All together now? Migrant integration at the local level

1 in 10 people across OECD countries are migrants. They bring fiscal benefits to their host countries. Latest OECD estimates across 25 countries show that migrants contributed USD 2.5 trillion in taxes annually, USD 570 billion more than governments spent on them. They provide essential services. Around 14% of key workers across European regions are migrants. They bring new skills and ideas. In Canada, the Netherlands and United States, 25% of patent applicants were foreign-born inventors. In the UK, they are more likely to start businesses – and the businesses they do start are likely to have higher growth ambitions. They also help communities address challenges around demographic decline and population ageing. With the right local support, they can achieve even more for their host communities and themselves.

Mixed messages…

For many, these messages are not new. We read headlines praising migrants bravely undertaking critical work on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic response – in health, delivery, cleaning and security jobs. As the recovery picks up speed, we are also hearing more and more about the need for migration to help tackle labour shortages. Yet opposing narratives have also emerged highlighting fears of migrants spreading the virus through cross-border movements, in addition to longer standing concerns about competition for jobs. Latest data reflect these mixed perceptions: around 50% of the 73 European sub-national governments (SNGs) we surveyed at the end of 2021 noticed a positive change in the way people perceive migrants, while 45% reported a negative trend.

Part of this is likely to reflect the mixed success of policy efforts to integrate migrants at the local level. In many countries, migrant integration policies are often divided across different levels of government, which can result in poorly co-ordinated efforts with conflicting objectives and limited impact. Often it is left to leaders at the local level – where migrants live, and specific gaps, issues and opportunities are more obvious – to manage the integration process.

Local leadership can bring it all together….

Our survey looked at integration in terms of education, employment, health and housing policies. It revealed that nearly 50% of SNGs want to change the way responsibilities are shared. A majority of those who want a change said that they want more decentralisation to better support migrant integration. Housing was a particular issue: 60% asked for a change in responsibilities for temporary housing and 80% of this group want greater decentralisation.

…. through better communication…

Local leaders can also help shape the debate on migration – by investing in communications strategies. Nearly 70% of surveyed SNGs are considering how to promote narratives on migration that better reflect the evidence on their contribution to society. For example, the city of Amsterdam conducts a cost-benefit analysis of their approach to refugees every six months and uses the results to feed local communications campaigns. During the COVID-19 crisis, the New York Mayor’s Office paid tribute to documented and undocumented migrants who work across the city’s industries. Such campaigns are important as perceptions themselves can determine the success of integration policies. Allowing SNGs to adapt their integration and communications policies to local realities is crucial to unlock the potential of migrants to participate in local development and work together with communities seeking to recover from the crisis.

…and greater decentralisation

Decentralisation can lead to better outcomes for migrant integration and local development. It can allow public services to be tailored to the population needs and preferences, improve public accountability and transparency, and promote policy experimentation, all of which can improve policy impact. Yet, decentralisation outcomes depend greatly on the way they are  designed and implemented. SNGs must co-ordinate with higher levels of government to optimise outcomes. The French Government and 18 cities and metropolises have signed co-funding contracts that give SNGs freedom to tailor some migrant integration policies to local realities. This helps ensure objectives converge, information is shared, and funding reaches the right places and priorities.

Recovering together

The evidence is clear – migration can and should be a positive force for growth and the recovery. Yet we need smarter systems to unlock migrants’ potential and ensure they play a full part in the economic and social life of their communities. SNGs can help us achieve that by using local knowledge to identify and defuse potential issues and conflicts, find opportunities to bring people together and change the narrative. They need to be empowered to do so.

Junior Policy Analyst at | Website | + posts

Margaux Tharaux is a junior policy analyst in the Regional Attractiveness and Migrant Integration Unit at the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities. Her work mainly focuses on migrant integration policies. She holds a double master’s degree in Public Administration (MPA) from the London School of Economics and in Economics and Public Policy from Sciences Po Paris.

Head of Unit at European Committee of Regions at European Commission | + posts

Economist by trade, since 2012 with the European Committee of Regions in Brussels, Bert Kuby heads the Commission for Citizenship, Governance, Institutional and External Affairs (CIVEX) since March 2021, and previously the Commission for Economic Policy. He assists representatives of European cities and regions through analytical and political work and through the inter-institutional debate, in responding to EU legislation impacting the local and regional level. Mr Kuby has previously worked at the European Commission, at Business Europe, and in the private sector covering such areas as enlargement policy, SME and industrial policy, and local/regional economic policy issues.