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The Integration of Refugees in Europe: Challenges and Opportunities

Mar30

In a call for private funding, KBFUS, the Open Society Foundations and the European Programme for Integration & Migration (EPIM) hosted an event in late 2016 for philanthropists, donor advisors and representatives from foundations. It was an opportunity for participants to discuss the challenges of sustainable integration, examine innovative solutions to pressing problems, and explore funding opportunities that tackle the issues.

Over the past few years, millions of people have fled their homes in deadly conflict zones across the Middle East and North Africa, in search of safety for themselves and for their families.

Today, nearly two million refugees are living in the European Union. Most of them will stay. While their successful integration hinges primarily on their willingness and ability to adapt to their new country, it is also very much dependent on strategic investments to support efforts developed by the host communities.


“There are a lot of hands-on organizations trying to fill the gaps that governments are unable to fill.  Many people are putting their energies towards finding solutions.”

Michael Diedring – EPIM (Belgium)


A more stable Europe, a more stable world

“There is no doubt in my mind that the successful integration of the more than two million refugees who now reside in the European Union, including almost 100,000 unaccompanied children, is one of the greatest challenges that Europe, and civilization, is currently facing,” said Maurice Tempelsman, KBFUS board member and speaker at the November event. “It is a crisis of historic proportions. The longer-term effects of a failed integration process would be simply disastrous.”

Why should Americans care about Europe’s migration and integration challenge? There are several answers to this question, none of them simple, says Michael Diedring, Director of EPIM, Europe’s largest funders’ collaborative on migration and integration issues, which provides funders with a flexible platform to support vulnerable refugees and stimulate their integration into local communities.

“The first very real answer is that people want to help for humanitarian reasons,” he says. “The global asylum system is under threat. Sometimes we need to take a stand and say ‘These are things we believe in as human beings. We believe in the concept of human rights.’”

There is also a bigger picture, he says. “We live in an interconnected world on many levels. Stability and growth in Europe, and the benefits that Europe can derive from successful and sustainable migration and integration, also benefit Europe’s allies, which clearly include the United States.”

And then there is an even larger, global view. “There’s real tension now in the global protection system for refugees, with some countries beginning to question the viability of international conventions. If that system collapsed, and suddenly there was no agreement at the United Nations level as to what the protection system actually is, then every country starts to do what’s best for itself and there is no global response to forced migration. And then it’s almost literally everyone for themselves. That’s the worst-case scenario.”

An impetus to help creates funding opportunities

But despite all the bad-news stories that abound, there is a very positive phenomena taking place in Europe, Diedring says, since refugees began arriving.  “There has been a spontaneous volunteerism. Community groups and grassroots organizations have popped up. People are seeing a need at the local level and they respond at the local level. Some of these organizations are just getting off the ground and some are more established.”

Diedring points to two major challenges for people in the United States who want to support sustainable integration in Europe. The first is identifying innovative projects that are working and the second is to then find ways to steer support their way so that they have a chance to succeed and be scaled up.


“We need to offer them tools to help them integrate into society and have equal opportunities.  To have a future.”

Sofia Kouvelaki – HOME Project (Greece)


“What you tend to see in the media is only negative, and those reports are very real,” he says. “But what you don’t hear or read about as often is that even if the situation looks bleak, there are a lot of very positive opportunities in Europe for funding.”

Connecting individuals with projects they can support is an intensive undertaking at the moment, he says. Organizations that understand the landscape can help differentiate viable projects from those that may not be realistic.  Philanthropic advisors focusing on Europe, like KBFUS, can identify worthy projects and do due diligence through their networks and professional research.

Hands-on projects provide a leg up

Diedring says there are many promising civil society initiatives that need and deserve more support. A few examples include:

– Kiron, a German NGO supported by an EPIM partner foundation, helps refugees access world-class education through web-based courses and provides them with the opportunity to graduate free of charge from an accredited university. In less than a year, Kiron has enrolled more than 1,000 students in higher education courses.

