Integration Systems in Central Europe at Breaking Point

Wednesday 24, June 2009 Budapest, 24 June 2009 – “I am not lazy, I work 14 hours a day, but I cannot pay the rent,” says Louis*, a 46 year old Iraqi, encircling his little food shop with a desperate gesture. He says he tried and failed to start a […]

Wednesday 24, June 2009

Budapest, 24 June 2009 – “I am not lazy, I work 14 hours a day, but I cannot pay the rent,” says Louis*, a 46 year old Iraqi, encircling his little food shop with a desperate gesture. He says he tried and failed to start a new life. Louis’ is one of many unsuccessful attempts of recognised refugees to integrate in Central European countries and become economically independent.

The new EU Member States in Central Europe for a long time considered themselves mere transit countries for refugees and did little to develop integration systems, resulting in an increasing number of refugees staying in these countries with not enough assistance to learn the language, find a job and a house or obtain vocational qualifications and live normal lives.

“Some efforts have been made in recent years to support the integration of refugees in Central Europe. Modest gains are now at serious risk at the time of economic crisis when governments are tempted to introduce budget cuts to already under-funded integration services. The system is at breaking point!” warns Areti Sianni, a consultant for integration issues at UNHCR’s Central European Representation in Budapest.

Louis is a role model of willingness to integrate. A Christian from Iraq, he ended up in Hungary with his wife Anna* and two children aged 13 and 11. The family received refugee status fairly soon, meaning not only that they have a permanent legal status but also that they have had to quickly become self sustained.

Louis made an effort to learn Hungarian, but after a six month course he is still far from conversant enough to get a job. “No way I can work in my original field, which is agricultural engineering,” he says, “I have a university degree which I will never use.”

“I work but I do not earn.”

With the help of a church organisation he set up a buffet where he offers take away lunches. Meanwhile Anna is attending a course to become a kindergarten teacher but she will not get a diploma nor employment for yet another year.

“Here I work, but I do not earn,” says Louis. The little money he makes is by far not enough to pay for the rents for the family home and the shop not to mention the other necessities of life.

Areti Sianni knows where Louis’ difficulties stem from. “Integration systems in this part of Europe have proven less than effective in helping people to become independent and integrate into local communities”. she says. “People cannot integrate while they learn Hungarian in a camp setting, separated from local communities. Integration can only take place at community level. It is indeed at community level that services and support need to be provided until refugees are ready for independent and dignified living on a par with citizens. Integration is a complex endeavour, involving many different stake holders such as national and municipal structures, labour offices, health and education systems, banks, landlords, employers etc.”

Sianni has researched the integration systems in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria for over a year and found them “wanting” the elements necessary for securing a life of dignity for refugees.

After going through short and scanty integration programmes people are left to their own devices, she says, lacking the skills to make a living. There are cases where people spend 90% of their income on housing. Hence, many refugees who came to Central Europe to find refuge and protection end up in unspeakable poverty. They are marginalised, excluded and at the risk of homelessness, Sianni found.

Two UNHCR documents to advise Governments

In order to better advise Central European Governments on integration policies, UNHCR Budapest developed two comprehensive documents, a Note on Refugee Integration in Central Europe and the Agenda for Refugee Integration in Central Europe containing a comprehensive overview of what integration is and which practical measures integration policies should entail. The documents have been shared with all Governments and NGOs in Central Europe and welcomed as a valuable contribution to the debate.

The danger UNHCR now sees looming is the economic recession that forces governments to make budget cuts. UNHCR is concerned that several Central European Governments might feel tempted to cut down on their integration programmes in a spree of budget cuts. Sianni thinks this is short-sighted as it will prove more costly in the long run. “Well-integrated refugees are economically independent. They earn money and pay taxes. Refugees who do not receive the necessary assistance to integrate are especially vulnerable as they do not even have social networks to catch them. They become a burden rather than net contributors to society.”

Louis is about to close down his little shop as he cannot afford the rent any more. What will become of him and his family he does not know. “I do not want a car or property, just a life,” ha says, averting his eyes so as to hide his tears.

Melita H. Sunjic in Budapest, Hungary