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by Liliana Martinez, Brittany Aldredge, Maen Hammad

This article summarizes a longer academic paper by three graduate students from the George Washington University on Germany’s experiences in refugee integration. In this version for American Diplomacy, the authors focus on policy recommendations for the United States.

Of the many millions of individuals that have been forced from their homes from war, natural disaster, and civil unrest, Syrian refugees represent one of the largest single groups of displaced people in the world, with at least 5 million fleeing Syria since the start of its civil war in 2011. While many sought refuge in neighbouring Arab states, as of December 2017, at least one million Syrians had applied for asylum status in the European Union.

In 2015 and 2016, Germany processed almost eighty percent of all the asylum applications filed by Syrians in Europe. Berlin in particular experienced an unexpected and overwhelming influx of refugees in mid-2015, forcing the city to innovate its methods of integrating refugees in the country.

In March 2017, our group of three graduate student researchers from the George Washington University, specializing in conflict resolution, Middle East studies, journalism, and law, traveled to Berlin for two weeks in order to analyze refugee integration. The goal was to identify lessons learned and best practices for refugee integration in the German context, particularly within an urban setting. With this study, we hoped to provide policy recommendations for stakeholders in Germany and the United States on how to effectively integrate Syrian refugees.

As conditions in Syria continue to worsen and contribute to the global refugee crisis, countries like the U.S. and Germany face changing political climates that have affected refugee policies. Ostensibly motivated by national security concerns, the current administration in the U.S. recently reduced the U.S.’s formal refugee resettlement program from 110,000 refugees to 45,000 refugees for fiscal year 2017. However, as of June 2018, only around 15,000 refugees had actually been resettled in the U.S. Given this policy context, studies on how to humanely resettle refugees in a cost-effective and expeditious way are critical. By identifying tangible ways for stakeholders in host countries to effectively integrate refugees, this study attempts to dispel myths about refugee integration and empower policymakers to support better refugee programs.

Informed by our study in Berlin, we identified the following five key policy recommendations to better equip stakeholders in the United States to support the integration of refugees in urban areas and dispel myths about refugee assistance: (1) strengthen civil society through government funding and public engagement; (2) establish a common framework for providing English language services to refugees; (3) fund or establish strategic partnerships with alternative education programs for refugees; (4) create and support entrepreneurship programs for newly arrived refugees; and (5) encourage collaboration between the government and private sector to invest in alternative forms of refugee housing.

The policy recommendations were informed by data and information collected through forty-four quantitative data surveys with thirty-nine Syrians, four Iraqis and one Afghani. In addition, the researchers conducted eight qualitative long-form, open-ended interviews with refugees, stakeholders, non-governmental organization (NGO) workers and government employees. Initially, the study focused on Syrian refugees between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four; however, it adapted as a result of experience in the field and widened to all refugees above eighteen living in Berlin from populations who were accessible for the study.

The study included thirty-six men and eight women. Recognizing the importance of including women’s voices in the study, the researchers actively sought to recruit women for the study. A clear impediment to recruiting women was the difficulty in meeting them in public spaces such as language centers, volunteer organizations or restaurants.

Respondents to the eight long-form interviews consisted of two Syrian refugees (one single interview and one four-person group interview), one refugee professional working with an organization that assists refugees in finding a job, one law student who works at a university asylum law clinic, one employee of a grassroots organization, two employees from volunteer-led NGOs and one youth government worker.

One of the challenges of refugee integration is being able to “measure” its success. Thus, in an effort to assist future stakeholders working within the field of refugee assistance, the researchers sought to quantify integration by identifying refugee needs within eight broad categories: (1) asylum status, (2) medical needs, (3) housing, (4) education, (5) employment, (6) safety, (7) relationships and (8) identity. Within the confines of this study, the majority of the respondents’ needs were satisfied in each category.

The following sections identify some of the major findings from the study, which informed the final policy recommendations.

In Berlin, a housing crisis has led to desperation among refugees who are seeking permanent accommodation. As several refugees in the study identified, many are forced to use private brokers to find a suitable apartment. These brokers often require refugees to pay thousands of euros, which has led to what some have informally termed a “housing mafia.” A lack of housing inhibits the process of integration as refugees become more concerned with finding a place to live rather than attending classes, finding a job or meeting others in the community. Based on the issues observed with housing in Berlin, the researchers identified the following policy recommendation as a method of improving refugee integration in other contexts such as the U.S.: (1) encourage collaboration between the government and private sector to invest in alternative forms of refugee housing.

