The rewards of refugee integration


Picture of Vincent Cochetel
Vincent Cochetel

Vincent Cochetel is Director of the UNHCR Bureau for Europe

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, wrote Charles Dickens in his Tale of Two Cities. It’s a sentence that has more than once summed up how I see Europe’s response to the refugee crisis.

In 2015, over one million people crossed the Mediterranean Sea, the majority searching for international protection in Europe. We saw Europe’s citizens urging their leaders to do more to make ‘Refugees Welcome’. Thousands took to the streets in solidarity and support across Europe. Many opened their homes to people who’d fled conflict and persecution on arrival to their new, host country. The best of times indeed, as some of the most persecuted people in the world found hospitality and safety. Both newcomers and hosts could face the future with hope and pride.

But this was not to last, overshadowed by an inverse response from some European leaders. Despite repeated warnings – by UNHCR and other organisations – that large-scale but, and I stress, manageable arrivals were expected, Europe reacted in a largely unprepared, chaotic and divided way. The lack of a coherent and coordinated response compounded the misery of vulnerable people as they journeyed through Europe, and also created everfertile ground for smugglers, opportunists and scaremongers in transit and host countries.

European citizens, even in countries not affected by the flow, also, rightly, perceived that their governments were failing to manage the movement. Some countries responded with razor-wire fences and increased border controls. Others by seizing assets and restricting the family reunion rights of, and slashing support for, refugees who made it through the controls.

Increasingly, we saw hearts and minds harden, becoming buried by deep-rooted fears that these foreigners would steal jobs and bleed dry welfare systems, threaten identities and drag down economies. These attitudes and measures have seriously threatened the protection environment and the rights, dignity and safety of refugees. Restrictive political measures and negative rhetoric have turned desperate people into threatening demons in the eyes of many. Refugees have been pushed towards further dangerous routes, making it increasingly difficult for those who made it to safety to settle and integrate. Many politicians did little to counter this.

Restrictive political measures and negative rhetoric have turned desperate people into threatening demons

When the international refugee protection regime was established over 65 years ago, the international community recognised the importance of local integration. Many refugees around the world live year after year with little hope of ever returning home. Finding a home in the country of asylum and integrating into the local community is necessary for a durable solution to their plight, and the much-needed chance to start a new life.

The EU-Turkey Agreement won’t negate the need to ensure integration for people already here, and those who will no doubt arrive, safely and legally, I hope. What’s often lost in recent reactions towards refugees is not just a sense of compassion and protection, but also a realisation of the opportunities provided by integration, and increasingly the reality of a world with a growing displaced population.

Since integration is partly an economic process, through employment, refugees become progressively less reliant on hoststate aid, developing self-reliance and pursuing sustainable livelihoods. Refugees often tell me that what makes them feel most integrated is having a job. From the state’s perspective, the EU needs labour migration, and immigration can bring net benefits to societies in the long term.

Integration is also a social and cultural process. As societies diversify, the acclimatisation by refugees and the accommodation by their local community will enable people to live side-by-side without xenophobia, discrimination or exploitation. The ideal scenario then is for refugees who can’t return home to become legally integrated, through permanent residence rights, and in some cases, eventually, by acquiring citizenship. This of course doesn’t happen overnight. It can be challenging and costly in the short term. But with early and dedicated planning and resources, and effective implementation, it brings moral, political and economic dividends, and in Europe’s case, to a continent traditionally proud of its human rights leadership.

With early and dedicated planning and resources, integration brings moral, political and economic dividends

Indeed there have been many positive responses in Europe to previous significant refugee movements, including for Hungarians, Czechoslovaks and Polish refugees, for the Vietnamese boat people, and for people from the former Yugoslavia.

In this vein, leaders and citizens alike should work once more to foster a welcoming society that is both diverse and open, in which people can form a community and develop a sense of safety, regardless of differences. Public institutions must also be able to meet the needs of an increasingly-diverse population. And the business community should provide employment opportunities. Countries that have learned lessons from hosting refugees should assist others with less experience. And of course there should be fair and equitable sharing and responsibility for hosting and integrating refugees across the Union. Far from being a problem, refugees can and should be part of the solution to many of the challenges our societies confront. They will also be able to participate in peace-building and reconstruction efforts when peace and human rights prevail in their country. But integration is a dynamic two-way process. From the refugee, a preparedness is also needed to adapt to their host society, without having to forgo their own cultural identity.

Having spoken with so many refugees, I’ve continually admired their dynamism and strength. I only wish Europe would seize the occasion to turn this dynamism into opportunities. Through effective integration, the best of times are in sight, for Europeans and our new residents alike. As one of the richest regions on the world, the EU is surely up to meeting the challenges of integration.
Quite frankly, there’s no choice.

Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo