Empowerment and networking as foundations of integration policy

The "success stories" of integration policy tell of effective self-organizing. A brief survey of three central areas of integration – housing, work, and language – shows where the pre-conditions for organizing lie.

Photo: iStock / William87

The daunting challenge of finding temporary lodging for refugees in Germany has largely been met. Now it is time to worry about their integration. The approach that Germany should take to this second challenge has been a hot topic of discussion at the political level during the last few weeks. The debates have focused mainly on a putative “duty to integrate,” whether those who “resist integration” should be sanctioned, and whether their place of residence should be assigned under certain circumstances, as was recently proposed by the Federal Cabinet in the form of an integration law. What has been overlooked in all this is the fact that “integration” cannot be ordained by law. It is a far more complicated process that requires a lot of time and may even extend over several generations. Also, there may be multiple paths that lead to the same goal. In the Federal Republic of Germany we find examples indicating that “integration” has come about mainly through processes of assimilation (learning the language, educational success, professional advancement, intermarriage, naturalization process), as has been true of immigrants from Spain. There are also cases in which immigrants have preferred to keep to themselves, and have made great, untiring efforts to maintain the culture that they brought with them. Members of the latter group less frequently have been inclined to accept German citizenship, yet they have been well “integrated” (for example, immigrants from Greece).

There is one common factor in most of the “success stories” of integration policy. Diverse groups of immigrants all have managed to organize themselves effectively, and articulate and assert their interests vis-à-vis the host society, sometimes even against the dogged resistance of German organizations and institutions. A case in point is the equal right to education for foreign children in the German school system, which immigrant organizations won at a time when the state was still committed to the dictum that immigrant children should not lose their ability to return to their native lands. Now a process of integration lies ahead for the newly-arrived immigrants, and it will be equally crucial for them to preserve their self-help capabilities and powers. Examples from history and international comparisons both confirm the importance of this observation. Whenever immigrant groups have managed to band together, help each other, and represent their interests in contacts with the host society, in the end they have succeeded in overcoming their marginal status in society and becoming an important driver of social development. This phenomenon can be observed often – and quite impressively – in the United States, especially in the case of immigrants from India, many of whom participated in the IT boom in Silicon Valley through networks and self-organization. How do things stand in the case that is now before us? Are the initial, tentative measures for improving integration well-suited to bolstering the self-help capabilities of the immigrants and thus promoting their “integration”? A brief survey of three central areas of integration – housing, work, and language – will show that, even at the outset of the integration process, thought must be given to the self-determination and self-help of the migrants.


In comparison with the United States and many European countries, we do not find much cultural and social segregation in German cities. The proposed integration law and the possibility of an “assigned place of residence” should continue to forestall that kind of segregation. At first glance, this is understandable. Nevertheless, such an approach also overlooks the positive effects of self-determination and the potential for networking and self-help among the migrants when they enjoy the freedom to choose where they will live. Especially when immigrants’ kinship relations are involved, or when family members and acquaintances have already moved to Germany, it is important to make use of those networks. That is the kind of system that Sweden has, for example. There, asylum seekers have the option of staying with family or friends while their asylum application is still being processed. It is also possible for migrants to live in privately rented housing there. Of course, they then must finance their own lodging, but that does reduce costs for the state. Currently, around a third of asylum seekers in Sweden avail themselves of one of these options. In many instances, the rental units in question are advertised by other migrants or migrant organizations. That fact demonstrates the integrative potential of the community cited earlier, especially since counseling and translation help are often funded privately rather than through the state. In Germany too, the first resort for many refugees are the migrant organizations and integration committees of municipalities – although it must be said that these contact points are not always well-equipped to do their jobs, nor do they enjoy adequate support. In this case it would be reasonable to develop further the existing self-help structures for migrants, rather than relying on coercion by the state.


Much the same holds true for labor markets. Many jobs are offered and accepted via networks and relationships, as numerous studies attest. The most crucial step is to put newly-arrived immigrants in touch with their first labor market as soon as possible, whether through internships or (unpaid) work experience. In this endeavor, migrants who have already been in Germany for a while and gotten a foothold in the labor market can play an important role. They can set up contacts between the new arrivals and companies in Germany and thus help to establish important networks. Initially, the really decisive factor is of course access to the labor market. To this day, many asylum seekers are de facto denied the opportunity to work. By law, asylum applicants now are supposed to be issued a work permit after three months. However, the long waiting periods before asylum procedures even can be initiated amount to a denial of access to labor markets for a much longer time. Here we can learn from Switzerland, which now conducts its asylum proceedings more quickly and efficiently, because it has introduced new and more sophisticated systems for processing applications. However, the Swiss arrangements could not be transferred to Germany point for point.