– SPEAK, a Portuguese NGO supported by an EPIM partner foundation, promotes refugee integration through language training and social inclusion services.  Over the past months, SPEAK has enrolled more than 4,200 refugees and local volunteers across five Portuguese cities.

– DUO for a JOB, a Belgian NGO, matches young job seekers from diverse backgrounds with people over 50 years of age who have had a professional experience in a similar field to theirs. The mentors support the mentees in their search for a job. Once matched, the young person and his or her mentor meet for two hours a week over six months. The organization’s accompanying services for both young job seekers and future mentors are available in Brussels, Liège and Antwerp.

“There are a lot of these hands-on organizations trying to fill the gaps that governments are simply unable to fill,” says Diedring. “Many people, particularly younger people, are putting their energies towards trying to find solutions. And many of them are finding solutions. The larger issue is the longer-term sustainability of these projects.”

Creating a networking system

EPIM is in the process of developing a sub-fund to support inclusive communities. The sub-fund will be used to identify ‘national-level champions’ from all across Europe and help create a people-networking system within those projects.

“We want to reduce the entrepreneurial cycle of reinventing the wheel all the time, which is what’s happening right now to a certain degree,” says Diedring.  For example, people who have a great project in Barcelona may have no way of knowing what groups in Berlin or Oslo are doing because most of the integration work happens at the local level. The sub-fund will connect people who are doing good projects in one country with people in other countries so they can share their successes with organizations across Europe.


“With these computers, the kids will have an opportunity to learn languages, coding and technical skills and reconnect online with relatives.”

Joe Verrengia – Arrow Electronics (USA)


Supporting the critical transition from childhood to adulthood

Of the more than 1.2 million people who arrived in Europe through Greece and Italy in 2015 alone, nearly 100,000 of them were unaccompanied children.

For youngsters in a precarious situation, it’s important to address not only their immediate needs but also to think about their long-term prospects.  “Getting to younger people earlier is the best return on investment,” says Diedring. “Angry teenagers can turn into problem adults. It’s critical not only to work with unaccompanied children under the age of 18, but also to ensure that they have a good transition to adulthood.”

Many migrant children have experienced severe physical and psychological trauma, which are huge problems to overcome. In many European countries, youngsters legally become adults at 18 and lose some of the protection they had as minors.  “That’s probably the worst time for these kids to drop out of the system,” says Diedring. “For example, if these kids come to Europe at 15 or 16, they may spend two or three years in the asylum system getting protection. When they turn 18 and they’re suddenly on their own, it can be a huge problem. EPIM is looking closely at that issue, mainly in western Germany and Belgium for now. We are trying to find ways to give youngsters a path to normal adulthood. This is a complex, long-term challenge that involves institutional change and support that can be multiplied.”

Private sector bridges the gap for kids

The Athens-based HOME Project (Greece) is one group that quickly stepped up to help child refugees who find themselves alone on unfamiliar territory.  “We offer lone children a holistic network of services, including food, medical, social, legal, and psychological support and immediate access to education and training,” says Executive Director Sofia Kouvelaki.

“They jumped right in,” says Diedring. “They are hands-on and really reactive to the situation of unaccompanied minors in Greece. That’s what makes it such a powerful example. There are people who look at the situation and think ‘What can I do?’ and then there are other people who just start doing.”

Funded entirely by the private sector, the HOME Project’s mission is to ‘provide a home for every unaccompanied refugee child that arrives in Europe.’ It’s an ambitious goal.  But in just the first three months of operations, beginning in November 2016, it established five sustainable dwellings in Athens for more than 100 youngsters. It also created more than 55 new jobs for refugees and Greeks, many who bring very valuable skills with them.

“In a very short time we have managed to do so much to tackle an issue that, very often, people see as being a barrel without a bottom,” says Kouvelaki. “We are an example of how solutions are possible. Sometimes the private sector and private initiatives can be extremely effective and efficient at addressing global challenges.”

