Integration Challenges at European Level - key note speech at Mixed Flows conference on migration in Europe

We cannot afford not to promote equal treatment and social inclusion of migrants and minorities. Persisting discrimination and marginalisation will not only result in losing the skill and talent that Europe needs, but could also endanger social cohesion.

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues

We are living at a time when past efforts to integrate migrants and their descendants, the so-called second and third generations, are increasingly under question. The shock of terrorist acts or attacks, uncertainty about growing cultural and religious diversity, fear of future economic prospects, concern about youth unemployment all provide fertile ground for toxic narratives of fear and hate fuelling populist, xenophobic discourses that question what many of us thought were already fixed and established realities of life: immigration, diversity and integration.

Integration. What does it mean? If you consult a dictionary you may find references to combining two or more things. Yet in public debates today it is almost the opposite. Polarised views seem to hold sway.

Take the comments of one Member State as an example: “The experience of western European countries which have ghettos and excluded localities shows that the integration of the Muslim community is practically impossible... Let them have their culture in their countries and not take it to Europe.” Then contrast this with the words of Bundeskanzler Angela Merkel: “I am convinced that, handled properly, today’s great task presented by the influx and the integration of so many people is an opportunity for tomorrow.

On the streets, the picture is no less confusing. On the one hand, in many places the tide of xenophobia and violent hate crime is rising. Refugees are attacked and their shelters are firebombed. Fierce societal debates on integration related issues, such as the burkini, are becoming increasingly heated, disrespectful and often insufficiently informed or contextualised.  

Now, make no mistake: we need these debates; even though they may be difficult, unpleasant or even politically incorrect. However, they need to be held in full respect and with empathy for alternative views. I would even argue that these debates are vital if we want to better grasp the changed realities of our lives, changed due to globalisation, 24/7 communication and increased mobility. It has led to more people than ever on the move. We have to accept and deal with this appropriately. Indeed, we need to turn today’s migration crisis into an opportunity for an open and honest debate to guide a long-term sustainable vision accompanied by swift and decisive action on a common European policy on migration and on asylum firmly based on respect for  fundamental rights

On the other hand, you have many Europeans going out of their way to help and welcome vast numbers of people who are fleeing persecution and war torn regions simply seeking safety. Here I want to pay our utmost respect for organisations such as Caritas who often lead by example. The Volunteering Norway database is yet another good example of strong civic engagement.

Clearly then, when it comes to integration, Europe has challenges. Policy makers have challenges. But perhaps more importantly all of us in society, that’s you, me, him, her, us, as stakeholders in society, also have challenges. That’s why I am thankful to you for this opportunity to address you today on such a topical and vitally important issue.

So, what exactly are these challenges?

To answer I will draw on work that our agency, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, has been carrying out over the past years and will publish early next year. Today I have the privilege of already sharing with you some of the findings. It looked at societal and political participation of migrants and their descendants across all 28 EU Member States. It compared the various national integration policies, action plans or strategies that are being used. The findings should provide European and national policy makers with evidence on how implementation is taking place.

From our research clear challenges emerged. These include:

  1. One: re-engineering traditional approaches to integration;
  2. Two: educating for the future;
  3. Three: ensuring societal and political participation.
  4. Four: Avoiding discrimination on grounds of nationality.      

Let me now address each point in turn.

First, integration is not something new.

There have been many earlier movements of people over the years across the continent. For example, in the 50s and 60s many Turks came to Germany and to my home country the Netherlands, as their economies blossomed and needed workers for their factories and building sites. In France, Algerians fled the war of independence and settled in France. In the UK, many Indians and West Indians came from former British colonies. And more recently, since the 1990s, some 28,000 Somalis fleeing civil war have come to live in Norway.

Such movements shaped today’s policies.

What differs this time is the scale. We are witnessing the largest mass movement of people since World War II. In 2015 alone over 1.3 million people sought refuge in the EU. To put it in context, Hamburg alone had to accommodate 35,000 refugees last year; this is half as many as the US takes from the world.

Our research has revealed that approaches to migrant integration vary widely from State to State. This is despite the existence of the so-called Common Basic Principles on Integration that have been agreed and shared by EU Member States since 2004. These principles guide the integration of non-EU nationals in EU Member States. They reflect the EU’s core values, as well as the fundamental rights guaranteed by the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, and several European and international human rights instruments.

Although these principles recognise that integration should be a two-way street, many countries are only travelling one way.


They expect immigrants to assimilate into the host country. Effectively this has meant imposing the host country’s views, tradition, culture and values on newcomers as the integration end goal.

However, integration should be seen as a dynamic, long-term, and continuous two-way process of mutual accommodation, not a static outcome. It demands the participation not only of immigrants and their descendants but of every resident. The integration process involves adaptation by immigrants, both men and women, who all have rights and responsibilities in relation to their new country of residence. However, it also involves the receiving society, which should create the opportunities for the immigrants' full economic, social, cultural, and political participation.

