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Future-proofing immigration policy

The whole-of-government approach to immigrant integration is becoming more prevalent in political discourse but can also be seen in the way policy-makers are reforming mainstream policy areas – writes Elizabeth Collett and Milica Petrovic

While European political parties noisily debate the pros and cons of immigration, rejecting so-called ‘models’ of integration and calling for immigrants to take ‘responsibility’ for their futures, a quiet policy revolution is taking place. Immigrant integration processes are being transformed into a whole-of-government endeavour, which places responsibility for immigrants along with other disadvantaged groups within mainstream public service provision. This approach belies the narrative of immigrants as a threat to society and rather promotes the idea that it is the underutilisation of this newer, more diverse, population that is limiting society’s success as a whole.

People with an immigrant background are too often falling behind in terms of employment, educational attainment and position in the national society and economy. Integration policies have not yet proved successful in closing these gaps. Practitioners and policy-makers are coming to realise that one-size-fits-all integration policies are necessary, but insufficient, to accomplish this; and are beginning to rethink the design of immigrant integration policy. Apart from specifically-targeted reception policies for newcomers, government approaches to long-term integration are becoming increasingly mainstreamed.

Why is this? Integration is no longer a niche policy. Almost a quarter of the total population in many European countries has an immigrant background, a proportion that rises significantly in urban areas and in younger cohorts. In primary schools located in densely populated urban areas, more than half the classroom was either born abroad or has a parent born overseas. In Antwerp today, 68 per cent of children under the age of five have an immigrant background as do more than 40 per cent of children under 10 in Berlin. In the Inner London Boroughs, 56 per cent of primary school pupils have a first language other than English. In other words, these are the children who will determine the future of European societies.

This population is not only expanding but is also becoming increasingly diverse itself in terms of ethnicity, religion, education and socio-economic status. Diversity today is therefore best understood and approached with respect to need rather than background or origin alone. More pragmatically, the recent economic crisis and tough political debate regarding immigrants has pushed governments to pursue policies that can integrate immigrant groups efficiently and without prioritising their needs over other — similarly marginalised — native groups.

The whole-of-government approach to immigrant integration is becoming more prevalent in political discourse but can also be seen in the way policy-makers are reforming mainstream policy areas. In Denmark, the new government reorganised the way it worked on integration, spreading responsibility across a range of ministries including education, employment and justice. However, this is not always an explicit policy choice. In the United Kingdom, immigrants are dealt with within a broader framework of minority and equality policy while in France the immigrant-blind approach applied by the government means that policies focus on characteristics other than country of origin or ethnicity. As a result, both countries apply a needs-based approach to identify and address gaps. The French approach has traditionally targeted deprived and isolated neighbourhoods as part of its wider social cohesion policy – significantly, large numbers in these neighbourhoods have an immigrant background. Recently, French President François Hollande passed a law to inject €5bn into these priority neighbourhoods to address unemployment and poverty.

But mainstreaming immigrant integration can be risky. If responsibility is spread across a number of government agencies, it can lead to a lack of accountability and the needs of immigrant groups might become less important for policy-makers faced with a broad range of challenges and limited resources to address them. Creating set goals and benchmarks can minimise this risk as well as a clear leadership. In Germany, the federal commissioner for migration, integration and refugees is part of the Federal chancellor’s cabinet – demonstrating its political significance. In addition, the creation of a national action plan on Integration ensures that ministries at all levels of government are responsive.

Despite its value, a mainstreamed approach should not be absolute. When it is clear that individuals have needs specific to their immigrant status, then targeted policies remain necessary. Language learning is a clear example of this, as are policies to reduce incidence of racial discrimination and xenophobia. However, it is possible to ensure these targeted measures are part of a general policy for the entire population. In Germany, obligatory language tests have been introduced for all pupils entering primary education to detect any type of language needs early on.

The idea of mainstreaming is not new, although it remains under-considered and a nascent development in many countries. Deeper changes will be needed, not least the adaptation of well-established public systems designed for a homogenous population that no longer exists to meet the needs of the emerging and diverse citizenry. The goal of such policy reforms is therefore to improve the opportunities and outcomes of everyone. Failure to make these deeper changes will not only result in the marginalisation of immigrant groups but a less competitive and less successful Europe.

Elizabeth Collett is director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, a not-for-profit research institute in Brussels. Milica Petrovic is a policy analyst with the same organisation. Both are authors of the report The future of immigrant integration in Europe: mainstreaming approaches for inclusion

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