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Crafting a European Agenda on Migrant Integration

June 28, 2018

By: Christopher Ritter L’18

Since 2015, European lawmakers have faced the daunting challenge of registering, identifying, and integrating rising numbers of refugees from war-ravaged nations, such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Across the European Union, the total number of first-time asylum applications skyrocketed to 2.5 million in 2015 and 2016 alone, with Germany as the most desired relocation site.[1]

EU member states were soon tasked with the provision of shelter, housing, healthcare for these refugees, along with supplying educational opportunities for their children. In addition to investments provided for these basic necessities of life, those individuals whose applications for refugee status were granted also required opportunities to enter labor markets and begin the process of integrating and contributing to their host country’s economy.

In order to secure such a contribution, however, a measurable upfront investment is required to support adult refugees’ education and training. As the influx of refugees intensify, policymakers and stakeholders across multiple sectors and levels of government struggle to successfully integrate new migrant populations into their respective country’s national fabric.

One of Perry World House’s research themes this year, Global Shifts: Urbanization, Migration, and Demography, aims to better understand the consequences of these recent developments for policymakers. As one of their Graduate Student Fellows for the 2017-2018 academic year, I aimed to examine how the world’s most unique supranational entity – the European Union – is either facilitating or hindering the process of migrant integration within its member states. In a political climate framed by the nativist politics of right-wing populism, EU-level policymakers have hoped to stave off the prospect of any electoral consequences by taking more modest, yet ineffective policy reforms. First, the EU’s March 2016 agreement with Turkey, which compensates Turkey to hold refugees in exchange for discussions over Turkey’s future accession to the EU, forces Turkey to act as an unofficial buffer zone between the EU and the Middle East, despite the country’s noncompliance with the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention and blatant disregard for migrants’ access to legal counsel.[2] Second, due to the EU’s regulations establishing that the first member state a migrant enters is responsible for evaluating an asylum application, wealthier member states evade cooperation with the burden sharing of migrant processing, while poorer, ill-equipped member states on the fringes of the EU’s borders are left to handle the rising influx of refugees. Finally, the EU enacted economically detrimental border controls in the Schengen area, the Union’s common travel area. Recent research suggests that the permanent restriction on mobility in this area would cost the EU up to €18 billion annually through lost productivity.[3]

Through my research at Perry World House, I have tried to examine and evaluate the success of European policymakers in helping refugees not only through the process of relocation, but also through the integration process. To facilitate successful refugee integration among its member states, the EU’s budget appropriated nearly €4.5 billion for migration-related programs for 2015 and 2016, with an additional increase of €3 billion to support the EU’s Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund (AMIF), which supports language training and relocations for refugees.[4] AMIF funding is designed to implement a broad range of policy goals, including the support of legal migrants, refugee integration, maintenance of domestic asylum frameworks, and the removal of failed asylum seekers. But are the AMIF’s recent investments in refugee integration cost-effective? According to recent funding allocations, the EU’s recent investments may not be perfectly corresponding with desired outcomes. Out of the €2.39 billion in AMIF funds that directly finances member state refugee management services, the greatest beneficiaries are the United Kingdom (16%), Italy (14%), France (12%), Greece (11%), and Germany (9%).[5] Yet, despite receiving the highest levels of EU financial support to implement these goals, the British government invested approximately 60% of the funding they received into returning migrants back to Eastern and Southern European member states that lack the infrastructure to accept more migrants.[6]

The UK is not the only offender in this regard – the Greek government has also invested little of its funding into refugee integration or the maintenance of asylum application functionality. The resulting mismatch between investment and outcomes leaves the state of EU-level migrant integration policy in a baffling position: because most member states fail to invest in a comprehensive approach to relocation and integration services, those who might otherwise be in a better economic position to take more refugees are content to use EU-level funding to return migrants back to countries that lack the infrastructure for refugee accommodation.

Throughout the course of my fellowship with Perry World House, I have enjoyed the opportunities to hear from scholars, policymakers, journalists, and other stakeholders who have built careers dedicated to the cause of migrant integration. In speaking with them, I have discovered that, despite recent investments in labor market integration policies among various EU member states, the unemployment gap between refugees and natives has remained unchanged. Recent policy reforms out of Brussels have played an important role in shaping the relocation of refugees in a myriad of ways, but have thus far failed to substantially address the more complex process of integration. The integration of refugees contains a number of dimensions that require engagement from a wide variety of stakeholders. Without training programs that broaden their scope to reach working immigrants and engagement from governments, employers, and unions, refugees may face further alienation from labor market participation, hampering the ability to fully maximize the diversity and industry of Europe’s refugee population.

[1] European Parliament, EU Migrant Crisis: Facts and Figures (2017), 20170629STO78630/eu-migrant-crisis-facts-and-figures

[2] Megan Greene and R. Daniel Kelemen, “Europe’s Lousy Deal With Turkey: Why the Refugee Agreement Won’t Work,” Foreign Affairs (March 29, 2016),

[3] European Parliamentary Research Service, The Economic Impact of Suspending Schengen 1 (2016), http:// EPRS_ATA(2016)579074_EN.pdf

[4] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Who Bears the Cost of Integrating Refugees? 4-5 (2017)

[5] Nikolaj Nielsen, “UK Gets More EU Migrant Cash Than Any Other Member State,” EU Observer (January 25, 2018),

[6] Id.

Christopher Ritter is a Perry World House Global Research Fellow. The Graduate Fellows program is intended for graduate students from any School or department who have demonstrated a serious interest in researching world affairs in depth and whose work connects broadly with Perry World House’s research themes. The goal of the program is to complement students’ existing academic experiences at Penn by adding further interactive global inquiry and an in-depth research project linked to the student’s academic work at Penn.

This piece originally appears in the 2018 Global Affairs Review.