Five Steps to Successful Integration

June 7th, 2016

aart de geus

The influx of refugees is an omnipresent topic in Germany. Each day brings new challenges – and new reactions. Creativity and expertise are needed if we are to respond effectively to both the large number of newcomers and society’s needs in general. The Bertelsmann Stiftung is launching a series of projects and initiatives designed to achieve this goal.

Aart De Geus, Chairman Executive Board, Bertelsmann Stiftung, shares his opinion.

Exclusive extract from change – the Magazine from the Bertelsmann Stiftung. Issue 1/2016.

Some 60 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced from their homes. UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has been publishing Global Trends, a report that documents the impact of violent conflict, displacement and persecution, since 1951. According to the report, 13.9 million individuals became refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs) in 2014 alone, four times as many as in 2010. Worldwide there were 19.5 million refugees, 38.2 million IDPs and 1.8 million asylum-seekers waiting to hear if their application for asylum had been approved. The upward trend began in 2011 with the outbreak of the war in Syria and, according to UNHCR, it intensified in subsequent years as other conflicts developed in Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, northeast Nigeria, South Sudan and Burundi), the Middle East (Iraq and Yemen), Europe (Ukraine) and Asia (Kyrgyzstan and some areas of Myanmar and Pakistan).

Dangerous transit routes

The situation is difficult and seems insurmountable: crises and wars that never end, producing more refugees and displaced persons every day. In 2014, for example, only 126,800 refugees were able to return to their homes – the lowest number in 31 years. Approximately half of all refugees are children and more than half come from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. The routes they must travel to escape are long and are becoming fewer and more dangerous. In 2014 alone, 218,000 people from Africa or Asia crossed the Mediterranean, and 3,500 perished at sea. People on their way to the EU – what critics often call “Fortress Europe” – are drowning, dying of hypothermia or starving to death. Many refugees follow the Central Mediterranean route, which takes them from the city of Agadez in Niger to Libya and from there by boat to the Italian islands of Lampedusa or Sicily, or to Malta. Over the past 10 years more than 10,000 people either died or disappeared while in transit on this route.
Other paths to Europe include the Eastern Borders route, which runs from Ukraine to Poland and Slovakia; the Western Balkan route, which runs from Turkey and Greece to Hungary or Romania; and the heavily frequented Eastern Mediterranean route, which begins in various countries in East Africa and winds through Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria to Turkey, and then continues by boat to one of the Greek islands or across the mainland. Other possibilities include the Western African route through Morocco to the Western Sahara or to Mauretania and the Canary Islands; the Western Mediterranean route through Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish enclaves in North Africa, to Spain; and the route through Apulia and Calabria. Refugees ply these routes full of hope, only to end up bitterly disappointed – since their expectations of what they will find in Europe are high. Smugglers often make patently unrealistic promises to convince them to begin their journey. In addition, refugees often underestimate the bureaucracy and the cultural differences that await them. In the EU, most applications for asylum are submitted in Germany and Sweden. By the end of 2014, there were some 6.7 million displaced persons in Europe; one-quarter were Syrian refugees in Turkey. In 2013, the figure was only 4.4 million.

“The expectations of the refugees coming to Europe are enormous.” – Aart De Geus, Executive Board, Bertelsmann Stiftung

An enormous challenge

The situation in Germany is changing daily. On the one hand, people have demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to help; on the other, there have been numerous instances of xenophobia, including attacks on buildings housing refugees. Many cities and towns are struggling to cope, and the mood has sometimes changed for the worse. At the same time, there have been many success stories, too. The refugee crisis has been affecting life in Germany for months and still no one can say how it will be resolved. Neither is it possible to foretell the long-term effect the world’s conflicts will have on the country. And yet Germany has proven more than once that it knows how to respond to a crisis. Even though people in Germany might not realize it, social integration has become part of their everyday lives. According to the Federal Foreign Office, almost three million people of Turkish ancestry are living in Germany, and more than half have a German passport. In total, there are more than eight million non-Germans living in Germany. And if one looks a little further back in the country’s past, an estimated 20 million Germans are descendants of people who were forced to flee from former German territories in the east.

Yet, this wave of new challenges, new crises and recurring criticism is putting pressure on the country to implement short-term solutions. Given the demographic changes making themselves felt in Germany – its population is both shrinking and growing older, for example – the arrival of so many newcomers is a valuable opportunity. We in Germany must learn what it means to be one of the world’s most appealing destination countries for migrants. Nevertheless, that also means we must set clear goals and develop solutions capable of responding to this turn of events. In particular, it means managing the inflows and shaping communal life as the country grows ever more diverse.

Proposing solutions for Germany

Initially, the main question was how to assist the people arriving in Germany. In recent months the challenge has increasingly become how to accommodate such a large inflow of refugees in such a short amount of time. The policy makers, public institutions and social organizations in Germany’s communities were at first unprepared for such a development. In their efforts to respond to the new situation, everyone has been trying since then to do whatever is needed in humanitarian terms, while also acknowledging that resources and capabilities are limited. In view of that, a multifaceted approach is needed. First and foremost, procedures must be put in place that ensure communities can welcome and integrate refugees successfully and smoothly. Second, measures must be implemented to reduce the number of people who are forced to flee from their native countries. And third, a more equitable system must be found for distributing refugees throughout Europe.

“We want to help to objectify the discourse about refugees, which is often marked by insecurity, to find practical solutions and to develop enduring approaches.”

