Words by Elina Jonitz
In April 2021, the Horizon2020 project Whole-COMM kicked off. Prof. dr. Peter Scholten, dr. Maria Schiller and Ph.D. Candidate Elina Jonitz (LDE GMD affiliates) represent the Erasmus University Rotterdam as one of thirteen project partners involved in the three-year research project.
Whole-COMM aims at exploring the integration of post-2014 migrants in 49 small and medium-sized towns and rural areas (SMsTRA) in 8 EU countries as well as Turkey and Canada. The project aims to make a concrete contribution to the formulation of innovative and effective policies, involving stakeholders at the European, national, and local levels, for building more cohesive and resilient communities that can proactively embrace change.
Within two years since the start of the project, the research team has published three country reports, one comparative working paper, and one policy brief.
Three country reports – overview
The country reports explore how four municipalities in the Netherlands have responded to the increased arrival of refugees after 2014 and how newcomers themselves experience their arrival and settlement in the four localities. Municipalities were selected based on several variables, including size, geography, structural conditions, experience with diversity, and political orientation. The sample includes one medium-sized town in the province of Utrecht, one small town in South Holland, one small town in Overijssel, and a rural area in Drenthe. The country reports are primarily based on (policy) document analysis and more than 110 interviews with state and non-state actors at local, regional, provincial, national, and EU levels as well as migrants and refugees who arrived after 2014.
The first country report examines multilevel governance dynamics and integration policies targeting recognized refugees (statushouders) in the four Dutch localities. Besides providing an overview of national and local (integration) policies targeting refugees, the report explores interactions among key actors involved in policy processes focusing both on collaboration and conflict.
The second country report examines post-2014 migrants’ and refugees’ access to housing, employment, and other relevant resources in the four localities. In particular, the report provides an overview of barriers that migrants and refugees are facing in relation to housing and employment and the local actors who are involved in, and/or seen as responsible for, facilitating their access.
The third country report explores the social interactions between migrants and long-term residents, and migrants’ lived experiences of inclusion and exclusion in the four localities. The report highlights in detail which factors facilitate or hinder positive integration experiences and encounters.
Three country reports – main findings
Based on the country reports, we find that the four localities in our case study have adopted their own localized responses to immigrant integration, by making use of the leeway provided within national legal regulations, developing local policies addressing the issue at hand, and choosing their (local) collaboration partners to carry out legal tasks. All four localities opted for an integrated approach instead of a target group-specific policy because of local governments’ previously limited role in this policy domain and because of the cross-sectional character of the policy area. We further show that local governance networks differ in terms of size, type of collaboration partners, and distribution of tasks and responsibilities. They are often marked by close collaboration, but also by conflict, for example, due to competition for funding, diverging ideas on how to address the topic, and conflicting ‘integration frames’. Support structures set up by informal actors such as volunteer or migrant-led organizations are particularly important because they represent the voices of migrants, mobilize resources, lobby for more inclusive policies, and question the existing system.
In terms of access to services, we find that in the Netherlands, access to housing for recognized refugees who arrived after 2014 is highly specific because municipalities have the legal obligation to provide housing for them. Access to employment is influenced by factors at the individual, macro-economic, policy and governance, and societal level. At the individual level, factors such as educational background, ethnicity, age, gender, and mental health influence a person’s chances of finding employment in various, intersecting ways. At the macro-economic level, employers’ willingness and openness to hiring refugees, the ‘voluntary work trap’ as well as precarious working conditions play another role in determining a person’s economic mobility. At the policy and governance level, refugees are often channeled into the low-paid sector of the labor market because work is often prioritized over education under the national Participation Act. Lastly, at the societal level, discrimination against refugees has a negative influence on people’s chances of finding long-term, sustainable employment.
Finally, in our last report, we show that factors facilitating positive experiences of settlement and integration of post-2014 newcomers include a medium size of the locality, a higher level of population diversity, and a more central location and connectivity of a locality. Besides the spatial dimension, governmental approaches that allow learning the language first and/or consider a person’s educational/professional background concerning future employment as well as permanent and accessible local support structures contribute to a positive integration experience. Furthermore, a positive attitude towards newcomers among residents, political leadership, and high prioritization of integration on the local political agenda influence people’s integration processes positively.
All reports highlight similarities as well as differences across the four localities, exploring factors accounting for diverging/converging responses to the arrival and integration of newcomers after 2014. Factors include the size of a locality, political orientation, economic/structural conditions, organizational landscape, experience with diversity, and degree of homogeneity among the local population.
Comparative working paper and policy brief
The comparative working paper brings together insights from our Whole-COMM research in eight EU countries as well as Turkey and Canada to comparatively analyze integration policies targeting post-2014 migrants in small and medium-sized towns and rural areas (SMsTRA). The paper further examines forms of collaboration that local governments in these localities develop with non-public actors and governmental actors at higher levels of government. The papers draw on insights from 49 small and medium-sized towns and rural areas (SMsTRA).
In the policy brief targeted at European policymakers, we argue that EU policymaking on immigrant integration has largely been informed by large cities and capitals. Our recommendations highlight the need to create more even and equal standards for providing support and seizing opportunities for newcomers, by considering the context of small locality (integration) policymaking.
What is Whole-COMM?
Whole-COMM is a three-year research project exploring the integration of post-2014 migrants in 49 small and medium-sized towns and rural areas in 8 EU countries, Turkey and Canada. Whole-COMM aims to make a concrete contribution to the formulation of innovative and effective policies, involving stakeholders at European, national, and local level, for building more cohesive and resilient communities that can proactively embrace change.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement number 101004714.
The content reflects only the authors’ views, and the European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.