A closer look at refugee integration in Europe (Part I)

A young boy plays in the abandoned complex where he lives with more than 135 other refugees in Toulouse, France. Source

In 2015, over 1.3 million people displaced by war and conflict sought asylum in Europe. Of this number, only 292,540 were refugees—individuals approved for asylum and guaranteed protection by the European Union (EU)—and one million were migrants—individuals who have not completed the legal process of claiming asylum. This massive wave of forced migration has proved a challenge for the EU, whose member states have responded with varying commitments to accepting displaced people. Thus far, Greece and Italy have borne the burden of processing applications for asylum, and the vast majority of refugees have settled in Germany, Hungary, and Sweden.

When David O’Sullivan, Ambassador of the European Union to the United States, spoke at UCLA earlier this month, he emphasized the need for a unified European response to the refugee crisis. According to O’Sullivan, the solution to what many Europeans perceive as an insurmountable problem is the proportionate redistribution of refugees and asylum seekers between the European member states. This perspective is the driving force behind recent EU legislation outlining redistribution procedures and controlling the safe and legal arrival of refugees by land and sea.

However, the EU has failed to address a third, equally necessary response to the refugee crisis: integration. Europe does not currently have an integration plan for the millions of people resettling across the continent, a fact which is made more disconcerting by Europe’s long history of unsuccessful immigrant integration.

Over the course of the past few decades, isolated and predominantly immigrant communities have become an increasingly common feature of European suburbs. One such community, Molenbeek St. Jean—the so-called “jihadi capital of Europe” in western Brussels—has been under scrutiny in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. Five individuals involved in November’s Paris attacks were tied to the community, and it was implicated again during the investigation of the Brussels attacks in March. Molenbeek St. Jean and its association with a violent and poorly-integrated immigrant population represents a larger European problem: the social segregation of native and non-native populations.

While the refugee crisis differs from Europe’s tradition of immigration in many respects, the process of refugee integration will face many of the same challenges. Namely, in order for successful integration to take place, native and non-native communities must overcome the profound socio-cultural divides which separate them. There is no apparent answer for how to address this problem. However, there are lessons to be learned from legislation and policies already implemented by European nations.

Two particularly interesting targets for comparison are France and Sweden, which have adopted opposing methodologies with respect to immigration. France, commanding a clearly-defined and longstanding national identity, expects immigrants and refugees to assimilate to French culture and traditions. Meanwhile, the Swedish government has adopted a multicultural approach, incorporating the customs of refugees and immigrants into a broader Swedish identity. Neither strategy has been wholly successful in producing social harmony, and closer study reveals why: both models fail to produce organic social interaction between native and immigrant populations. Without this crucial ingredient, Europe will not arrive at a sustainable solution for the refugee crisis.

France: An assimilationist model

Any discussion about immigration in France must begin with the French tradition of laïcité. The term, which was coined during the French Revolution and ultimately formalized in a 1905 law, can be loosely summarized as an equivalent to the United States’ separation of church and state. However, its definition relies on a different set of principles which, in practice, render its implementation problematic on a social scale.

While the American tenet of separation of church and state seeks to protect freedom of religion and individual liberty, laïcité’s end goal is to achieve social equality by preventing religiously-motivated discrimination. It draws a sharp distinction between private and public life and decrees that while individuals are free to practice whichever religion they choose in their private life, religion shall in no capacity infringe on the public sphere. Unlike the separation of church and state in the United States—which seeks to grant equal religious liberty to all US citizens—laïcité promotes equality by preventing anyone from practicing their religion in the public sphere. The strategy here is to achieve equality by removing religion from the social equation. Laïcité privileges French identity over other cultural and religious identities so as to ensure that all French citizens are viewed as French first and foremost and that their status in the eyes of the law is protected from religious bias.

Laïcité achieved international controversy following a March 2004 law banning students from wearing symbols or clothing denoting religious affiliation in schools. Other laws apply this precedent to all public institutions, ranging from government offices to post offices. This legislation has proved particularly problematic for French Muslim women who wish to wear headscarves in accordance with their religious values, making laïcité’s incompatibility with current societal truths clear.

Laïcité is a system designed for a mono-cultural, Catholic—or Christian at best—French society. It was not conceived during a time in which multiculturalism was prevalent, nor has it evolved to match the needs of France’s diversifying population. Instead, it is reinforcing a narrow definition of French national identity which does not include the multi-faceted racial, cultural, and ethnic dimensions of modern France.

The ideology which shaped laïcité is a deeply-ingrained component of the French identity. Although its ramifications on the reception of immigrants in France are complex and far-reaching, they may be condensed broadly into two categories:

Firstly, the restrictive cultural norms imposed by laïcité make little room for immigrants’ diverse religions and cultures. While studying in France, I asked a French person I knew well to explain to me what one had to do to “be French” in modern France. His answer was simple: “you just have to obey our laws.” That’s precisely the problem. French laws, as they stand, are not feasible for segments of the population that don’t resemble the sort of French people they were designed for. This is especially true for France’s growing Muslim population, which continues to challenge France’s cultural norms. Most recently, a Muslim student in Northwestern France was sent home for wearing a long skirt—a choice which her school’s administration interpreted as a religious statement. There has also been controversy surrounding French schools’ refusal to serve Halal food in cafeterias. These incidents stand in sharp contrast to the norm of institutionalized Catholicism in France, where many schools hold mass daily and nearly all Roman Catholic holidays are observed by the French state.

However, those aspiring to earn the social status of citizen in France have no choice but to assimilate to French cultural and religious norms. This is made difficult by the popular disdain of many native French for immigrant communities, perpetuating a vicious circle of social isolation. The French are inclined to distrust and disapprove of growing immigrant neighborhoods like those in Seine-Saint-Denis and Marseilles because they perceive their failure to integrate as an affront to French tradition and hospitality rooted in immigrants’ lack of interest in integrating. This attitude contributes to the stigma which makes it difficult for immigrants and refugees to integrate in the first place, widening the social gap between these populations and attesting to the inefficacy of laïcité as a strategy for integration.

Secondly, because religion—and, by extension, religious and cultural differences—are taboo in France, relations between the ethnically French and the multicultural “new French” are plagued by a fundamental lack of mutual understanding. Lines of communication between these increasingly isolated populations are cut in part because their social spheres do not overlap, but also because dialogue about the issues which separate them is made uncomfortable by prevailing cultural norms.

France’s policies, built around the notion of laïcité, reinforce the ideological divide between native and non-native populations before they have an opportunity to interact. The sociocultural repercussions of this method have already posed a problem in ethnically-divided France, and the addition of hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers is likely to escalate existing tensions within France if efforts are not made to bridge these polarized communities.

The second part of this article details Swedish integration policy and proposes a model of integration for Europe. Visit The Generation website later this week to read more.


  • The refugee integration problem is not unique to any EU country , it happens in Australia and the US . The big problem is that the refugees , the UN and NGOs expect countries to change to adapt to refugees , but it is the opposite that should happen .
    The UN agreements concerning refugees states that refugees have to adapt and integrate into the country who accepts them , and this is far from being the case anywhere in the world.
    So I wish writers would get the facts right

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