In other words integration should be human rights compliant. This is beyond mere compliance with our rules and values. It means treating migrants equally, offering them real opportunities to meaningfully participate in society, and making them feel part of society rather than tolerated guests.

Governments therefore need to actively ensure all residents, including immigrants, understand, respect, benefit from, and are protected on an equal basis by the full scope of values, rights, responsibilities, and privileges established by the EU and Member State laws.

Although there is still a long way to go, we also noted a positive trend emerging. EU Member States are beginning to address, not only migrants, but also the host society in their national action plans and strategies. This trend needs to continue with greater efforts to build mutual understanding, participation and trust between immigrants and the host society. This is particularly acute in areas where the migrant crisis is having a profound impact on local communities.

A coordinated approach is called for with respect for fundamental rights at the core. The right to equal treatment and non-discrimination should be hardwired into any integration measures. And this should apply to everyone living in the EU, citizens and non-citizens alike.

And this brings me to my next point: Education.

Unquestionably education is vital for school children across Europe. They are the bedrock of a prosperous and inclusive Europe in years to come. Yet, in about half of the EU Member States there is some form of de facto school segregation of migrant pupils, despite efforts by Member States to avoid it.


Often this is due to higher concentrations of minorities in school catchment areas. This is a very serious issue as segregation can lead to marginalisation, exclusion and the creation of parallel social spaces.

Just last week, during a mini-break back in Holland I went speed skating on an ice rink. When I was skating, I saw an entire primary school class putting their skates on. There was a young Muslim girl and a mother wearing a veil helping out. I was heartened as skating on the ice together can be very socially bonding: class or any other differences seem to disappear on the ice. But when I looked closer I noted that the school class didn’t have one single white child; all of them were of a different ethnic or migrant origin. I had to conclude that after all there was still a risk of having two separate social spaces. Perhaps this interesting example from Italy could help elsewhere: A ministerial circular requires non-Italian pupils to be redistributed among schools so that there are not more than 30% of foreign students in each class.

Providing necessary support from an early age helps ensure everyone has an equal chance to receive a good education. This is vital as it underpins equal opportunities and better job prospects when it comes to seeking work. Without this the net result is marginalisation that can affect migrants, generation after generation after generation.

This is backed up by figures from Eurostat and the OECD. They point to a widening employment gap between immigrants and natives following the economic crisis. Unemployment among young people born in the EU to immigrant parents is almost 50% higher than among those with native-born parents.

Then there is the question of language learning. Most EU Member States acknowledge that this is one of the keys to successful and lasting integration. As a result they provide learning support. However, free language courses are rarely offered to adult citizens of migrant background with limited language skills. Several exclude temporary residents and seasonal workers from participating in such courses.

However, general and job-related language courses underpin access to education, employment and meaningful participation in society. They also hold the key to long term residence or citizenship.

Apart from general education and language learning, there is also growing support for more and better human rights and civic education. The 2015 Paris Declaration of EU education ministers, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, called for renewed efforts to reinforce the teaching and acceptance of fundamental values such as tolerance, and respect for dignity, for freedom, for equality and for human rights. It should be woven into the fabric of the curricula of all students – no matter their background.

This is important as the school, as a major agent of socialisation, can contribute to the development of inclusive, pluralist societies through curricular and extracurricular activities promoting equality, social cohesion and active citizenship by making students more familiar with the different cultures of their societies.

And I don’t just mean university or secondary students but equally primary and why not indeed kindergarten level, as attitudes and behaviour are formed pre-school. From the very outset children must learn about diversity, tolerance, empathy and respect for others. Freedom of speech is one thing but they should also learn that there is no ‘right to insult’ and that there is a ‘freedom to listen’.

If they learn and understand all this from an early age, age old bigotries may wane. Only then we can expect inter-cultural dialogue and understanding to happen. We need to ensure that young people feel included in schools as individuals, irrespective of their background.

We also need to empower educators to promote fundamental values by offering training and tools. The message that there is no hierarchy of rights holders needs to be hammered home repeatedly: respect must be for everyone, and from everyone.

This will also have the added benefit of raising overall rights awareness. It is only by knowing what is permissible, what is acceptable, and what you are entitled to, that you know your rights and responsibilities, and can you find the help you need if you have been discriminated against or have been the victim of hate crime.  

My third point relates to ensuring societal and political participation.

Here, two groups in particular need special mention, namely women and the young.

When it comes to integration, the gender aspect is rarely singled out. This is despite the additional challenges women refugees and asylum seekers face from multiple discrimination. Their gender, religion, minority and migrant status may all intersect and compound their difficulties. As a result they risk greater social exclusion, poverty and violence. It is therefore important to include specific reference to gender issues within national integration polices in order to foster gender equality.

