Social and Professional “Entry Points” in the German Refugee Integration Policy

This brief analysis represents the preliminary results of an ongoing study demonstrating a need for more social interaction between refugees and host communities in Germany. As a policy solution, the idea of “entry points” is introduced to create further interactions between refugees and host communities.

Introduction

According to a recent report by the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), over 90% of the refugees (who arrived in Germany after 2015 and applied for asylum) had a weak command of the German language upon their arrival. Comparing the 2016 data with a new wave collected in 2017 (IAB-BAMF-SOEP Survey of Refugees in Germany), the same report indicates that 71% of refugees who completed official integration and language courses managed to reach, as it is coded by the survey, a “good” or “very good” level of German language capacity.

The subsequent stages of the integration process should focus more on providing education and training to ensure that refugees are capable of competing in the job market and including them into the economic and social systems of the society. In the past, German refugee policy and labor market initiatives had not been considered together and kept separate from each other. Nevertheless, due to the high number of refugees arrived in Germany after 2015, federal policies reconsidered the relationship between refugee integration and labor market. According to Benjamin Etzold, the gap between refugee policies and the labor market closed with the introduction of numerous legal reforms and reducing bureaucratic processes for refugees to access work. However, in addition to these reforms, integration through participation in the labor market still requires a societal backup and an additional support system for most of the refugees in Germany.

The analysis presented in this blog-post uses the data collected from refugees within the framework of an ongoing study conducted by the author to measure refugee perceptions of the integration process in Germany. Currently this study managed to collect data from 20 individuals using semi-structured interviews. Participants are recognized asylum seekers from Turkey, Syria and Iraq and still attending German language courses at different levels. Most of them are highly educated individuals and had a professional career (min 5 years and max 25 years) before they arrived in Germany. Majority of the participants are male and only four females represented in the data so far.

More interaction with the host society is required

Social and economic integration of refugees into host societies is an ongoing challenge in many parts of Europe and elsewhere. Official procedures which require refugees to complete language and integration courses do not necessarily guarantee a higher level of individual integration with society. Although learning the language of the host country is an important part of the integration process, successful integration requires more than language acquisition. Integration policies designed by the state institutions would be more successful if they received social support and local community engagement at the implementation stage. However, most of the individuals participated in the study indicated that what they understand from integration and how it is officially designed is mostly about the German language course and did not have social interactions that would help them to at least speak better German. Without having social interactions, successful completion of language courses will not automatically result with better integration into the society.

Preliminary findings of this research suggest, therefore, more interaction with local communities is an emerging need for refugees in Germany. As the participants highlight it, successful integration requires further participation and interaction in different social environments, which also will provide a chance to become increasingly familiar with social and cultural life in Germany. In addition, this research also suggests that previous professional experience of refugees could be an important integration tool if they have the opportunity to interact with the professional circles of their background. Participants stated that, after they received a certain level of language training, they needed to know more about the professional environment corresponding their experience and engage in professional circles to receive guidance from them.

Both social interaction with the host communities (through participating in social events, developing friendships with the members of the host community and becoming members of local clubs and initiatives, etc.) and professional interaction mechanisms are expected to support refugees to create more attachments with the society, which will eventually increase the level of integration. Refugees’ previous work experience and educational background are valuable assets for the German social and economic life and in most cases, their career path has been officially acknowledged. However, that is only possible after a lengthy bureaucratic procedure, and even after successfully completing the procedure, refugees still need to establish professional networks. After a certain level of German language training, refugees will further need more professional interaction that will provide them both social and professional attachments as well as opportunities to improve and use German language skills more effectively.

Entry Points and Successful Integration

Preliminary findings of the ongoing research indicate a strong desire from refugees to participate in the social life of Germany. It is possible to address this demand by establishing mechanisms to increase social and professional connections at the local level. Entry Point, as a concept, is providing a concrete idea for refugees where they can start their social and professional engagements, have also a practical aspect to create valuable attachments to society.  I introduce the idea of Entry Points to German refugee integration practices as practical interaction mechanisms for individuals with local communities and societal institutions. In practice, professional entry points could be associations and other organizations that would help individuals to engage with other members to increase their adaptation process to the new professional environment. Social entry points help people to develop social relations at the local level. This might be achieved through neighborhood or town level meetings and events to provide a chance for individuals to interact with local communities. Other entry points such as local art clubs, sport events or cultural exchange programs can provide a setting for individuals to develop meaningful interactions. During these interactions, individuals can find answers to questions concerning them and can find direct help to overcome the challenges that may become significiant obstacles during the integration processes. The practical side of the entry points will not require establishing new institutional structures, rather an adaptation of those existing institutions, according to the needs of refugees and at the same time making them more visible and accessible to refugees. Entry points will serve, as coordination mechanisms to understand and address the changing needs of refugees, and will make available sources more visible to them. The added value of the entry point concept is to close the gap between refugees and those institutions that could potentially help them for their social and professional adaptation.

