analytical on-line evaluation system that helps to assess qualitatively the different dimensions of integration. UNHCR is working with several Central European countries in developing and piloting this integration evaluation tool.

While for many refugees voluntary return or integration in their country of asylum offer the best durable solutions, for a small number of them resettlement in a country that has agreed to admit them might be the only viable option. There is, nevertheless, a significant gap between resettlement needs and resettlement capacity. The European Union, for example, is currently providing only 7.5 per cent of all resettlement places worldwide. A larger European Union resettlement programme would provide solutions to refugees and at the same time demonstrate solidarity with major refugee host countries in the developing world.

Among some of the recent initiatives by UNHCR to support the development of resettlement in Europe, there is a joint project with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the International Catholic Migration Commission on cooperation in EU resettlement, which is implemented in 10 European countries. There are plans to follow up this EU funded project be a new joint project, that will focus on the reception and integration of resettled refugees. "The reception and integration at the municipal level are key to the successful integration of resettled refugees and UNHCR is encouraging municipalities in European countries to exchange information on good practices in this area," says Johannes van Gemund, policy officer at UNHCR's Europe Bureau.

By William Spindler in Strasbourg, France