With more financial support, the HOME Project hopes to keep expanding in the months and years to come. And for that to happen, they need donations of time, money and other resources, like in-kind donations of material goods.

“It’s not only a matter of providing social welfare services to the kids,” says Kouvelaki. “In-kind donations are also very important. We need to offer them tools to help them integrate into society and have equal opportunities. To have a future.”

One of the tools critical to the success of each of these children is a computer. “Michael Diedring introduced us to Joe Verrengia of Arrow Electronics, who very kindly offered to provide us with one laptop for every child and teacher in our homes,” says Kouvelaki. “And because we will now have computers, we will also be able to provide the children with top-quality education through online courses provided by another private-sector partner.”

Connecting kids with computers

Verrengia, Global Director of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) with Arrow Electronics, met EPIM’s Diedring in September 2016 during KBFUS’ site visit on Corporate Philanthropy in Europe, in a session that Diedring helped lead on the sustainable integration of migrants.

Held every other year in Brussels, the event provides executives from American corporate foundations with a window into the changing role of philanthropy in Europe and enables participants to see first-hand how successful corporate giving programs can be developed in a European context.

“Joe was moved by what he heard and told me that Arrow would be interested in supporting a project in Europe that involved children,” says Diedring. “So just before the end of 2016, I put him in touch with the Home Project.”

One segment of Arrow’s business refurbishes computers, giving them a second life and keeping them out of landfills.  Verrengia says that Arrow already had some experience funding programs for children in Africa. And through its European offices outside Frankfurt, they worked with the local government there to establish a computer resource center for Syrian refugees, giving them the opportunity to do email, look for jobs and connect with relatives.

“I was looking for other ways to be helpful in the refugee situation in Europe in a way that fits with the company’s goals,” Verrengia says. “So that’s what was going through my head as Michael was giving his presentation last September.”

A partnership with the HOME Project seemed to be an excellent fit for Arrow. “Our company’s brand message is that we guide innovation forward,” Verrengia says. “The HOME project is very innovative. We want to partner with innovators who are working fast, and they are doing that too. That is why the partnership made sense to us. Instead of just writing a check, we can provide the right equipment to help refugee children become entrepreneurs and have hope for their future. The HOME Project is a very safe place for these kids to get a good start.”

Thanks to the introductions made by KBFUS and EPIM, says Verrengia, Arrow Electronics will deliver “a couple of hundred” refurbished laptops – complete with software and education programs – to the project’s five shelters by the end of the first quarter of 2017. Verrengia will also help them establish computer classrooms.

“With these computers, the kids will have an opportunity to learn languages, coding and technical skills and reconnect online with relatives,” he says. “They’ve been through a lot. If they are going to be successful in the 21st century, they are going to need knowledge and equipment. Otherwise they remain at risk. Young people are very resourceful. If you give them the right tools they can solve their own problems. Computers are absolutely essential tools today. Providing them with this opportunity is something Arrow can do.”

Connecting funders with innovative projects

Verrengia gives “an enormous amount of credit” to KBFUS for helping Arrow make a concrete contribution to refugee integration.  “We’re a global company headquartered in Denver,” he says. “As the director of CSR, I don’t have my finger on the pulse of all the pressing issues around the world. It’s difficult to make international donations. And it’s difficult to meet people and get introductions to organizations that would be a good match for our CSR program.

“KBFUS was incredibly helpful in giving me the perspective on issues, making the introduction, facilitating the relationship and executing the donation. I absolutely need partners like KBFUS to do my job. I can’t do it by myself. And it’s important for the company that things go smoothly and successfully.”

Verrengia says that with the proper connections, the private sector can play a vital role in helping to solve issues like the refugee crisis.  “Governments can’t solve everything. KBFUS really taught me that if we convene the right people in the room, they will have good ideas and make things happen.”