Housing for refugees in urban areas should be one of the top priorities for the state and local governments, especially those wishing to pre-empt future integration challenges. In Berlin, the government partially addressed the shortage in refugee housing by partnering with the private sector to convert various convention halls, sports gymnasiums and a former airport into emergency housing shelters. The government and private sector also partnered to establish modular accommodations for refugees (MUFs) and container homes as temporary shelters. Although these shelters have addressed immediate housing needs, issues of privacy and concerns about oversight of the facilities remain. To reduce these concerns, the U.S. government would benefit from investing in alternative forms of housing for refugees by partnering with the private sector to create shelters for refugees under an established framework for oversight. While the U.S. may already assist the majority of refugees with their housing needs, this study supports future investment in this area given the recent influx in refugees around the world and the potential for a future increase to occur in the U.S.

Civil Society and Government Cooperation
Following the recent influx of refugees, many volunteer initiatives have stepped up to fill in programming gaps for asylum seekers and refugees and to advocate for policy changes. Volunteer initiatives cover a range of services for refugees and asylum seekers in Berlin: financial and in kind donations, German and English language courses, daycare services, integration activities, psychosocial and informational support, and political advocacy on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees. Through these efforts, it is clear that civil society is a capable stakeholder in affecting refugee policies in Berlin and addressing government programming gaps.

Currently, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) are responsible for providing funding and grants to NGOs who directly assist refugees in the U.S. The government should continue to fund these programs in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of social services to refugees which support, among other needs, housing, employment, language services, child care and education.

Additionally, to encourage public engagement and private donations for sustainability, the organizations may benefit in addressing negative stigmas associated with refugee programming by modifying the terminology they use in public outreach and programming. For example, in the German context, the researchers discovered that several organizations combatted public criticism towards refugees by establishing programs for “newcomers” or “new arrivals” in Berlin rather than for “refugees.” The use of neutral and welcoming terms helps evade negative stigmas and encourages greater public support to increase the power of civil society.

The government-run Jobcenter in Germany (responsible for organising most employment-related services to citizens and residents) provides free language courses to refugees through the required Integration Course, which allows refugees to enroll in language courses fairly easily at local language centers up to the B1 (intermediate) level. Several respondents of this study mentioned long wait times before being able to enroll in levels higher than B1. Many respondents indicated high demand for B2 language courses because most jobs require a minimum of B2 language proficiency. In addition, entrance exams for university often require even higher levels of language proficiency at the C1 level. Although the government will fund languages courses for refugees beyond B1, the current demand for these courses and the failure to provide more advanced level courses has led to an extended waiting period for refugees.

Civil society and local NGOs have worked to address these programming gaps by offering German language lessons to refugees on a volunteer basis. One group the researchers identified was Multitude E.V., a volunteer-led organization that provides free German language classes to refugees in Berlin. While these courses may assist refugees in learning the German language, many are not recognized under the CEFR (Common European Framework), which means respondents must continue to wait to enroll in federal courses to receive recognition from the state. At a minimum, however, the volunteer services offer an advantage to students who are participating in these courses by allowing them to develop their language skills before enrolling in an accredited program.

Given the significance of language proficiency identified from this study, the researchers recommend that stakeholders in the U.S. working with refugees consider establishing a common framework for providing English language services to refugees. Currently, the U.S. federal government does not directly provide English language courses for refugees, and there is no national framework for English language classes in the U.S. similar to the Common European Framework followed by institutions in Berlin. Instead, refugees in the U.S. must navigate services that are offered from schools, religious groups and non-profit organizations. Considering language proficiency and access to language classes were both identified as barriers to integration in Berlin, this is an area warranting further support in the U.S. First, a national, or at least state-level database should be established and should be made easily accessible to refugees so they can identify all language courses currently being offered in the U.S. Second, the government should establish a national framework similar to the CEFR, that ensures that all language courses being offered follow the same curricula and standards for achieving language proficiency.

This study found that employment was one of the most significant factors inhibiting integration in Berlin. The majority of the respondents identified employment as one of their top priorities, after learning German and finding an adequate place to live. Many of the respondents who were employed had also found a job through informal, word-of-mouth networks, often at restaurants run and staffed by other refugees.