In view of the above, the Bertelsmann Stiftung wants to help make the public debate – which is often influenced by the considerable uncertainty many people feel – more objective. It also wants to contribute practical solutions and help develop long-term strategic responses.

In real terms, this means contributing ideas, designing projects, sharing knowledge and developing scalable solutions. The basis for these activities must be a clear differentiation between refugees and migrants and a detailed assessment of existing problems and the measures that have already been initiated in response. Displacement and migration require action at all levels of government. That is why we address all relevant actors – from Germany’s communities, states and federal institutions to the EU and the countries whose populations are emigrating or being displaced. In light of the foreseeable developments, we have defined five focus areas that reflect the challenges faced by refugees, migrants and German society, as well as their histories and experiences:

1. Departure and Displacement

In this focus area, we are examining the causes of displacement and searching for shared European responses to today’s refugee situation. We in Germany must work with our neighbors if we are to develop common asylum procedures that do justice to both European values and its changing needs.

Beyond our activities in Germany and Europe, we cannot forget that a sustainable solution will have to address the causes of the current crisis. We will therefore be examining the situation in the countries of origin that are suffering from violent conflicts and poverty, since we fully understand that, first and foremost, Europeans must increase their efforts here – together with the international community – if the factors underlying displacement and migration are to be reduced. The nations bordering the countries in crisis must also be given support and the individual risk of displacement must be minimized.

2. Integration in Communities

Here we are developing strategies and practical applications that can help refugees deal with bureaucratic processes and start becoming a part of the community. Civil society organizations play a critical role here. Not only for humanitarian reasons, but in light of Germany’s own history, we have an obligation to provide sanctuary to people fleeing violence and warfare. We must demonstrate our goodwill and willingness to help. Many of our projects, such as our Companies in the Community initiative, have shown that people are indeed prepared to assist those who have had to leave their native country and who hope to find safety and start a new life in Germany. Businesses are getting involved in a variety of ways – from aiding traumatized refugee children in Flensburg to offering language courses and assistance finding jobs in Augsburg. One glace at our Engagement Map is enough to show that people in Germany are taking initiative and getting involved.

3. Integration through Education

Education is the all-important first step for entering the job market and participating in society. This focus area concentrates on children and adolescents. Regardless of background, each young person must have access to the best possible educational opportunities. Language skills are of paramount importance here, while music, as a universal language, also has a crucial role to play. The integration of refugees into Germany’s educational system also has considerable potential for promoting social inclusion in general. When integration fails, the inevitable result is inertia and exclusion. Nothing is more important than education for gaining a foothold in society and determining one’s own path. In addition to our numerous current projects, we have therefore decided to support Kiron, the Berlin-based initiative that works with partners from academia to offer a free program of study specially developed for migrants. Even though a substantial number of the refugees in Germany could theoretically enter university, the country’s institutions of higher education would not have room for them, and many refugees do not have the required documents or language skills. This is where Kiron comes in. Its program offers courses in five subjects and students spend the first two years studying online; after that, they can begin attending one of the more than 70 colleges and universities in Germany currently planning to support the initiative. This, together with their previous work, allows participants to obtain a regular degree. A donation of €100,000 by the Bertelsmann Stiftung will make it possible for 200 students to test an internet-supported language course in cooperation with Leuphana University of Lüneburg.

4. Integration in the Job Market

Work is the key to participating in many areas of society and life. We are therefore developing a number of work-related solutions, including tools that can help refugees find a job that adequately reflects their qualifications. Of all EU member states, Germany takes the longest to process asylum applications. At the beginning of February 2016, there were 370,000 applications still pending from previous years at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Another 300,000 to 400,000 refugees have not even been able to submit an application. It is a disastrous situation, since the lack of certainty means refugees have to wait to enter the job market. According to a representative survey carried out for a Bertelsmann Stiftung study, 84 percent of Germans want refugees and migrants to be able to start working soon after they arrive. The study proposes a series of measures that would get refugees working faster – primarily, by reducing the backlog of asylum applications. That means hiring more staff and improving the quality of the application process: 13 percent of all official decisions were revised by the courts in 2013. According to the study, the refugees’ educational achievement, work experience and occupational prospects must be evaluated and communicated to the Federal Employment Agency. That would make it possible to begin with the job search within three months of a refugee’s arrival in the country. It would also help if newcomers were allowed to leave the accommodations designated for refugees and move into a normal apartment after three months, since that would facilitate making the contacts within the community that could lead to finding a job or training course.

5. Social Cohesion

This focus area examines how social cohesion can be maintained and strengthened as Germany becomes more heterogeneous. A key topic is how to respond to religious and cultural diversity. Getting an education and finding a job are the prerequisites to becoming part of society. At the same time, more is required before someone truly “settles” in Germany. Namely, they must be able to create a life in a culture foreign to them; they must become part of German culture without losing touch with their own heritage. This is important since, even though a look at the world’s troubled regions might currently suggest otherwise, a sixth focus area could one day be needed, one that remains a source of hope for many refugees and migrants: a return to their native country.

No question about it, the challenges are huge. Yet as Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it while speaking at the Bertelsmann Forum in February 2016:

“We cannot fail, which means we cannot fail to do everything in our power to solve this problem.” – Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Federal Foreign Minister of Germany

I agree.

– Aart De Geus, Chairman Executive Board, Bertelsmann Stiftung


Information about the text:

An exclusive extract, adapted and published with permission from change – the Magazine from the Bertelsmann Stiftung. Issue 1/2016.


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