Since the peak of the migration crisis that hit Europe in the summer of 2015, there has been a surge of interest and activity around ways to improve the labor market integration of refugees. From tech and telecommunications companies such as Siemens and Deutsche Telekom to the international retail powerhouse IKEA, a small but growing number of firms are adapting existing traineeship programs to include language courses and integration packages tailored to refugees.
These social innovations are most difficult to find, however, in the places where they might be most expected — in the halls of government and the international organizations and institutions working on asylum and international protection.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for example, offers several unpaid six-month internships. These openings are promoted as opportunities for interns to help refugees, but do not prioritize refugee applicants.
The European Commission is focused on the successful integration of refugees, yet few opportunities exist for their integration within its own corridors. Across the EU institutions, there is already scope for third-country nationals to participate in five-month, paid “Blue Book” traineeships or the flagship European Solidarity Corps program.
In the long term, it is important that the most powerful European institutions reflect the reality of Europe’s diverse societies.
Making these programs welcoming to refugees would involve little additional effort but send a powerful message of welcome.
There are several ways to do this. First, the existing traineeship framework could be adapted with special criterion for persons with refugee status or from particular nationalities, such as Syrians, Eritreans, Afghans and Sudanese. Alternatively, specific bodies, Cabinets, or departments could be encouraged to create supplementary fellowship programs reserved for refugees.
Ongoing research at the Migration Policy Institute Europe into private sector efforts has demonstrated that such programs are relatively easy to initiate (though harder to scale). So what has prevented similar EU-level schemes, and what might make them easier to implement?
Any new scheme would undoubtedly require additional administrative capacity. But the biggest hurdles appear to be limited political focus and diffuse responsibility within institutions to design and implement new initiatives. Human resource departments aren’t always plugged into the headline policy goals of their institution.
Traditional recruitment models also need to be adapted to reach refugee populations, to make them aware of opportunities and offer accompanying scholarships and grants. Examples can be drawn from efforts to improve gender balance: “Etsy Hacker Grants,” needs-based scholarships for talented women to enrol in a three-month Hacker School, grew the number of female engineers at the company by almost 500 percent between 2011 and 2013.
Welcoming work environments are key. Previous attempts to offer targeted traineeships at the Commission, such as the Open Society Foundation-funded Roma traineeship, failed to foster supportive Roma communities within the institutions. Many Roma trainees ended up working in Roma-focused organizations where there are strong pre-existing support networks.
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But follow-on hiring should not be the only benchmark for success. Some trainees may feel strong attachments to particular communities that they would prefer to serve. Thus, other benchmarks, such as overall experience and future employment outcomes should also be considered.
One of the major barriers for the private sector has been to bridge competency gaps, such as language proficiency, and communication of skills through CVs and personal statements. Traineeships provide an essential link to the workplace that can then form the basis for future careers, regardless of whether a trainee subsequently gets hired in-house.
The number of young people with migrant and refugee backgrounds is growing across Europe. Not only would a traineeship programme create opportunities for them, it could also sensitize officials to the challenges of integration.
In the long term, it is important that the most powerful European institutions reflect the reality of Europe’s diverse societies, and ensure that the under-represented viewpoints of newcomers are injected into the policies that govern the lives of all EU residents. The small adaptations needed to make traineeship programs “refugee-ready” would send the message of an inclusive Europe at a time when it is needed most.
Elizabeth Collett is director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe. Aliyyah Ahad is associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute Europe.