The young too warrant special attention since they are “one of Europe’s greatest assets for the future”, as the European Commission coined it. Although this should apply equally to migrant youths and second generation migrants, less than half of EU Member States explicitly address them in their integration policies. And when you add the fact that they are more exposed to social and economic exclusion, we risk losing an entire generation.

They may feel marginalised and discriminated against with little sense of belonging to their host country. And this, combined with discriminatory ethnic profiling, can lead to the road of radicalisation and ultimately extremism as the twisted views of radicals can easily resonate with the societal and world view of disenfranchised youths. Clearly here we need to find ways to engage and provide opportunities for the young to rejoin society on all equal footing and fully contribute to the world around them.

A sense of belonging can partly stem from getting involved and helping to make a difference. Here participation in democratic and political processes is an important enabler.

Some though not enough Member States are making this possible, at least at the local level.

At the national level the picture is even bleaker. Only Portugal and the UK grant voting or candidacy rights for certain groups of non-EU nationals, namely those from countries that they have a close shared history with.


And of course this is intrinsically linked to my fourth and last point: the process of naturalisation and citizenship.

This is also a less well travelled road that leads to many benefits. It opens up full access to rights that may be denied to non-EU citizens on the grounds of nationality. Here again we note encouraging signs: Currently 12 EU Member States explicitly prohibit discrimination based on nationality, a grey area, that may be used to circumvent claims of ethnic or racial discrimination.


Closing this loophole is also gaining support in academic circles and among EU policy makers who say that there is considerable overlap between race, ethnicity, religion and language which are protected grounds and nationality which is not. Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, also stressed the need to explicitly protect all people from discrimination on the ground of nationality and from multiple discrimination, and added the need for States to  “facilitate long-term residence as a key starting point for full integration and remove any disproportionate obstacles to obtaining this status and equal rights associated with it.”

But why should all this matter?

If we want people to integrate and identify with their hosts we need to ensure their voice counts, their opinion matters and their actions help bring about change. In some EU Member States, following the failed Turkish coup d’état attempt in July this year, societal debates were held when it emerged that large Turkish communities seemed to relate more to Prime Minster Erdogan than to Bundeskanzler Merkel or Dutch Prime Minister Rutte. Also conflicts within Turkish communities emerged, sometimes leading to violent clashes. Thousands of parents of Turkish origin, often second or sometimes even third generation migrant descendants took away their children from schools they suddenly labelled as either ‘pro-Gulen’ or ‘pro- Erdogan’. Many were surprised to see such developments within the Turkish communities in their own countries. Was this the result of bad integration from ‘their’ side, or was it no interest in or not enough engagement from ‘our’ side? It is probably a bit of both and this is precisely why a two street integration approach is needed.

Or, speaking from my own personal experience, I probably feel less engaged with Austrian society where I currently live having no right to vote nationally. Very important presidential elections are coming up in just a few weeks where there is a choice between an extreme right candidate with very specific views on foreigners, and a mainstream candidate. These elections may have huge implications, not only politically, but even impact the social fabric of Austrian society as a whole. However, I am excluded from participating in these elections and from thereby getting my views and voice heard. And this is despite the fact that I have been living there for 7 years already. This therefore immediately impacts negatively on my willingness, interest and efforts to watch Austrian TV, read Austrian newspapers or engage in local, public debates.

In addition, many EU economies are still struggling in the wake of the economic crisis. Many face an ever-aging population. So, we cannot afford NOT to promote equal treatment and social inclusion of migrants and minorities. Persisting discrimination and marginalisation will not only result in losing the skill and talent that Europe needs, but could also endanger social cohesion.

But it’s not all gloom. Take Norway’s own proactive integration approach. It maps the skills of new arrivals and provides career guidance. It offers language training at the workplace and financial incentives to host cities and migrants for five years as long as they stay in the host city to facilitate local integration. Practical ideas with practical benefits. Our forthcoming report contains many other examples of promising practices that others could similarly follow.

So to conclude, let me illustrate what is possible. As the relatively unknown Fortune 50 world leader, Domenico Lucano, put it:

"Others should see how the welcoming of migrants is possible but also beneficial to the host communities....  it didn't trigger any wars between the poor, or xenophobic hysteria or fraudulent speculations. It helped to give new values to the people involved."

Rather than view migrants as a burden, he welcomed them as mayor of the small Italian town of Riace. His policy has helped rebuild his town to the mutual benefit of the original townsfolk and the new arrivals.

He showed where there is a will, there is a way. Now it is up to the rest of Europe, not just governments, but all of us as societal stakeholders, to also find that way.

Thank you.