Three-Step Migration, Improving Refugee Integration

Johannes C. van Nieuwkerk
5 min readOct 3, 2019

The support Turkey can offer to Syrian refugees is clearly reaching its limits at the moment. The country hosts 4 million displaced people whilst facing a contracting economy. It is thus high-time for others, such as Europe, to take more responsibility and voluntarily welcome extra refugees from Syria’s neighboring countries. Without doing so, an uncontrolled wave of migration, as faced in 2015, could easily reoccur. Alternatively, refugees will likely be forced to return “home” without much of an outlook on a future there.

If Europe had taken-in a comparable ratio of refugees like Turkey has done since 2011, this would total 26 million people, which is more than the entire Syrian population. Instead, Europe has meanwhile created a strong focus on border protection and on sending people back. Although it financially contributes to alleviating Turkey’s crisis, this is no more than 10–20% of the financial burden that the country faces.

The above does not imply that Europe is not engaged. It may relatively accept fewer people, but does on average invest much more in them. Whereas refugees in Turkey are mostly unemployed or limitedly participate in the informal economy, most of the people with refugee status in Europe are formally employed or being prepared for it. Still, Europe’s focus on integrating people in its labor market is not without problems.

The ability to labor-wise absorb refugees in an EU member state strongly depends on the availability of work. Whereas Northern and Western Europe have strong economies, other EU areas are much weaker. The result is that most refugees currently target countries such as Germany and Sweden. However, also in these countries, it takes on average 5 years of adaptation before refugees become employed. This implies that the process of connecting people to the labor market is very costly. Since a majority of the not-yet-employed refugees are currently staying on welfare in the most developed cities — Europe’s highest living-cost locations — their adaptation expenses are, from a European perspective, rather maximized than minimized.

Refival thinks that the effectiveness of supporting refugees in Europe can be strongly improved. To do so, it proposes a clearer split between the three stages of refugee integration, which it considers being: 1. Shelter, 2. Adaptation and 3. Participation. Further, it proposes to optimize every stage from a European instead of from a member state perspective and to allocate the required budgets accordingly. Refival is convinced that many issues with the current Dublin arrangement can be solved this way and that Europe’s capacity for accepting refugees can thus be substantially increased.

— Shelter — means offering “first-aid” to refugees: people are housed in tents or containers in refugee-camps or live in squats or other shared accommodation in cities and are given food in order to survive. The quality of this type of aid varies widely; it ranges from disastrously overcrowded non-inhabitable camps on Greek islands, to well-developed asylum centers in rich European countries. Common is nevertheless that sheltering does not offer any future to the people it houses. Therefore, it should be seen as an “as temporary as possible” measure. Unfortunately, this is often not the case at the moment. For example in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Greece many people have already been provided with “shelter” for years.

— Adaptation — of a refugee is to establish a new perspective on their future and regain agency. For the host country, it means creating a path to culturally and functionally connect people to their new living place (or to help them prepare for a return home). Refival names this assistance process incubation and it targets establishing individualized incubator facilities for refugees. Since many refugees are lacking the language knowledge and professional skills required by the European labor market, their adaptation in practice takes several years. Whereas incubation is currently almost exclusively organized in urban areas in the more developed EU member states, it can, in principle, be offered at any location within the EU via the Internet. Providing incubation is thus neither related to the strength of the local economy nor depending on whether the host community is urban or rural. Refugees would strongly benefit if their welfare costs were optimized and less could be spent on subsistence and more on their education and work experience. As long as proper housing and education facilities are available, people can — fully identical to any local EU citizen — prepare themselves for an eventual next step of becoming a contributing participant to the European economy at any destination of their choice.

— Participation — means using the European labor market’s chances and resettling where one finds employment. This is a right all EU citizens possess and something that could be easily extended to refugees. Based on successful incubation and non-discrimination, refugees should obtain an equal chance to find work anywhere in Europe. In case there is a labor shortage, the same incubation logic (followed by organized resettlement) can also be applied to economically motivated migrants. However, this group can almost always be more efficiently incubated in their country of origin than in Europe and such incubation at home can prevent irregular migration. Finally, special attention concerning incubation is required for refugees who are not able to adapt longer-term. In this case, one should consider where their wellbeing is optimized and where people can contribute the most to their community.

From the European point of view, a three-step migration approach has substantial advantages. It enables all member states to equally contribute to refugee integration in different ways. Whereas first-reception countries can mainly offer brief shelter, others can concentrate on the temporary incubation of refugees, whereas strong economies, in turn, can dominantly focus on employing people. By dividing the shelter and incubation costs and by sharing the revenues of available/matched educated labor, member states can be made accountable for their contributions or received benefits. As a spin-off, those deprived economic areas which house or incubate refugees can be rewarded accordingly and can this way revitalize. Demographically weak, depopulating areas can especially benefit from this approach. Educating new residents can be a catalyst for the development of diversified economic activities.

As my resources are fully depleted after four years of full-time and self-funded advocacy, to continue with Refival, I urgently need stakeholders to join me for a pilot-project or to find a larger and more established organization willing to embed and finance my activities. If you are aware of any opportunities in this respect, I would be very grateful for your help.