Similar to education, language proficiency influenced the respondents’ ability to find a job in Germany. Of those employed, all identified their German language skills as either “intermediate” or “advanced.” Legally, some German businesses may hire individuals with minimal language skills, yet the majority of respondents said they had to speak German at an advanced level to apply for most jobs. Whether these restrictions are self-imposed by the businesses or mandated by the Jobcenter, they likely explain why the only respondents who were employed were those with intermediate or advanced language skills.

One solution to the problem of refugees with low language levels seeking employment has been the ausbildung program, an apprenticeship program that combines language classes with skills training and a job placement for refugees, mainly in the private sector. Siemens is one notable example of a large company that has implemented an apprenticeship program for refugees, although so far the spots available are limited.

In addition to apprenticeship programs, this study also identified assistance from civil society as an asset in employing refugees. One program specifically identified in Berlin was “Ideas in Motion,” a joint collaboration between two Berlin-based organizations, SINGA Deutschland and Project Re:start, which offers support to refugee entrepreneurs. Through this program, refugees and asylum seekers receive training and support for entrepreneurship over a period of five months. The creation of programs like Ideas in Motion helps support integration by allowing refugees to work and learn practical job skills while improving language proficiency and education.

With the above findings in mind, we recommend U.S. stakeholders fund or establish strategic partnerships with alternative education programs for refugees. The U.S. often does not recognize foreign certifications or degrees from refugees’ home countries; even when these degrees are recognized, refugees are often unable to produce proper documentation to verify their degrees. Accordingly, highly skilled and well-educated refugees often work low-skilled and low-income jobs when they first arrive. In Berlin, alternative education programs such as iBridgePro Academy and the Kiron Institute have been created to facilitate the access to higher education for refugees. Supporting similar programs like this in the U.S. can facilitate the integration of refugees by filling current programming gaps that prevent refugees from seeking higher education and receiving recognition for prior degrees and certifications.

In addition, U.S. refugee resettlement services and agencies should create and support entrepreneurship programs for newly arrived refugees: This study identified significant support from the private sector in Berlin which is encouraging refugee integration through entrepreneurship. In the U.S., reports have shown that few of the same efforts have been made to leverage refugees’ existing skills and credentials. Rather, it is difficult for refugees to get access to accelerators or business development funding. This lack of access is particularly unfortunate given evidence that many refugees have university degrees and prior skills from their home countries. Of the respondents in this study, thirty-three percent had a university education and forty-three percent had completed some form of secondary school. Although this study may not be representative of all refugees in Berlin, a similar study conducted on a broader scale in December 2016 and January 2017 in Berlin also found that twenty-seven percent of the refugees in this study had been university students in their country of origin, and more than thirty percent were skilled workers or business owners.

Accordingly, by increasing funding to encourage refugee entrepreneurship and business ventures, the U.S. can increase its ability to integrate refugees while encouraging economic growth through the establishment of new businesses and job opportunities.

This two-week study conducted in March 2017 in Berlin, Germany, generated lessons and recommendations for how to best innovate around the ever-growing global refugee crisis. The collaborations between government, civil society and the private sector in Berlin can provide an example for other countries and organisations seeking to welcome newcomers and refugees. Similarly, housing shortages faced by residents of Berlin, including refugees, are indicative of a larger issue faced by residents of many major cities around the world. The solutions identified above for the U.S. context are only the beginning of what has the potential to be a fruitful and productive discussion surrounding refugee resettlement and integration.bluestar


Author Liliana Martinez is a security specialist at International SOS and Control Risks, where she monitors 49 countries, reports on developments that may affect foreign travellers, and delivers security briefings to clients all over the world to enable travel to high and extreme risk locations. Liliana graduated from the George Washington University with an MA in International Affairs and Conflict Resolution, with a particular focus on the Middle East and Arabic language.

AuthorMaen Hammad is the Research, Campaigns, and Communication Assistant with Amnesty International in their Jerusalem Regional Office. Maen also serves as the local coordinator for SkatePal, which is a charity organization that aims to foster skateboarding in Palestine. Maen graduated with a MA in International Affairs from the George Washington University where he concentrated in International Law and Organizations and Conflict Resolution.

AuthorBrittany Aldredge works for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review within the Office of the Chief Immigration Judge as an attorney advisor with the Los Angeles immigration court.  She currently assists immigration judges with drafting written judicial decisions in pending civil immigration removal proceedings in the United States.  She graduated from the George Washington University in May 2017 with a J.D. and M.A. in international affairs concentrating in international law and organizations.  She is licensed to practice law in California.


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