These long waiting periods entail extreme psychic distress for the refugees, while reinforcing their feelings of insecurity and hopelessness. And those experiences, in turn, generally have a negative impact on integration. Examples from the past corroborate this conclusion. Certain immigrant groups such as the Lebanese were caught in the ambiguous position of being tolerated but not officially accepted, which meant that they had few prospects for integration into German society and were condemned to long periods of idleness. By contrast, Lebanese immigrants to the United States are among that country’s most economically successful groups. It would clearly be better to use their time and energy from the very first day for a preliminary orientation phase, during which, for example, language courses and vocational counseling could be offered. Here, too, it is worthwhile to take a look at Sweden, where asylum seekers are allowed to work from the very first day they arrive. It is certainly true that unskilled immigrants, in particular, will encounter serious difficulties in finding a decent job. Nevertheless, it is never too early to begin providing the new arrivals with access to their first labor market and helping them set up internships and unpaid work experiences in local firms. Furthermore, Sweden and other countries also offer the option of a so-called “track shift.” Asylum seekers can decide to forego their asylum application and instead request the status of immigrant worker. That relieves some of the burden on the asylum system and offers new prospects to the track shifters.


In addition to the other factors mentioned – housing and access to the labor market – rapid acquisition of the local language promotes integration. Hence, a key role is reserved for language courses. Language courses should be offered even if the status of the refugee has not been clarified yet, and it is not certain whether s/he will be able to stay. Once again, Sweden has long played an exemplary role. Until 2012 asylum seekers had the right from day one to take Swedish language courses, regardless of whether they would be allowed to remain in the country or not. Those language courses were free and geared to the different needs and previous knowledge of the participants. Once the latter had acquired a working knowledge of Swedish, s/he was entitled to obtain other qualifications in English, mathematics, and information technology. At the time, this generous and liberal policy led to a situation in which asylum seekers were able to acquire important skills even shortly after their arrival, ones they could use later in Swedish society or even in their countries of origin.

It is instructive to consider the case of the flight of Iraqis to Europe. Besides Great Britain and Germany, Sweden was the country most likely to offer them a place of refuge. After the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, these migrants were intensively involved in Iraq’s rebuilding process, especially in the northern part of the country. The large migrant communities in Great Britain (about 400,000), Sweden (around 120,000), and Germany (roughly 110,000) helped to stabilize the country and reconstruct the economy through their remittances and investments. Many of them returned to their home country as soon as an opportunity presented itself. Thus, the education minister for northern Iraq returned from Sweden and, in 2009, began importing elements of the Swedish school system into his home region. In March of 2016 the first adult education center for women in the northern Iraqi city of Halabja was founded by a woman returning from Sweden. Returnees from Germany also have played an important role. To cite just one example, the mayor of the city of Erbil in the northern part of Iraq lived in Bonn for a long time. In other words, the rebuilding of crisis-plagued regions does not necessarily begin with a peace accord. It often starts long before, with the training and integration of refugees. The refugees of today are the activists of tomorrow, who – with their economic, social, and civic engagement – also combat the causes of flight for future generations.

In short: Smart investments in the refugees will pay off, although not always right away. In addition to the purely humanitarian reasons that speak in favor of accepting and integrating refugees, they also offer an opportunity to the host countries. Of course, the examples cited here come from different countries the basic conditions of which vary widely. Still, it has been shown that, if an asylum and integration policy succeeds in empowering the refugees and strengthening their powers of self-organization, that outcome may benefit all parties: the refugees themselves, their host countries, and – in the middle- and long-term – possibly the refugees’ countries of origin as well. The sooner the process can begin, the better.

Uwe Hunger
is a fellow at the research seminar of the University of Siegen and Assistant Professor at the Institute for Political Science of the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster.

Leonie Koning
studied political science, and Scandinavian and Romance philology at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster and the University of Bologna.

Stefan Metzger
graduates as a fellow of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung at the institute for Political Science of the University of Münster.

This article first appeared in NG/FH, Heft 7-8/2016

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