Establishing entry points for individuals to fulfill their individual goals does not require much change in the current policies and it is easy to implement. The idea of “entry points” is not completely new to the German integration system and many examples of entry points already exist. Following are three examples that I personally encountered  during my research; one example of an already established “entry point” is the Philipp Schwartz Initiative created by Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for scholars at risk of persecution in their country of origin. With the support provided by the Foundation, scholars are able to continue their work and research in an academic environment and stay productive. Another example of an entry point is an association established in Cologne, Germany, namely Kölner Freiwilligen Agentur e.V., which connects refugees with government agencies and local businesses. The idea is to establish a volunteer service agreement between refugees and institutions so that refugees can work in these institutions six months or one year. Both examples provide individuals professional interaction and tools for individuals to look for opportunities for their own social and professional development. The third example is a social initiative; Start with a Friend providing assistance for refugees by organizing support mechanisms, social events and individual base language tandem and connect refugees with local volunteers.

There are multiple benefits of entry points both for refugees and for society. First of all, entry points will create a two-way interaction process supporting the adaptation of refugees to their new social settings. They will also mobilize the society to support refugees and in the meantime, they will inspire refugees to be more active by taking more action in the social and professional integration process. Entry points will encourage refugees to make commitments for their professional and social development and they will provide them with a platform to exchange experiences with multiple actors. Host communities and society will benefit from refugees’ engagement by helping each other and using their previous skills and experiences. Supporting refugees using their educational or labor skills will require less investment than starting a new career path. There are positive examples of this type of interaction when given the opportunity with an “entry point”, a number of refugees in this study managed to continue their professional path.

Social and professional entry points are two major categories; however, refugee adaptation may require more engagement with diverse aspects of the social environment. When refugees go through distinct stages of the integration process, they may need to engage with multiple entry points at a given time. At each stage of the integration process, starting with the arrival of the host community until the phase of establishing more stable living conditions, refugees would have different needs at every stage. During the early phases of arrival, providing basic needs (housing, health care etc.) would be the main priority, however, at the later phases additional demands will emerge (such as legal advice, professional training, educational opportunities etc.) Therefore, entry points should be designed based on the changing needs of the individual. This type of assistance will be helpful not only for refugees, but also it will be beneficial for the host society. By providing entry points to refugees, highly educated individuals and skilled labor will have a greater chance to get into the job market. These refugees with education and training background can easily adapt themselves to help other refugees in the integration process. Societal interaction and developing an individual connection with social and professional institutions will help refugees to be active participants in the integration process.

Establishing a professional entry point means creating a connection with a professional environment that may provide insights and conditions enabling individuals to continue with a similar profession that fits their respective background. Establishing a professional support system will also be useful for the psychological well-being of refugees. Having lost most of their previous social connections and being faced with limited social interactions are two central challenges of refugees who participated in this study. It is also well established in the literature that refugees go through significant psychological challenges during the adaptation process to a new environment. Establishing attachments will help in to ease these psychological challenges. Refugees are in the process of constructing a new life with new meanings and adjusting identities according to the demands of the new environment. When individuals develop a new identity, they need social interactions. From an individual perspective, being connected with professional and social networks would significantly ease this process. This connection will provide a comfort zone they need during the reconstruction process.

Local communities in German society established numerous initiatives reaching out and providing support to refugees and these institutions fill a significant gap. However, some representatives of refugee support initiatives that I have talked to during data collection for this research claimed that, even if they have the resources available for refugees, it is not always easy to reach and find those people in need of their services. During the interviews, when I named some of the organizations providing support, most of the participants (refugees) stated that they were not aware of the activities of these organizations. Entry points will serve to fill this gap between organizations and people who need the service of these organizations.

From the early stages of integration, both government and non-governmental agencies should be in better coordination to identify relevant “entry point” for individuals. Entry points should focus on individual needs and support individuals to access resources and already established institutions and programs. As an example, different professional groups such as doctors, scholars, engineers, etc. should be more active in searching for skilled individuals and inform them about current programs designed for them. All of the elements of entry points are currently present in the system, but they are not synchronized and in harmony with each other to produce better results for refugees and the host society.

Many programs require individual refugees to take the first action. However, our data indicate, as it is also stated specifically by one of the participants who worked as a mechanical engineer more than fifteen years in his country, gathering information and accessing the available resources are not that easy considering the psychological and social environment of the refugees. If those entry points are missing and the individual is forced to comply with the limited official integration process, then the individual not only remains in an isolated personal space, but also starts to lose faith and trust in a system which does not take his previous life into account. Connecting already created dots in the system will create huge benefits both for the individual and for the society.

Conclusion

Based on the data collected so far, this research argues that the official integration approach requires adjustments. As the integration process continues, more interaction with the host communities becomes more important to provide the positive connections of refugees with society. Refugees should be part of professional or social groups during their integration process in which they can improve language skills and at the same time become a part of the social environment corresponding to their previous professions. Strengthening social and professional interactions by providing more and better coordinated entry points could fill an important gap in the current refugee integration process in Germany.

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