The EMF points to the power of the grassroots level for making a difference in the successful management of migration and highlights the pressing need to include migrants’ views when developing integration policies

On 3 and 4 April, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the European Commission held this year’s European Migration Forum, which explored the role of civil society and local authorities in managing migration and ensuring safe and regular pathways to the EU.

The 2019 Forum, now in its fifth year, produced 10 recommendations which were the result of discussions by some 250 professionals from EU civil society organisations and representatives from local, regional and national authorities, European institutions and international organisations. They took part in panel discussions and workshops which focused on the many aspects of local migrant management.

Topping the list of the Forum’s recommendations were the involvement of host societies in migrant inclusion projects, multi-stakeholder approaches to defining integration policy and legal migration solutions, a meaningful participation of migrants in decision-making, special needs of vulnerable groups, and incentives for the reintegration of migrants in their countries of origin following a stay in the EU for work or study.

The recommendations will be sent to the European Parliament and will hopefully be taken into account by policy-makers in their efforts to improve the EU legal migration framework and to foster inclusion.

The European Migration Forum was established in 2015 as a platform for dialogue between civil society, institutions and authorities on issues relating to migration and the integration of third-country nationals. It meets once a year to discuss the latest policy developments, and to gather and exchange information relating to migration and asylum.

The Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, and EESC President Luca Jahier opened the Forum. They stressed the need for an effective EU policy on legal migration which, as well as requiring a global approach and concerted efforts from all Member States, also needed locally tailored solutions. Such a policy would in turn help the EU harness the benefits of migration, promote social cohesion and protect the most vulnerable amongst the migrants.

“Those who are concerned by irregular migration must understand that only strengthening external borders or increasing returns is not enough. A smart and well-controlled EU policy on legal migration is essential to show that there are alternatives to irregular migration,” said Commissioner  Avramopoulos.

“While political debates on migration and integration sometimes get heated, local actors simply go about doing their job. Many local authorities have implemented successful mechanisms, for example to integrate migrant children in schools or to help migrants enter the labour market,” he added.

“We should ensure a transparent, predictable and just system of legal migration to the EU that could help us compete with other regions of the world for skilled migrant workers. Migration should not be a divisive factor, but should be considered as an investment in the future,” said Luca Jahier.

Reiterating the importance of ensuring safe and regular arrivals, EESC President added: “If we want to manage migration better, we will have to work together. The EU needs a truly common migration policy that is supported by all Member States. Safe and legal routes will not only decrease irregular arrivals, they may also alleviate the pressure on the EU asylum system.”

The immense work local authorities and NGOs did

Discussions at the Forum pointed to the immense work done by local authorities and NGOs in the field of migration. They don’t just provide essential services to migrants; they are often agents of innovation too, as demonstrated by the Dutch project called “Urban Innovative Actions”, bringing together locals and newcomers through inclusion classes where they all study English together.

One of the recommendations was thus to include a social cohesion clause for EU or national funds targeting migrants, which would make it mandatory to involve host communities in the use of these funds. The development of platforms at local level, bringing together NGOs, local authorities and migrants’ organisations with the purpose of guaranteeing accessible and inclusive services for migrants regardless of their status, was also among the recommendations.

Possible developments in EU legislation on migration were likewise discussed. The starting point was the “fitness check” of the current EU legal migration framework, recently completed by the Commission. It showed that, although the framework was largely “fit for purpose”, some important categories of migrants, such as highly skilled workers, were still not covered by EU legislation.

A new EU Blue Card directive, which would offer more flexible admission conditions for highly skilled migrants and stronger protection for seasonal workers, has been proposed but not yet adopted. Neither is there a directive on the recognition of skills of third country nationals.

The Forum recommended the introduction of a horizontal directive that would harmonise admission conditions and rights for all categories of non-EU nationals and cover equal treatment, intra-EU mobility and family reunification. Furthermore, NGOs, local authorities and social partners should be consulted in a structured way on the management of legal migration.

Also discussed were the legal migration pilot projects that have recently obtained backing from the Commission. Through these projects, the Commission provides support to Member States and non-public authorities for developing temporary labour migration opportunities for selected migrants coming from some African countries, such as Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Nigeria.

These pilot projects also address the reintegration of migrants into their country of origin, where they return with know-how acquired during their stay in the EU. Participants said this could help change the narrative and reduce the paranoia surrounding migration, as it would show that many were willing to return home and apply their new knowledge there.

The Forum recommended that cooperation between civil society and diaspora organisations be strengthened to support their efforts to provide information and incentives for reintegration in the countries of origin.

The EMF’s proposals also included the expansion of extended family reunification programmes in the EU and the harmonisation of Member State processes for welcoming and integrating migrants, with a specific focus on the special needs of the most vulnerable among them.

Ensuring access to human rights for all migrants, including undocumented ones, could be achieved through pilot projects by local authorities across the EU. Another proposal was to provide funding and support to local and grassroots organisations that work with vulnerable groups to develop gender sensitive actions and policies.

The participants singled out the empowerment of migrants as being particularly important, not only for policy formulation but also as a means of countering stereotypes and the negative perception of migrants in society.

“The whole burden of dispelling fears and stereotypes should not entirely be on the shoulders of migrants,” stressed panellist Maher Ismaail, who said that people had sometimes told him they were afraid of him. “Please, start talking to migrants, instead of about them!”