On 8 and 9 December 2015 within the framework of the Luxembourg Presidency of the Council of the EU, the Luxembourg-based ESPON cooperation programme organised a seminar dedicated to the territorial aspects of refugee migration, cross-border cooperation and the strategy for macro-regions. The seminar, entitled 'A world without borders' - Refugees, Cooperation and Territories', brought together in the Grand Duchy policy-makers, stakeholders, scientists and experts. It was also an opportunity to present the proposed changes for the implementation of the ESPON 2020 programme.
The ESPON 2020 programme aims to promote and reinforce the European territorial dimension in development and cooperation matters. Using production analyses and scenarios on the development of European territories, ESPON fosters the exchange of information, scientific results and good useful practices for the scientific community as well as for practitioners.
During the opening of the first round table dedicated to the territorial aspects of migration in Europe, Heinz Faßmann, professor at the University of Vienna, outlined the opportunities and challenges posed by the current flows of refugees towards Europe.
The speaker first of all reminded everyone that the number of asylum seekers in Europe rose to 895,000 between 1 January and 30 September 2015, and that it was estimated at 1.4 million for this year alone. During this time, it has tripled in Austria compared to the same period in 2014 (56,356 requests). The number of asylum seekers has doubled in Germany (331,226 requests), stated Heinz Faßmann, adding that the refugees were originating mainly from four countries: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Albania.
The speaker referred to a certain 'legal fragility', as some countries are careless with their legal requirements concerning matters of asylum. In this regard, he cited the common European asylum system that has been initiated progressively since 1999 through the Tampere programme.
For Heinz Faßmann, the integration of refugees into our ageing society could constitute enormous potential for the employment market, since 31% of the asylum seekers in Germany are younger than 18 and 49% are between 19 and 34 years old. But this could also be a burden, he explained, as many of the asylum seekers are unqualified (65% of Syrians and 90% of Afghans in Austria have completed only their primary-school education). And, as a consequence, the asylum seekers will place a burden on our social and healthcare systems, stated the speaker.
The professor returned to the matter of political intervention at European level, citing the establishment of 'hotspots' in Italy and Greece, the willingness to get to the root cause of this phenomenon and improving the European asylum system. On the other hand, at national level we are witnessing a 'competition of unfriendliness', he added regrettably.
In conclusion, he appealed to the European Union to 'accept and recognise that this is a humanitarian mission' and to reflect on collective admission procedures. With regard to the Member States, he suggested that they should take quick decisions regarding asylum requests, invest in training asylum seekers who have received a positive response and develop a coherent integration plan.
Sandra di Biaggio of GECT ESPON then provided some details on the territorial influx of refugees and asylum seekers.
She stated that between 2010 and 2015, the Member States had registered 2.4 million asylum requests, of which 770,000 were irregular entries, representing 135 nationalities. At the end of 2014, 10% of refugees and asylum seekers in Europe had obtained a favourable response to their request, and in September 2015, the number of asylum seekers in Europe was already 29% higher than in the previous year.
The speaker stated that the impact on regions and European cities was very different, with enormous pressure placed on the countries, regions and cities that form the points of entry into Italy, Greece, Hungary and Turkey. In fact, 60% of refugees worldwide live in urban areas. If the influx of refugees is mainly in the direction of countries with favourable economic conditions, the profile of refugees in terms of education, skills and culture is very different, she stated.
According to her, one of the key aspects is the efficient development of political integration using bottom-up approaches. The speaker also appealed for some thought to be given to possible financial aid for these cities. In this regard, European political cohesion could play a role, she stated.
The round table on the territorial aspects of refugee migration to Europe
During the discussion panel that followed, numerous experts expressed their point of view regarding the territorial aspects of refugee migration to Europe.
Daniel Rauhut, from the Norwegian Institute for Regional and Urban Research (NIBR), underlined the importance of distinguishing between the short- and long-term effects of migration. He emphasised that 50 to 75% of refugee arrivals are concentrated in two or three of the largest cities in each country, and that they are subject to even greater migration pressure. Therefore, it is important, according to him, to 'alleviate the financial burden' placed on cities and regions that are most affected by the migration phenomenon.
The speaker then drew attention to the 'substantial domestic migration' of refugees which is taking place at the same time: after they have settled for a period of time in a country, they leave the cities to relocate to smaller towns and rural areas.
Daniel Rauhut stated that there is no 'magic way' to integrate refugees. 'The only good practice that seems to work, independently of the country, is encouraging the local population to welcome the refugees', he said.
The speaker then pointed out that many refugees have a low level of education. Faced with this problem, he stated that one of the long-term challenges is to educate the refugees and find them employment.
Mart Grisel, from the European Urban Knowledge Network (EUKN), mentioned the four main challenges associated with the arrival of refugees:
- the reception of asylum seekers
- accommodation: Mart Grisel stated that most European countries know the difficulties of housing people with refugee status, given that competition on the national housing market is already strong. Therefore, it is necessary, according to her, to define new strategies in this regard, switching for instance to a policy of setting up prefabricated housing units.
- the integration of asylum seekers
- the support of the welcoming society: 'It is a matter of finding, in an urban setting, the necessary instruments to prepare territorial units. This may involve training programmes for locally elected representatives' said Mart Grisel.
Thomas Jézéquel, project coordinator of Eurocities, highlighted the commitment of the network of European cities that he represents - it was founded in 1986 - for the cities and local authorities. He called for cities to have direct access to the AMIF fund, pointing out that this takes too long to obtain at local level, which is precisely where refugees are integrated. He also called for a more pronounced focus on integration in the European agenda for migration.
Alexis Chatzimpiros, from the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions of Europe, (CRPM) highlighted the positive contribution made by migration in response to demographic challenges and underlined the importance of exchanging good practices between local entities. He spotlighted two challenges: the need to respond to the humanitarian crises at European borders, where 'terrestrial borders had to be distinguished from maritime borders' and the integration of refugees. 'With regard to integration, local and regional entities should be able to use the infrastructures and all the resources that are necessary', he stated.
Romana Mynarikova, from the German Ministry of Transport, underlined the importance for local entities of utilising the necessary infrastructures to be able to welcome refugees. In her view, the key to territorially redistributing refugees within a state should take into account the unemployment rates and the proportion of the population with migrant background in the regions. Finally, she underlined the importance of avoiding competition between refugees and poor families with regard to access to housing.