Refugee integration through inclusive policies

A whole-of-society approach to fighting cultural divisions

Lab debate
Tuesday, June 18, 2019
15:15 to 16:30

Refugees need access to skills training, education, affordable housing and jobs. Those designing these services must take an inclusive and whole-of-society approach so that all community members are treated equally. Programmes targeting refugees alone can instil a feeling of exclusion among the local community with similar needs who may feel they are being neglected. This can deepen divides and make people more vulnerable to the toxic “us and them” rhetoric espoused by populist politicians and those who fear foreigners. Such “privileges” can also be an unwelcome reminder to new arrivals of how they differ from their neighbours. Participants will discuss how communities and local governments can overcome the challenges posed by inequalities of access to create more inclusive societies.

Key points

  • As the EU leadership is changing, now is the time to challenge the groupthink on immigration and integration.

  • Refugees need access to training, education, affordable housing and jobs – those designing these services must take an inclusive approach so all community members are treated equally.

  • Programmes focusing on refugees alone can evoke feelings of exclusion or being discriminated against among local communities with similar needs, especially other vulnerable groups within them, such as women, the disabled or the unemployed

  • If we neglect inclusion at the cost of “one-way” integration of newcomers, we run the risk of an even more fragmented and polarised Europe


With a panel led by the Brussels think tank Friends of Europe, which recently published a discussion paper on the issue, the session focused on the need to challenge certain well-worn practices of refugee integration. Any approach that does not take into account the needs of refugees as expressed by themselves, as well as those of the local community hosting them is bound to fail both and play into the hands of current “us and them” tropes promoted by populist politicians. Real or perceived inequalities, among the local community – which might well contain people with a longer migration background – as well as towards the newcomers, will make it easier for this rhetoric to become accepted. From the panel, the participants heard about several programmes currently run by local authorities and NGOs in Germany and Italy that have taken an inclusive approach, and with very positive results. A panellist who came to Germany from Iraq in 2015 recalled the story of the small German town of Ascheberg, where the mayor was initially opposed to having 400 refugees transferred to his town of 15,000 inhabitants. Told by higher authorities that refusal was not an option, he started to communicate with refugees and locals to take both their needs and fears into consideration. Today, 250 of the refugees have settled in the town and 70 of them are employed, filling much-needed vacancies in the local job market. At the same time, populist and right-wing parties in government – Italy, in particular, came into focus here – are actively trying to criminalise those who help refugees voluntarily. While there might well be a need for the new EU leadership to step in if human rights and the rule of law are threatened on national level, the most effective level of an inclusive integration of migrants remains at local and regional level, the panel and participants agreed. A member from the European Committee of the Regions announced a new initiative – Cities and Regions for Integration – in this respect. It was pointed out that issues of inclusion could only fully be addressed once the legal status of the newcomer had been sorted out and that this part of integration remained a prerequisite for anything more. Another insisted that there are needs specific to the newcomer that are not shared by the local community, most notably language courses. However, while the first remark was broadly acknowledged by the panel, the second one was rebuffed. Local communities might perhaps not have the need for but could well have an interest in, the language of the newcomers and should certainly be open to learn about their culture – and they usually are, panellists claimed. From within the migration policy community present at the session, it was mentioned that a tendency to work unaware of each other was creating “policy silos”. This will have to be overcome if inclusion is to become the lodestar of integration.


Recognition of local and regional authorities as the most important government actors to make refugee integration inclusive is needed on the side of national and supranational authorities as well as NGOs.

Organised by


Shada Islam
Friends of Europe
Rozina Spinnoy
Business Improvement Districts Belgium
Yasmine Ouirhrane
Young Leader - Italy
Shaza Alrihawi
Refugee activist
The Network for Refugee Voices
Jenny Hornisch
Programme Manager Qudra Iraq
GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit)